Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is perhaps one of the most famous and hotly debated literary artifacts ever written. However, because literary critics and historians have discussed the work so often, it is easy to forget that Shakespeare wrote his tragedy as a play to be performed in the context of an Elizabethan production, to an Elizabethan audience. It is a refreshing antidote to some of more modern textual analysis of this performed text, which views the central character as a kind of an early existentialist, to consider "Hamlet" in light of its original audience.
Stephen Greenblatt's book Hamlet in Purgatory attempts to accomplish this. Greenblatt advances the theory that Hamlet, rather than simply being a tragedy about a man who could not make up his mind, is really about a man wrestling with the shifting religious climate of early Protestant England, a country still in great religious flux. Greenblatt states that for Protestant reformers, the Catholic concept of purgatory stood as emblematic of the idea of 'works' rather than faith sent one to heaven and thus it was the crux on which the Catholic Church "a vast system of pillaging and sexual corruption" depended upon. (Greenblatt 13) Hamlet begins in purgatory, with the ghost's injunction to vengeance, but it ends in a far more theologically ambiguous place, as was typical of the Elizabethan religious climate of the period.
In the soliloquy that everyone knows, even individuals who have never seen or read the play, Hamlet muses of the "undiscovered country" from which no traveler returns. (3.1.81; 1706) How can he state this, given that his own father's ghost has been suffering in the fires of purgatory, being purged of all his unspecified sins? The question of purgatory will reoccur through the play, as Hamlet first worries that the ghost is a devil taking a "pleasing shape" that has deceived him, stages a production to test Claudius' guilt, and then refuses to kill his uncle while the man is praying for fear of sending him "straight to heaven." (2.2.577; 1704; 3.4.78; 1719)
The nature of performance is tied, at its most basic level to ritual, where the Elizabethan's most basic "hopes, fears, and desires" could be articulated. (Mullaney 21) Throughout the performance of "Hamlet," Hamlet is seen constantly questioning the best way to make amends for her father's death. What is the proper ritual performance, bloody revenge, a dramatized play, or some other, unspecified thing, to make sure that what is right is done?
In the purgatorial world-view, as advanced by the ghost of Hamlet's father, the dead are inexorably connected to the living. The living must be careful in regards to such things as obeying the wishes of a ghost and of ensuring that proper funeral solemnities are given to the dead they are tied to by blood. Hamlet's initially complete acceptance of the need for proper rituals for the dead, of "taking the ghost's word [and the ideology it represents] for a thousand pound" is dramatized most clearly in his refusal to kill his uncle at prayer as well as the scene where he follows ghost's injunction not to kill his mother when he is most enraged. (3.2.264; 1715)
However, the idea of purgatory is not consistently advocated throughout the play by Hamlet. As early as his the "To be or not to be," speech he presents a vision of 'no more' without even a heaven or a hell. Also, in the graveyard during the "maimed" funeral rites for Ophelia, Hamlet is suddenly skeptical about the rituals attached to the burial of the dead, and actually mocks Laertes' inflated statement ": "and from her fair and unpolluted flesh, / May violets spring..." (5.1.223-224; 1745) Hamlet responds by revealing himself and saying, among other things. "I'll rant as well as thou," (5.1.260-269; 1746).
Hamlet's view of a funeral as "ranting" shows has taken on, since his return to England a much less reverent view of the dead. After he returns from England, Hamlet is no longer so resolutely committed to the Catholic ideology of purgatory and the need to kill in the name of his father. His view of death rather than vengeful, takes on a distinctly careless tone that is very different from his earlier intense mourning and intense reflection about the nature of the ghost. In essence, at the beginning of the play Hamlet accepts a view of death that much of the audience would view as antiquated and Catholic, while in the graveyard scene he expresses a view of death which most viewers in the 17th century (as well as today) would view as more Protestant, more 'modern.'
Interestingly enough, in his book Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas remarks that truncated funeral ceremonies, not only for suicides but also for all individuals became more and more common in the 17th century. "In England funerals became so much simpler that by 1649 a contemporary could describe them as 'in a manner profane, in many places the dead being thrown into the ground like dogs, and not a world said.' Another commentator remarked in 1635 on the contrast between the elaborate funerals of the Papists and 'our silent and dumb obsequies.'" (604-605) Like Hamlet, in other words, all of England was searching in vain for the correct way, the correct religious performance to mourn the dead. Virtually all of these ideas are dramatized in the funeral of Ophelia. Furthermore, as Andrew Gurr alludes to in his book The Shakespearean Stage, the original staging of "Hamlet" would have depicted Ophelia being laid in the 'ground' of the trapdoor, the same place which Hamlet's father would have been heard speaking the words "swear" at the end of Hamlet's meeting with the ghost. (122-126) The officiating priest complains that Ophelia's "doubtful" death is accompanied without "bell and burial," the same holy bell, which Jeremy Thomas is quoted as saying, would, in the Catholic faith system of the era, "help him [the dead person] out of Purgatory." (Cited in Keith Thomas 604-605)
In spite of the royal intervention to prevent the "shards, flints, and pebbles," being thrown at Ophelia's corpse like a suicide, her funeral is a "maimed" rite and the priest makes it quite clear that in his opinion, Ophelia will not go "straight to heaven" any more than Hamlet's father, according to the Catholic system of faith. Yet Hamlet is no longer reverent of the rituals the girl's death is stripped of, nor does he, after his return to England, ever make explicit reference to the death of his father.
Perhaps this is because through the rituals of purgatory, Hamlet realizes he lost his chance at an earlier revenge. Even Claudius seemed to understand in a way that would be far more commensurate with the Protestant Elizabethan audiences' sensibilities than Hamlet, that words "flying up" and a physical posture of prayer are not enough to redeem the soul. One's inner heart must also be properly penitent in the context of the ritual and his heart is not. (3.3.75-97; 1718-1719) But even more it seems as though Hamlet has found a sense of humor and a peace with the universe that he lacked in the earlier, more hectic acts.
Hamlet, rather than showing reverence for the dead at the end of the play, becomes irreverent. His words, rather than being full of grief, stress the lack of individuation in the world of the dead, that the beloved jester Yorick is now but a skull, that "Alexander returnth into dust" and "Imperial Caesar" might stop the hole in a beer-barrel. The language is almost nihilistic, apparently denying any afterlife at all, or at least any afterlife which human beings on earth can have access to and effect on. The only thing which remains of the dead for Hamlet in the graveyard is…