Hamlet in Purgatory (Expanded Edition)by Stephen Greenblatt
In Hamlet in Purgatory, renowned literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt delves into his longtime fascination with the ghost of Hamlet's father, and his daring and ultimately gratifying journey takes him through surprising intellectual territory. It yields an extraordinary account of the rise and fall of Purgatory as both a belief and a lucrative/i>
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In Hamlet in Purgatory, renowned literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt delves into his longtime fascination with the ghost of Hamlet's father, and his daring and ultimately gratifying journey takes him through surprising intellectual territory. It yields an extraordinary account of the rise and fall of Purgatory as both a belief and a lucrative institutionas well as a capacious new reading of the power of Hamlet.
In the mid-sixteenth century, English authorities abruptly changed the relationship between the living and dead. Declaring that Purgatory was a false "poem," they abolished the institutions and banned the practices that Christians relied on to ease the passage to Heaven for themselves and their dead loved ones. Greenblatt explores the fantastic adventure narratives, ghost stories, pilgrimages, and imagery by which a belief in a grisly "prison house of souls" had been shaped and reinforced in the Middle Ages. He probes the psychological benefits as well as the high costs of this belief and of its demolition.
With the doctrine of Purgatory and the elaborate practices that grew up around it, the church had provided a powerful method of negotiating with the dead. The Protestant attack on Purgatory destroyed this method for most people in England, but it did not eradicate the longings and fears that Catholic doctrine had for centuries focused and exploited. In his strikingly original interpretation, Greenblatt argues that the human desires to commune with, assist, and be rid of the dead were transformed by Shakespeareconsummate conjurer that he wasinto the substance of several of his plays, above all the weirdly powerful Hamlet. Thus, the space of Purgatory became the stage haunted by literature's most famous ghost.
This book constitutes an extraordinary feat that could have been accomplished by only Stephen Greenblatt. It is at once a deeply satisfying reading of medieval religion, an innovative interpretation of the apparitions that trouble Shakespeare's tragic heroes, and an exploration of how a culture can be inhabited by its own spectral leftovers.
This expanded Princeton Classics edition includes a new preface by the author.
"[A] highly instructive investigation of the role of spirits from the other world in Shakespeare. [Greenblatt's] writing here is poised, precise, and . . . eloquent. . . . Hamlet in Purgatory is an exemplary work of historically informed literary interpretation."Robert Alter, New York Times Book Review
"This is an interesting book on a grave matter . . . We marvel that the author can make so much out of a slender theme, but it is the device of the good academic writer to make small amounts of material yield golden insights."Peter Ackroyd, The Times of London
"Greenblatt's fascination with ghostly texts is contagious, and he is virtually unequaled among literary critics as a prose stylist. . . . [Hamlet in Purgatory] greatly succeeds in bringing alive the powerful complex of fear and longing Shakespeare so deftly deployed. Required reading for those who study Shakespeare, this graceful analysis should also give considerable pleasure to those who merely enjoy him."Publishers Weekly
"Greenblatt's is not by any means nostalgic reading. The book gains its energy from an ongoing tension between the author's intellectual openness to apparently bizarre religious practices and his sharp skepticism. . . . To have explicated new aspects of a play that has probably been more intensely studied than any other work of literature is a remarkable achievement that triumphantly vindicates the book's method. . . . Enthralling reading. . . . Greenblatt has offered genuinely new insights that make the familiar words seem strange and new, and that will speak powerfully to a new generation uneasy about its own unease with an earlier generation's religious beliefs."David Norbrook,The New Republic
"A learned and persuasive book."John Bossy, London Review of Books
"Hamlet in Purgatory neither pretends to solve the mysteries of the play nor indulges in fruitless speculation about Shakespeare's own sectarian allegiances. Instead, it offers masterly accounts first of the history of the idea of Purgatory and its decline, then of the importance of ghosts and related apparitions in the whole range of Shakespeare's plays. . . . Profoundly original."Jonathan Bate, The Sunday Telegraph
"[An] astonishing work of historical reconstruction. . . . [Greenblatt] has taken on the challenge of defamiliarizing the most famous play in Western literature by placing it in its proper theological setting. . . . [W]hile he must definitely rank as the most influential and knowledgeable of all the New Historicists he now shows himself in this book as something more, much more."Edward T. Oakes, Commonweal
"Greenblatt reveals how Shakespeare turned the Anglican assault on the idea of purgatory as mere poetry into an indispensable poetic resource. In addition to this decisive repositioning of Hamlet's place in modern culture, Greenblatt provides extraordinary readings of little-know works. . . . A major work of contemporary scholarship."Choice
"A brilliant treatment of the history of Purgatory in England and its survivals and echoes throughout Shakespeare's plays, above all Hamlet."Carol Zaleski, First Things
"Greenblatt has shown beautifully what compellingly affective, even ethical, 'claims' Shakespeare's imaginary characters can make on modern readers, rewarding us with some of his liveliest and most original critical writing to date."Katherine Duncan-Jones,Times Literary Supplement
"A magisterial study containing impeccable scholarship, interesting narratives, incisive analyses of specific passages, cogent generalizations based upon a number of disciplines, seamless utilization of appropriate quotations, and, finally, a compelling sensitivity to the effects of literature on its past and present audiences."Frank Ardolino, Sixteenth Century Journal
New York Times Book Review
Sydney Morning Herald
Edward T. Oakes
A magisterial study containing impeccable scholarship, interesting narratives, incisive analyses of specific passages, cogent generalizations based upon a number of disciplines, seamless utilization of appropriate quotations, and, finally, a compelling sensitivity to the effects of literature on its past and present audiences.
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A POET'S FABLE
Early in 1559 a London lawyer, Simon Fish, anonymously published a tract, addressed to Henry VIII, called A Supplication for the Beggars. The tract was modest in length but explosive in content: Fish wrote on behalf of the homeless, desperate English men and women, "needy, impotent, blind, lame and sick" who pleaded for spare change on the streets of every city and town in the realm. These wretches, "on whom scarcely for horror any eye dare look," have become so numerous that private charity can no longer sustain them, and they are dying of hunger. Their plight, in Fish's account, is directly linked to the pestiferous spread throughout the realm of beggars of a different kind: bishops, abbots, priors, deacons, archdeacons, suffragans, priests, monks, canons, friars, pardoners, and summoners.
Simon Fish had already given a foretaste of his anticlerical sentiments and his satirical gifts. In his first year as a law student at Gray's Inn, according to John Foxe, one of Fish's mates, a certain Mr. Roo, had written a play holding Cardinal Wolsey up to ridicule. No one dared to take on the part of Wolsey until Simon Fish came forward and offered to do so. The performance must have been impressive: it so enraged the cardinal that Fish was forced "the same night that this Tragedy was played" to flee to the Low Countries to escape arrest. There he evidently met the exile William Tyndale, whose new English translation of the Bible, inspired by Luther, he subsequently helped to circulate. At the time he wrote A Supplication fortheBeggars, Fish had probably returned to London but was in hiding. He was thus a man associated with Protestant beliefs, determined to risk his life to save the soul of his country, and endowed, as were many religious revolutionaries in the 1520s and 1530s, with a kind of theatrical gift.
In A Supplication for the Beggars, this gift leads Fish not only to speak on behalf of the poor but also to speak in their own voice, crying out to the king against those who have greedily taken for themselves the wealth that should otherwise have made England prosperous for all of its people. If his gracious majesty would only look around, he would see "a thing far out of joint" (413). The ravenous monkish idlers "have begged so importunately that they have gotten into their hands more then the third part of all your Realm." No great people, not the Greeks nor the Romans nor the Turks, and no ruler, not King Arthur himself, could flourish with such parasites sucking at their lifeblood. Not only do they destroy the economy, interfere with royal prerogative, and undermine the laws of the commonwealth, but, since they seduce "every man's wife, every man's daughter and every man's maid," they subvert the nation's moral order as well. Boasting among themselves about the number of women they have slept with, the clerical drones carry physical and moral contagionsyphilis, leprosy, and idlenessthrough the whole commonwealth. "Who is she that will set her hands to work to get three pence a day," the beggars ask, "and may have at least twenty pence a day to sleep an hour with a friar, a monk, or a priest?" (417). With a politician's flair for shocking (and unverifiable) statistics, Fish estimates the number of Englishwomen corrupted by monks at 100,000. No one can be sure, he writes, that it is his own child and not a priest's bastard who is poised to inherit his estate.
Why have these diseased "bloodsuppers" succeeded in amassing so much wealth and power? Why would otherwise sensible, decent people, alert to threats to their property, their health, and their liberties, allow themselves to be ruthlessly exploited by a pack of "sturdy idle holy thieves" (415)? The question would be relatively easy to answer were this a cunningly concealed crime or one perpetrated on the powerless. But in Fish's account virtually the entire society, from the king and the nobility to the poor housewife who has to give the priests every tenth egg her hen lays, has been openly victimized. How is it possible to explain the dismaying spectacle of what Montaigne's friend, Etienne de la Boétie, called "voluntary servitude"?
For la Boétie (1530-1563) the answer is structural: a chain of clientage and dependency extends and expands geometrically, he argues, from a small number of cynical exploiters at the top to the great mass of the exploited below. Anyone who challenges this system risks attack, both from the few who are actually reaping a benefit and from the many who are deceived into thinking that their interests are being served. Individuals may actually grasp that they have been lured into voluntary servitude, but as long as they have no way of knowing who else among them has arrived at the same perception, they recognize that it is dangerous to speak out.
If those who see through the lies could share their knowledge with other, like-minded souls, as they long to do, they could take the steps necessary to free themselves from their chains. Those steps are remarkably simple: what is needed, in fact, is not a violent uprising but a quiet refusal. Since only a minuscule fraction of the society is truly profiting from the system, all it would take, were there widespread enlightenment, is peaceful noncooperation. When the king demands his breakfast, one need only refuse to bring it. He may sputter in rage, but the rage will be as inconsequential as an infant's, provided that the great majority of men and women have collectively determined to be free. But how is that determination to be fostered? How is it possible for those who understand the situation to awaken others, so that all can act in unison? As long as they remain isolated, there is little that enlightened individuals can do, and it is risky for them to open their secret thoughts to others. If only there were little windows in each person, la Boétie daydreams, so that one could see what is hidden inside and know to whom one could safely speak.
For Etienne de la Boétie, the first and fundamental problem is to account for widespread behavior that seems so obviously against interest, and not simply against the marginal or incidental concerns of particular groups but against the central material and sexual preoccupations of all human societies. Why do people allow themselves to be robbed and cheated? Simon Fish is grappling with the same problem, but his answer centers not on social structures or institutions or hierarchical systems of dependency. After all, very few people think of themselves as actually dependent on the lazy, syphilitic monks and friars who shamelessly take advantage of them. These so-called holy men are not conspicuous figures of wealth or might; on the contrary, unarmed and unattended, they dress poorly and go about begging. In Fish's account their place at the center of a vast system of pillaging and sexual corruption relies upon the exploitation of a single core conviction: Purgatory.
Alms for the Dead
Fish was not alone in his theory. Elsewhere in the writings of the early Reformers, we find similar claims for the overwhelming importance of the doctrine of Purgatory, a doctrine already long under attack in England by those heretics known as Lollards. "In God's name, tell me," the king asks the impoverished Commonality in the tragedy King Johan by John Bale (1495-1563), "how cometh thy substance gone?" To which Commonality replies, "By priests, canons and monks, which do but fill their belly, / With my sweat and labor for their popish Purgatory." Tyndale similarly writes of the churchmen that "[a]ll they have, they have received in the name of Purgatory ... and on that foundation be all their bishoprics, abbeys, colleges, and cathedral churches built."
The claim obviously serves a Protestant polemical purpose by loading the immense weight of the entire Catholic Church upon one of its most contested doctrines, but in the heated debates of the sixteenth century, at least some English Catholics agreed. Writing in the 1560s in defense of Purgatory, Cardinal William Allen (1532-1594) claims that "this doctrine (as the whole world knoweth) founded all Bishoprics, builded all Churches, raised all Oratories, instituted all Colleges, endowed all Schools, maintained all hospitals, set forward all works of charity and religion, of what sort soever they be." Though it received its full doctrinal elaboration quite latethe historian Jacques Le Goff places the "birth of Purgatory" in the latter half of the twelfth centurythe notion of an intermediate place between Heaven and Hell and the system of indulgences and pardons meant to relieve the sufferings of souls imprisoned within it had come to seem, for many heretics and orthodox believers alike, essential to the institutional structure, authority, and power of the Catholic Church.
This degree of importance is certainly an exaggeration, but it is not a complete travesty: by the late Middle Ages in Western Europe, Purgatory had achieved both a doctrinal and a social success. That is, it was by no means exclusively the esoteric doctrine of theologians but part of a much broader, popular understanding of the meaning of existence, the nature of Christian faith, and the structure of family and community. Hence, to cite a single English example, the various fifteenth-century devotional treatises known collectively as The Lay Folks Mass Book include for recital after the elevation of the Host a vernacular prayer for the dead. The faithful pray for those souls, "father soul, mother soul, brother dear, sisters souls, sib men and other sere [relatives and other particular individuals]," who may be suffering in "Purgatory pain." The prayerfrom a text that is not a piece of the official liturgy but a model of private, vernacular faith, intended to be read while the priests conduct the Latin Masspleads that bonds shackling these dead be unlocked, so that they can pass from torment to everlasting joy.
The simple English prayer is evidenceto which much more could be addedthat the attempt to free souls from the prison house of Purgatory was not exclusively the work of a priestly class of specialists. There was such a class, large in numbers, as Fish and other Protestant polemicists stridently insisted, whose maintenance cost a considerable amount of money. But their rituals, though regarded as particularly efficacious, were not the only assistance that the dead could receive, and lay persons could supplement the liturgical ceremonies that their donations sponsored with a variety of less formal (and less expensive) acts on behalf of their loved ones and themselves. In Catholic countries that did not pass through periods of iconoclastic violence, one can still see, particularly in small towns, many traces of this popular piety, often accorded formal, if grudging, recognition by the church. Thus, for example, embedded in the stone walls along the narrow lanes of Erice, in western Sicily, there are numerous small, rather crude votive images beneath which elegant inscriptions, dating for the most part from the eighteenth century, promise the remission of periods of purgatorial suffering for those who stand before the images and recite prayers (fig. 1). I asked a local resident once, an elderly woman, whether people still stopped and said the ritual words. No, she replied, not any more. Was that, I inquired, because the practice was now regarded as superstitious? Not at all, she said; the priests now wanted you to pay for prayers in church. To be sure, these prayers were much more powerful, but they were too expensive, and everyone she knew had stopped buying them. But if the price came down, she added, more people would certainly want them.
Along with private fasts and vigils, such prayerscasual, informal, recited in the streetscertainly did not replace the proper intercessory gestures provided for by the "pious bequests" made in large numbers of wills, but they do clearly indicate that the task of assisting the soul's passage to bliss was not entrusted entirely to the certified authorities on the afterlife. Nonspecialists understood that they could do things in their everyday lives to ease the pain of those they loved or to shorten their own anticipated share of postmortem pain.
Charity to the dead, whether performed privately or in public, by lay persons or by priests, began at home. But the effort to alleviate suffering extended beyond the immediate circle of self, family, and friends to "all Christian souls." On All Hallows' Eve, before All Saints' Day (November 1), bells rang throughout the night in English towns and villages, as communities joined in prayers for the whole, vast company of the dead, and on the day following, All Souls' Day (November 2), it was customary to distribute "soul cakes." John Mirk, canon of Lilleshall, Shropshire, in the mid-fifteenth century, lamented that the custom of giving bread for the souls of the dead"hoping with each loaf to get a soul out of Purgatory"was in decline, but it evidently survived, at least in rural areas, into the eighteenth century. The Sarum Prymer of 1538 includes "A prayer to God for them that be departed, having none to pray for them." These are souls, as the prayer puts it, "which either by negligence of them that be living, or long process of time, are forgotten of their friends and posterity" and therefore "have neither hope nor comfort in their torments." Similarly, the Sarum Horae of 1531 tells those who are entering a graveyard that Pope John IV has granted as many days of pardon as there are bodies buried in that place to those who recite a prayer that begins as follows: "All hail, all faithful souls, whose bodies do here and everywhere rest in the dust [Salvete vos omnes fideles animae, quarum corpora hic et ubique requiescunt in pulvere]: the Lord Jesus Christ, who hath redeemed both you and us with his most precious blood, vouchsafe to deliver you from pains." Such customs implicitly acknowledge that an ordinary person's principal focus is likely to be personalthe overriding concern is with one's own fate or with the fate of particular, named loved oneseven as they give form to and reward a more capacious sense of connectedness. Though the rituals of everyday life centered on the intimate and familial, they encoded the sense of a larger bond as well, linking the living with the souls of countless previous generations.
One does not need the whole elaborate doctrine of Purgatory, of course, to feel linked to the dead: memory and a sense of the shared human condition will suffice. To be sure, in most traditional cultures this feeling of connectedness acquires a more specific set of topographical references, but this localization had already occurred many centuries before the invention of Purgatory. Christianity had long offered its believers two principal places, Heaven and Hell, in which to situate definitively those who had once lived in the world and had now ceased to exist. Purgatory forged a different kind of link between the living and the dead, or, rather, it enabled the dead to be not completely deadnot as utterly gone, finished, complete as those whose souls resided forever in Hell or Heaven.
It was not possible (or, in any case, not licit in orthodox Christianity) to pray for the souls in Hell, in hope either of mitigating their pain or of augmenting it. The unspeakable tortures of the damned could be contemplated with horror or with fierce satisfaction, but those who suffered for eternity were beyond the effective range of human intervention. Saint Augustine said that even if he learned that his father was burning in Hell, he would not attempt to do anything to succor him, for he knew that he was beyond assistance. The harsh sentiment is echoed in the fourteenth-century Treatise of the Manner and Mede of the Mass: "If I knew that my father were wholly held in Hell," the text puts it, I would no more pray for him "than for a dog that was dead."
The blessed similarly had no need of human prayers; their condition, too, was fixed for eternity. The living might hope that their friends and family in Heaven might remember them and offer them some spiritual assistance, but there was nothing that souls in bliss could want in return. A large group of the dead, however, continued to exist in time and to need something that they could get only from the living, something that would enable them to escape from the hideous, dark prison in which they were trapped.
The lay community was obviously never as thoroughly bound up with a general concern for postmortem welfare as were those monastic and conventual communities where, in certain cases, it was customary to pray daily in the actual presence of members of the order who had died. The nineteenth-century ecclesiastical antiquary William Maskell cites such a custom recorded at Durham Abbey: "Also the monks was accustomed every day, to go through the cloister, in at the usher's door, and so through the entry, in under the prior's lodging, and straight into the scentorie garth [churchyard], where all the monks was buried, and they did all bareheaded, a certain long space, praying amongst the tombs and throwghes [sepulchres] for their brethren souls being buried there, and, when they had done their prayers, then they did return to the cloister." The formal arrangement that facilitated such observancesseats designed to drain off the liquids from the corpses, etc.may still be glimpsed, for example, in the somber architecture of an underground chapel linked to the cathedral on Ischia, a chapel that must have seemed to the nuns to be a powerful representation of the purgatorial afterlife.
But the practice of burying the dead in the hallowed ground of the churchyard or, in the case of the wealthiest and most powerful parishioners, under the floor or in the walls of the church itself meant that ordinary men and women, including those quite uninterested in theological niceties, worshiped in close proximity to the mortal remains of those whose souls had passed on to their reward or punishment. Even the liberal use of incense, flowers, and sprigs of rosemary could not altogether have masked the smell of decay that medieval and early modern burial practices almost inevitably introduced into the still air of churches. The wall paintings, carved doors and capitals, altarpieces, stained-glass windows, and funeral monuments further reinforced the deep link between Christianity and the fate of the dead.
Not only doctrine, then, but also chants, gestures, images, and the very air that the faithful breathed said the same thing: the border between this world and the afterlife was not firmly and irrevocably closed. For a large group of mortalsperhaps the majority of themtime did not come to an end at the moment of death. The book was not quite shut. One chapter remained to be written, and if the outcome was fixed and settled, the sequence of events, the duration, and the quality of the experience were not. The living could have an ongoing relationship with one important segment of the dead, and not simply a relationship constituted by memory. There were things that the living could do for the deadand not to do these things, or to delay doing them, or to do some and not others, was also a course of action in this ongoing relationship. The whole social and economic importance of Purgatory in Catholic Europe rested on the belief that prayers, fasts, almsgiving, and masses constituted a valuable commodity"suffrages," as they were termedthat could in effect be purchased, directly or indirectly, on behalf of specific dead persons.
The blessed souls in Heaven, of course, had no need of suffrages, since they had already attained eternal bliss, while the damned souls in Hell could not make use of them, since they were condemned to an eternity of irremediable torment. But imperfect souls, souls still bearing the stains of the faults they had committed in mortal life, would have to endure excruciating pain. Fortunately, suffrages were available to reduce the intensity and duration of this agony. Masses lovingly paid for and performed in memory of the dead were particularly efficacious, as were the prayers of the poor and sick offered in grateful memory of their benefactor. Similarly, the pious fasts, prayers, and alms of relatives and friends could be directed to relieve the sufferings of a named individual whom they believed to be in Purgatory. Moreover, the pope was the administrator, in effect, of an enormous account of "superabundant satisfactions" left by Christ and further enhanced by the saints and martyrs, an account that could be expended, in the form of indulgences, on behalf of deserving souls. The reckoning in every case was strictly individual and scrupulously proportional to the gravity of the particular sins, but it was possible for individuals after death to receive help from others, just as living debtors languishing in prison could have their debts paid by their friends. "Thus devout prayers said with humility," writes the poet and monk John Lydgate (ca. 1370-ca. 1450), "Delivereth souls out of Purgatory."
Popular religion in the Middle Ages conjured up vivid images of the efficacy of this help. One of the most widely read books in the period, the Golden Legend (ca. 1260) by Jacobus de Voragine (Jacopo da Varazze), recounts a vision granted to a warden of Saint Peter's:
Then the angel led the warden to another place and showed him people of both sexes, some reclining on golden beds, others at tables enjoying delicious viands, still others naked and needy, begging for help. This place, the angel said, was Purgatory. Those enjoying abundance were the souls for whom their friends provided plentiful aid, whereas those in need had no one who cared for them.
Though the story ostensibly functions as a justification for the newly instituted Feast of All Souls "on which day those who had no one to pray for them would at least share in the general commemoration," it makes clear the enormous value of acquiring special prayers.
The value is heightened in The Golden Legend by the familiar emphasis on the pains of Purgatory. The emphasis, which often seems ghoulish, made perfect institutional sense. Since the ultimate fate of those who reached Purgatory was fixed and immutableall would eventually reach Heaventhere had to be some reason to induce men and women to busy themselves and give their worldly goods to help the souls who were already imprisoned there or to abridge their own possible future prison terms. The reason was anxiety. Voragine rehearses, for example, the story of Master Silo originally told by the scholastic theologian Peter the Chanter (d. 1197) and found as well in the influential preacher James of Vitry (d. 1240) and the Dominican Stephen of Bourbon (d. 1261).
Master Silo had a colleague, a scholar who was very ill, and Silo asked him urgently to come back after he died and tell him, Silo, how things were with him. Some days after his death the scholar appeared to Silo, wearing a cape made of parchment written all over with sophisms, and woven of flames inside. The master asked who he was and he answered: "I am indeed the one who promised to come back to you." Asked how things were with him he said: "This cape weighs upon me and presses me down more than if I were carrying a tower on my shoulders. It is given to me to wear on account of the pride I had in my sophisms. The flames that flare inside it are the delicate, mottled furs I used to wear, and they torture and burn me." The master, however, thought that this penalty was fairly light, so that the dead man told him to put out his hand and feel how light the punishment really was. He held out his hand and the scholar let a drop of his sweat fall on it. The drop went through the master's hand like an arrow, causing him excruciating pain. "That's how I feel all over," the scholar said.
After all, as Aquinas wrote, the least degree of pain in Purgatory "surpasses the greatest pain that one can endure in this world."
The Price of Prayers
Master Silo's response to the ghost was to abandon the world at once and enter religious life. Others less willing to forsake worldly wealth altogether used at least a portion of that wealth to assure themselves postmortem assistance. There was a range of available packages, as it were, from a simple funeral mass to the popular and moderately priced trentala set of thirty requiem masses, said on the same day or on successive daysto the extremely expensive chantry, an endowment for the maintenance of a priest to sing daily mass for the founder or for someone specified by the founder, often in an ornate, purpose-built chapel. On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, queasy at the memory of his usurping father's murder of Richard II, Shakespeare's Henry V reminds God of his lavish acts of contrition:
Five hundred poor have I in yearly pay
Who twice a day their withered hands hold up
Toward Heaven to pardon blood. And I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard's soul.
Two chantries were an extravagance, even for a monarch, but there were in this case special circumstances. Aware that his claim to the throne is tainted, Henry in effect is bargaining with God or with the vengeful spirit of the murdered Richard, and the bargaining chips are chantries. "Not today, O Lord," he prays, attempting to distract God from the reckoning he fears will be due,
O not today, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown.
At this critical moment the king is concerned not with the fate of his soul but with the outcome of the battle: perhaps this served for Shakespeare and his audience as a spectacular, if morally problematical, display of heroic leadership.
Ordinarily, in making provisions for the afterlife, most people, including kings, wanted the sad and solemn priests to pray for their own souls. Faced with the terrifying prospect of purgatorial torment, the wealthy were willing to part with a great deal of money, particularly at the moment that they were forced to part with the world itself. The most spectacular instance of this willingness was that of a king who found himself in a position not altogether unlike that of Henry Va king, that is, who wore a crown that had been wrested by violence from the legitimate ruler. The king in question was Henry VII, who came to the throne in 1485 by killing the Yorkist king Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
Henry VII was not an extravagant monarchhe was thought, if anything, to be something of a skinflintbut the magnificent late Gothic chapel he ordered built at Westminster was, according to one architectural historian, "the largest and certainly the most expensive structure ever built for funerary purposes." Three monks of Westminster were to serve as chantry priests, perpetually praying for Henry's soul, and these constant suffrages were to be supplemented by anniversary masses in an impressive number of cathedral, conventual, and university churches. But even these extraordinary efforts to hasten his soul through Purgatory were not enough for a king who evidently thought he might be facing a long prison sentence in the afterlife. During his lifetime Henry founded a hospital and an almshouse whose grateful inhabitants could be counted on to offer up a steady supply of prayers, and in his will he provided for the establishment of two further hospitals, along with other contributions clearly designed to generate suffrages. Finally, he saw to it that immediately after his death ten thousand masses would be said for the remission of his sins and the good of his soul. Ten thousand masses.
This was the father of the king to whom Simon Fish dedicated his Supplication of the Beggars. Somewhere buried in the story of Henry VIII's suppression of the monasteries and seizure of their great wealth is a son's violent repudiation of his father's attempts to ease his soul's torments. Between 1536 and 1539 Henry VIII took back for his own uses what Henry VII had laid out for himselfthat, and much more. If his own last will and testament, drawn up and revised before his death in 1547, is any indication, the son by no means repudiated the religious beliefs to which his father adhered. But the terms of this will perhaps betray some ambiguous sign of the influence of The Supplication of the Beggars and, in any case, certainly reflect the silencing of the chantries. "We will and charge our Executors," Henry VIII commanded,
that they dispose and give in alms to the most poor and needy people that may be found (common beggars as much as may be avoided) in as short space as possibly they may after our departure out of this transitory life, one thousand marks of lawful money of England, part in the same place and thereabouts, where it shall please Almighty God to call us to his Mercy, part by the way, and part in the same place of our burial after their discretions, and to move the poor people that shall have our alms to pray heartily unto God for remission of our offenses and the wealth of our soul.
"In as short space as possibly they may after our departure": Henry VIII does not want to linger in the fires of Purgatory. Thousands of masses will not be sung to haste him toward Heaven, but a thousand marks could purchase the prayers of many poor people. In the unlikely event that he did not go straight to Hell, he would certainly have needed all of them.
Reformers who were centrally concerned to challenge the doctrine of Purgatory would not have been content with the king's provisions, but at least the money was not going to enrich the priesthood. Protestant polemics of the sixteenth century are virtually obsessed with the amount of wealth wasted in the vain belief that masses can shorten the torment. By this belief, Barnabe Googe, a prolific translator and antipapal polemicist, writes in The Popish Kingdom (1570),
so many altars in the Churches up did rise,
By this the number grows so great of Priests to sacrifice.
From hence arose such shameful swarms of Monks with
Whom profit of this Mass doth keep in slothful idleness.
For this same cause such mighty kings, and famous
Ordained Masses for their souls, and Priests continually,
With great revenues yearly left and everlasting fee,
An easy way to joy, if it with scriptures might agree.
In this view, the immense outpouring of wealth originated in the desire of kings and princes to secure for their souls an "easy way to joy," and then spread to the whole class of the rich and privileged, eager to attain similar benefits for themselves:
Straight after these, the wealthy men took up this fancy vain,
And built them Chapels every one, and Chaplains did retain
At home, or in their parish Church, where Mass they
For safeguard of their family, and of their children young.
Both for their friends alive, and such as long before did die,
And in the Purgatory flames tormented sore doe lie.
The theology focused on the sins and sufferings of individuals, but, as Googe's account suggests, the actual observances had a wider reach. Chantries and other costly ritual practices often served as pious attempts to help whole networks of family and friends, along with the donor himself.
Henry VII's will notwithstanding, enormous bequests of the kind Googe attacks seem in reality to have been on the wane well before the Reformation. According to the historian Christopher Haigh, by the latter part of the fifteenth century "the endowment of chantries on a large scale was clearly a thing of the past in most parts of England." But Googe and his fellow polemicists are certainly correct in claiming that English Catholics invested heavily in suffrages. Medieval wills are full of provisions for the acquisition of prayers, along with almsgiving and other acts of pious benefaction. As we have seen, the monks of Westminster Abbey, who said masses for the kings of England, were especially well-endowed beneficiaries of the belief in Purgatory, but virtually all monasteries and churches in the Middle Ages would have been the recipients of donations in exchange for prayers for the dead.
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Meet the Author
Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. His many books include Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which won a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. He is a general editor of The Norton Shakespeare and The Norton Anthology of English Literature
- Cambridge, Massachusetts
- Date of Birth:
- November 7, 1943
- Place of Birth:
- Cambridge, Massachusetts
- B.A., Yale University, 1964; B.A., Cambridge University, 1966; Ph.D., Yale University, 1969
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