Hamlet’s Ghost is the name of a free on line course offered by the Harvard University through the EdeX. Prof Stephen Greenblatt is the author of the course and has carved this course out of his book, Hamlet in the Purgatory. The idea of the course is to throw into relief the ideas of death of the Catholics versus those of the Protestants and how a grave politics of revolutionary nature was played out in England over the contending ideas of death, especially the aftermath of death in the sense of what happens to souls after humans die. The Catholics believed in the idea of the Purgatory, a place in between the earth and the Heaven or Hell as the case may be, where souls are purged of their sins. The act of purging out is painful and horrific and souls, were they to walk the earth again as ghosts were forbidden to report any of the details of the space. The Catholic Church collected large sums of money, land and other forms of property from the kith and kin of the dead in the name of alleviating the pains of the souls of their loved ones from the fires and other tortures in the Purgatory; the Protestants refused to believe in the Purgatory and hence somewhat could escape from the extortions of the Church for money. In a series of Acts passed in the 1530’s by the Crown in England, known as the English Reformation, Protestantism and not Catholicism was established as the official religion. Catholic beliefs were outlawed and along with that belief in ghosts began to be considered a legal offence. Amidst such mayhem of theological contestations which were covert political and economic revolutions, Shakespeare lived and wrote his plays. Hamlet’s Ghost was therefore a Catholic survival into a Protestant politics. Death emerges central to the drama of Hamlet and the fact that the Ghost of the dead King plays a crucial role we know that the ghost of the now dead Catholicism will play an important role in the play.
The drama opens with Hamlet, the reigning King of Denmark dead, his beloved wife, Gertrude, who is now widowed marries the King’s brother, Claudius. Claudius is now the king of Denmark and the dead king’s son also called Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, the heir apparent. The play is about the younger Hamlet, the surviving Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is in mourning both from the loss of his father and the remarriage of his mother to Claudius. He used to admire his father who was a man of noble quality and loved his wife dearly; Hamlet cherished the fact that his parents were much in love with each other and cannot accept the fact that barely the funeral feast was over that a wedding was celebrated with the leftovers. One is not sure whether it is the death of father or mother’s remarriage that Hamlet is more upset about; it is possible that the remarriage reinforces the grief over death. Catholic Church forbids remarriage and divorce and indeed the promulgations against the Catholic Church had to do centrally with Henry VIII’s desire to remarry, bigamy and divorce, both of which Catholicism disallowed. The motif of remarriage figures as prominently as the idea of the Purgatory as survivals of Catholicism in the newly proclaimed Protestant England.
Death is both the separation of the body and the soul, but is also a return of the past, of tradition to haunt the present times. As the Ghost rises from the Purgatory to walk the earth and beseech Hamlet to avenge his death, which was not natural as was made out to be but a calculated murder by Claudius. Hamlet is confused, whether to believe in the Ghost’s existence, then to believe in what he says and eventually to bring himself to the task of revenge. Revenge incidentally is more of a pagan concept and inheres in the many versions of the pagan folk story upon which Hamlet is based. Against the political backdrop Shakespeare places Hamlet, a reworking on a familiar Danish tale upon which plays had already been composed for the public theatre, to insert a set of new arguments into the familiar plot so that the audiences can engage with the drama in a more significant manner.
Shakespeare places the dead King into the Catholic Purgatory but for the son, the hero Hamlet the entire world becomes the Purgatory and life is a metaphor of death. He finds that the sunlight breeds maggots to feed on the corpses and everything about life surely walking towards death. For Hamlet, the prince, death is Protestant, a blank, a nothingness, in which the beggar and the King are the same. The difference between life and death is only the shadow of dreams, or a set of illusions for a world which has been so corrupted with the arrogance of the intellectual, rudeness of bad men, corrupt morals of women and betrayals by friends, life is shorn of life force and resembles only death.
Death is the main theme of Hamlet; it begins in the backdrop of death, braces Hamlet, its hero with the shroud of mourning for the dead, and then as the Ghost appears invoking Hamlet to revenge through murder, we are prepared to see the end of the play in death. In Shakespeare’s times, in the Books of Mortality, we find list of deaths due to the various causes like plague, other forms of illness, and even out of grief. When we place the list of deaths from the Books of Mortality and Shakespeare’s deaths as they take place in his plays we obtain a distinct difference. While deaths listed in the Book are of diseases and other natural causes, deaths in Shakespeare are always caused by human agency, like murder, stabbing, wounding, poisoning and so on. In the play in which death of the King should lead us to the death of his assassin, we encounter a series of deaths in the meanwhile. Polonius is murdered by Hamlet, Ophelia loses her mind in grief and is drowned in a gushing stream, Gertrude drinks the poisoned drink intended for Hamlet, Laertes and Hamlet fatally wound each other with poisoned swords and in the end, Hamlet wounds Claudius with the same poisoned sword. All characters die in the end of the play.
Let us observe how Shakespeare treats death in the course of the play. The men die through stab wounds while the women die of grief and guilt. Ophelia dies of grief while Gertrude dies of guilt and therefore, in terms of the Books of Mortality, not of human agency. But all the other deaths are of stab wounds and the last three deaths namely of Laertes, Hamlet and Claudius are of poison as well. Poison kills all except Polonius and Ophelia just as stabs kills all except Gertrude and Ophelia. The men are thus fatally stabbed by swords and hence are also victims of human agency. The death of Gertrude and Ophelia, though both suicides are retained as being of “natural” causes such as of fear (read guilt) and of grief. Women are thus not subject to human agency while all men are.