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Daniel Charland, 1

Daniel Charland

ENG 490

Senior Literature Capstone

11/10/19

VanLaningham

The Purgatorial Ghost: Hamlet as a Catholic Twist on the Revenge Tragedy

Among the many famous and oft-quoted lines from Shakespeare’s plays, the phrase “Murder!

Murder most foul” is one of the most dramatic and ominous. This line finds its source in one of

Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, Hamlet, when the Ghost reveals the secret of its death at the

hands of its brother, Claudius, and commands Hamlet to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”.

The unique qualities of the Ghost’s monologue in the first act establishes Hamlet as an anomaly of the

drama of the time. It is a revenge tragedy with a Catholic twist.

The sub-genre of literature known as “revenge tragedy” is a form of tragedy where the plot

revolves around a protagonist seeking revenge for an injury, real or imagined. The term was first

introduced in 1900 by A.H. Thorndike to label a class of plays written in the late Elizabethan and early

Jacobean eras. While the term originated to describe plays written in this time period, the genre itself

has roots as far back as ancient Greek theater. The genre’s later refinement is famously attributed to the

Roman Stoic, Seneca. One example of Senecan revenge tragedy is Thyestes, a story that includes a ghost

demanding vengeance for a past crime. Another is Octavia, in which the avenging ghost is Nero’s

mother who previously died at his hand. The standard elements of a revenge tragedy typically involve a

story centered on a quest for vengeance due to the previously-stated real or imagined injury, as well as

the chaos that results from their actions. This chaos may also claim the life of the avenger in addition to
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their target. The revenge tragedy may include themes of madness and/or the vengeful spirit of a murder

victim. Lying mostly dormant after the period of Ancient Rome, he genre had something of a revival in

England during the Elizabethan (1558-1603) and Jacobean (1603-1625) periods (Miola, 11).

The best candidate for what is considered the first English revenge tragedy was Gorboduc in

1562, which set a precedent for departing from Senecan themes by portraying Ferrex, the ghost of a

prince murdered by his younger brother, not as vengeful, but accepting that the god Jove will bring

requital.(Robert S. Miola, 11) Violent and tormented ghosts didn’t disappear from the English stage

though. The play titled The Spanish Tragedy (1587—1589), is considered the first proper Elizabethan

revenge tragedy and was very popular with its theme of blood revenge and the sacred duty of a father

to avenge the murder of his son (Bowers, Fredson, 65). The nature of the vengeful ghosts and their

appearances in these English plays was generally not subtle and served the double-purpose of providing

a quick revelation of the foul deed to supply the motive of the avenging character, as well as

entertaining the audience with their theatrical presence. Catherine Belsey writes, “On other occasions,

when the English ghosts are incorporated into the action of the play, they incite the living to acts of

violence, demonstrating their Latin origins by their cry of “Vindicta!” These figures are presented as

variously solemn, tormented, and bloodthirsty but they are not in any way mysterious.”(Belsey, 6-7).

This standard pattern, however, was somewhat broken by William Shakespeare and his most famous of

revenge tragedies, Hamlet (1603).

The Ghost of Hamlet’s father is a figure that haunts the story, both literary and figuratively, as it

serves as the catalyst for the events of the play. Given the historical context in which the play was

written—that is, the struggle between traditional English Catholics and the schismatic Anglican Church—

there are two strong possibilities of the exact nature of the Ghost, each corresponding to its respective

theology. Catholic Eschatology—or study of the afterlife—held that Purgatory was a spiritual place
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where the souls of those on their way to heaven would be purged of their sins before they could enter.

This made it a place of great— through temporary—suffering. Theologically, Purgatory is a way of

reconciling God’s mercy with His justice by allowing those who have sinned and repented into heaven,

while still requiring them to make reparations for their sins. The Church also taught that the living

members of the Church could speed up the purification process through prayers and acts of charity

known as indulgences. This aspect of the teaching, however, was prone to abuse if questionably moral

or ill-informed people ended up in charge. It was partially such abuses that spurred the theological

schism known to history as the Protestant Reformation, which, among other theological differences,

rejected the doctrine of purgatory and only saw it as a false excuse for the Church to exploit money. This

sentiment was expressed in England as early as 1529 by the lawyer, Simon Fish in his tract A

Supplication for the Beggars.(Greenblatt, 10) With this rejection of the idea of Purgatory, the resulting

theology held that any spiritual apparition had to be from Hell, and thus something to be ignored and

avoided at all costs. These theological ideas eventually made their way into the national Anglican Church

founded by the reigning Tudor dynasty of England. With theological disagreements often viewed as an

act of treason against the state, Catholics were commonly persecuted and the theological tensions

would have been something the audiences of Shakespeare’s plays were very aware of.

Regarding the Ghost itself, its exact nature has long been debated by scholars, with the most

common arguments being that it is either written according to Anglican theology and must be a

deceitful evil—which was the only kind of ghost held by Anglican theology— or that it is written as

Catholic theology and therefore Purgatorial. There have been other views held in the literary discussion

over the years, however, with some critics claiming that it’s not even a question that can or needs to be

answered. In 1976, Herbert R. Coursen, Jr. wrote that it was doubtful that the debate over the

theological context of the Ghost would ever be resolved and that what should be focused on was the

effect it had on Hamlet himself, “The Ghost’s march along the parapets intersects a troubled human
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mind, and the question is not the precise identity of the Ghost but what Hamlet makes of him” (89). This

train of thought, while pragmatic in a sense, doesn’t take into account the possibility that the two

concepts are connected; that the effect the Ghost has on Hamlet is tied up in the Ghost’s own identity.

The answer to the question of the nature of the Ghost, or, in other words, what is the “real” afterlife

within the world of the plays story, in part determines whether what Hamlet makes of the Ghost leads

him closer to delusion or a better grasp of the truth. Stephan Greenblatt argues that all of Shakespeare’s

ghosts fall into one of three categories: a projection of fear, the spirit of history, or a shadowy

embodiment of deep psychic disturbance. He rules out the possibility of any of them being either a

demon or a suffering soul from Purgatory (195). This diagnosis certainly covers many ghosts in

Shakespeare’s other plays, such as Julius Caesar and Macbeth, but doesn’t answer some questions that

may be raised when examining Hamlet’s ghost more closely through the lenses of Catholic theology and

its Purgatorial doctrine. This particular ghost is not an illusion, as it is seen by several people, yet is far

too detailed in its self-description to be a mere dramatic creation with no roots in the thoughts of the

world outside of the play.

Some critics prefer to emphasize the role Hamlet has as a drama and hold that the Ghost is

closer to being a poetically licensed spirit than matching up with any real-world beliefs on ghosts. Robert

H. West espoused the view that the ghost is a literary mix of Catholic, Protestant, and pagan notions of

ghosts, saying, “if (Shakespeare) wanted us to regard (the Ghost) without impediment as a saved

Christian soul acting as an instrument of God's wrath justice, he must have eliminated the ghost's

personal vindictiveness” (1113). There is a way to circumvent this argument, however, by viewing the

mission of the Ghost as one of divine justice to punish a murderer on the throne than one of personal

revenge. While the element of vengeance is still there, and holds to the tradition of blood-vengeance

within revenge tragedy, there is a greater element of justified sanction that still distinguishes it from the

blood-thirsty ghosts of other revenge tragedies.


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Viewing Hamlet through the lens of Catholic theology in relation to the Ghost’s nature places it

as a drama with a unique twist that diverts from the previous standards of the revenge tragedy genre.

This is largely because a justified purgatorial ghost, who carries with it divine sanction, possesses a

spiritual authority to an audience that no other kind of ghost does, as it acts with a sense of objectivity

and pure intent rather than self-centered reasons. With this justified and sanctioned authority behind

the command to exact revenge, an additional layer is added to the plot of the story through Hamlet’s

confusion and inner-struggle with how to respond to the Ghost. To explore this topic, three angles

should be examined. First, Hamlet should also be looked at in its roll of a visual drama and the genre of

tragedy, as well as how the appearance of the Ghost on stage distinguishes the play from other

tragedies. There will also be a close examination of the exact words of the Ghost and what hints it gives

of its identity from a theological perspective, as well as how these self-descriptors can be verified. Lastly,

an inter-textual comparison and exploration of the tragedy tradition and source material that the play

draws from is also required in order to control for variables and see if any elements of Hamlet are

uniquely theological and lend credence to the Purgatorial reading.

When viewed through the lens of its unique Catholic aspects in contrast to other plays of its

genre, Hamlet is not a story of a prince driven to madness and obsession by a hellish ghost, nor is it a

story about psychological illusions. Instead, the story may be read as a unique twist on the revenge

tragedy that places the main conflict of its protagonist as an internal moral one. With the Ghost being

seen as an honest spirit from Purgatory, and therefore carrying with it divine sanction from God to carry

out the task of the murder, the moral permissiveness of Hamlet’s quest is established. As David

Beauregard asserts in Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays, “If the Ghost is a spirit from Purgatory,

then his command to avenge his murder can be seen as morally good, something quite in accord with

justice and the virtue of vengeance”(93). As a Christian character, however, Hamlet naturally deals with

the moral double-bind between his mission and his Christian instinct to follow the commandment to not
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commit murder. Because the Ghost is the originator of the main events of the story, understanding its

proper nature determines the lens through which the remaining events of the play, as well as Hamlet’s

character development, are viewed.

What the Audience Sees: The Ghost as Drama

When reading Shakespeare’s plays, it’s important to remember that they are exactly that: plays.

This means that they not only contain literary elements, but a great many sensory ones as well. A play is

meant to be seen and the lines are meant to be heard by an audience and spoken by actors, not read

silently on a page. With this in mind, it’s important to look at how the Ghost is presented visually and

what this says about its character in contrast to other “vengeance ghosts” from the genre. As the saying

goes, a picture speaks a thousand words, and the visualizations of these ghosts through the actors

playing them are living images.

The appearance of the Ghost is an overall noble one. Although Hamlet comments that a devil

can assume a pleasing shape in order to deceive, the following section on the Ghost’s theological

elements will suggest that this is not so. For now, what is important is that the role of Hamlet as a drama

means that everything in the story that the audience sees is meant to send messages to them, even if

the characters on stage may not see or completely understand said messages. When the Ghost appears

in the first scene to the guards on the wall, it appears in a noble ceremonial armor. According to Robert

I. Lublin’s article Apparel oft proclaims the man”: Visualizing Hamlet on the Early Modern Stage,

“Whereas Bernardo, Francisco, and Marcellus are dressed to stand guard, the Ghost is “Armed at point,

exactly cap-a-pie”. This term was used to describe a kind of heavy armor that encases the whole body

and was typically worn on horseback. At the time Hamlet was first performed, this kind of armor was

obsolete for battle and served only for tilting competitions, ceremonial functions. Accordingly, the

armor hearkened back to a medieval ethos of violence, invoking notions of masculinity and the honor of
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a gentleman” (632). Additionally the Ghost’s visor is up, revealing its face and indicating a sense of

openness and honesty with its identity. While Lublin interprets this dress as representing the Ghost as a

possible sprit of war, an alternative reading more in line with the interpretation of the Ghost’s

Purgatorial origin and divine mission is that it represents chivalry and honor. The Ghost does not come

as a savagely haunting spirit, but one on a purposeful and noble mission. While it is true that the

appearance of the Ghost instills fear in those who see it, this is a natural reaction to any supernatural

apparition, even a benevolent one like an angel. The fact that characters are scared by a ghost doesn’t

undercut the visual cues the Ghosts appearance gives the audience.

This armored and noble appearance is another feature unique to Hamlet’s version of the

revenge tragedy, and something that the audience wouldn’t have seen before. According to Lublin, “The

power of the scene was likely heightened by the fact that the ghost in Hamlet was unique at the time.

Other ghosts that previously appeared on the early modern stage wore burial clothes, white sheets, or

day clothes. Only in Hamlet do we see an instance of a ghost wearing armor”(633). In fact, Kyd’s The

Spanish Tragedy, which draws from the same original source material as Hamlet, doesn’t contain any

specific descriptions of the outward appearance of its ghosts, suggesting that it simply wasn’t

considered an important element for that play. With such a purposefully unique and symbolic design,

Hamlet’s Ghost is set apart as having a far more meaningful purpose than these other ghosts.

The nature of tragedy in drama exerts a specific kind of effect on the audience that would make

a play like Hamlet uniquely situated to communicate a sense of Purgatory. In contrast to a spiritual text,

which might contain either recordings of visions or theological teachings on Purgatory, a drama is

experienced by the audience in a more sensory and experiential fashion. By making this play a tragedy, a

particular catharsis is achieved in relation to the Ghost’s place in the tragic plot. The causes of this

catharsis were laid out by the Greek philosopher Aristotle to describe the effects a tragedy has on its
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audience, “For Aristotle the evocation of pity and fear is the proper goal of tragedy and it is only by this

pattern of tragic action that the goal can be achieved….. Thus for Aristotle pity refers to our sympathetic

response to the undeserved misfortune of someone else and fear indicates, narrowly and specifically,

the anxiety we feel that such misfortune can befall those who have the same degree of intelligence and

moral stature in ourselves”(Golden, 50). While Prince Hamlet is the main protagonist of the story and

certainly experiences his own tragic plot that invokes pity and terror, the Ghost also serves this role,

invoking pity through the vivid description of its unjust and dishonorable murder, as well as the

lamentation of all it has lost, and the suffering it now endures.

Ghost: “Upon my secure hour they uncle stole,

With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,

And in the porches of my ears did pour

The leperous distilment; whose effect

Holds such an enmity with blood of man

That swift as quicksilver it courses through

The natural gates and alleys of the body;

And with a sudden vigour it doth posset

And curd, like eager droppings into milk,

The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine;

And a most instant tetter bark’d about,

Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,

All my smooth body.

Thus was I sleeping, by a brother’s hand

Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d;

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhos’led, disappointed, unanel’d;

No reck’ning made, but sent to my account


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With all my imperfections on my head.

O, horrible! O, horrible! Most horrible!” (Act 1, Scene 5, 61-80)

This lamentation of the unprovoked murder and disturbing description of the painful and

disfiguring death is enough in itself to invoke pity from the audience. It is then compounded as it’s

coupled with the immediate addition of noting the element of theft that was motive for the murder, as

well as how its timing causes the Ghost suffering while its sins are purged away in Purgatory. While the

Ghost can’t describe the specifics of its sufferings, this actually enhances the catharsis as a withheld

image, allowing the audience to project their own concepts of torment onto the Ghost. Additionally,

with pity comes the element of terror, as the audience can imagine themselves as the victim of such an

unexpected death and all the suffering it brings. Such a designed response from the audience primes

them to accept the mission of vengeance from the Ghost as justified, setting up Hamlet’s inner struggle

for the rest of the play, and the shift of the pity of the audience from the Ghost to the prince: the

movement of the tragic burden from the elder Hamlet to the younger.

Reading the Ghost as Catholic

In order for the case to be made that the tropes of the historical revenge tragedy are given a

unique twist in Hamlet, the argument must be established for the Catholic Purgatorial identity of the

Ghost itself. This is because Hamlet’s moral dilemma in response to the call for vengeance requires that

the Ghost be authentic in order to have any bearing and invoke the pity of the audience. Only through

an authentically sanctioned quest for killing does this particular reluctance make any sense, since

Hamlet’s concern for his soul could easily be remedied by simply ignoring the Ghost if the mission was

sinful. Instead, Hamlet’s reluctance is instigated by the fact that he is, as the saying goes, “between a

rock and a hard place” in that he wants to do God’s will—communicated through the Ghost—yet can’t
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entirely processes the idea that this is a sanctioned exception to “Thou shall not kill”. In other words, he

is torn between two different understandings of what God’s will is for him. In order to establish this fact,

a close examination should be made of the Ghost’s monologue and its implications, as well as how

trustworthy its self-identification is. These will be examined through the lens of which theological

criteria they best match within the historical context of Elizabethan England.

To identify the nature of the Ghost, and thus the moral authenticity of the vengeance quest, the

best place to begin is the clues the Ghost gives about its identity. To start with, we know that it is

currently confined to a place of torment as a form of penance,

Ghost: “Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burn and purg’d away. But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up they soul,

Freeze they young blood.” (Act 1, Scene 5, 10-16)

The notion that the Ghost’s stay in his “prison-house” is a temporary one is rather interesting on its

own, as it eliminates several spiritual possibilities. Very few realms of the dead in any faith have

temporary punishment. If the ghost were inspired by pagan souls in a Hades-like underworld—

emulating the classical Greeks—it would either be stuck in the underworld in a form of eternal torment

or limbo, or would be in an Elysium-like paradise. In terms of Christian afterlives, temporary punishment

doesn’t fit either Heaven or Hell, as there is no torment in Heaven at all and Hell is eternal. By process of

elimination, a conceptual Purgatory is the only realistic possibility that fits this description.
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If the Ghost is in a Purgatory, what evidence is there for it being the actual Catholic Purgatory,

rather than a purely imagined afterlife of purging created by Shakespeare for dramatic purposes within

the world of his story? The Ghost indicates evidence in the lament of his murder,

Ghost: “Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhous’led, disappointed, unanel’d;

No reck’ning made, but sent to my account

With all my imperfections on my head.” (Act 1, Scene 5, 76-79)

The terms, “Unhous’led, disappointed, unanel’d” are three Catholic rites meant to prepare the soul for

death and obtain the forgiveness of the dying person’s sins. Unhous’led means “without receiving the

sacraments”, “disappointed” refers to not having spiritual preparation, and ”unanel’d” means that the

Ghost died without being anointed with the sacrament of extreme unction. These specific terms indicate

that the Ghost was undoubtedly Catholic in life, and, given its objective stance of knowing what happens

after death, is in a Catholic afterlife. It maintains that it is, in fact, being purged if his sins in Purgatory

because they were not sacramentally absolved before it died.

We do, however, have a notion which has the potential to undercut the entirety of this

argument: the Ghost could simply be lying. This is something that Hamlet himself heavily considers and

which drives him to test the truthfulness of the Ghost’s words through the Mousetrap play. The fact that

the Ghost didn’t lie about the murder of Hamlet’s father, however, isn’t enough to derail the demon

idea on its own, as the Ghost may well be a devil who told the truth in order to get Hamlet to have

reason to commit murder. There is a two-pronged argument to answer this objection, one from a

character standpoint and one from a dramatic perspective. Robert H West points out that if the Ghost is,

in fact, a devil trying to get Hamlet to commit grave sins, than it doesn’t make much sense that it tells

him to hold back and not harm his mother, “For the devil theory this point is the apparition's tenderness

toward Gertrude, against whom it instructs Hamlet not to taint his mind and between whom and her
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fighting soul it later orders him to step. To account for such a tactic in a devil would be hard.

Pneumatology attributes many sleights to devils, but never the sleight of prescribing Christian

forbearance”(1110). If anything, it would make more sense for a devil to prey on Hamlet’s obsession

with his mother and uncle in their “incestuous sheets” and use it as a doorway to drive Hamlet to kill her

for what he views as a form of treason against his father. Yet, the Ghost doesn’t do this and in fact urges

great restraint on Hamlet’s part, an act that might very well complicate an otherwise straightforward

plan.

On a dramatic level, the concept of having the quest-giver be a disguised devil would undermine

the investment and entertainment value of the story. As Hamlet is the protagonist, he as a character

requires a degree of sympathy to propel the story and give the audience a reason to keep watching. He

must maintain the element of tragic pity. Even if the story were about the protagonist’s fall, like

Macbeth for example, a degree of sympathy or identification must exist to give the audience a reason to

care. West points this out when he says, “Make the apparition a devil-even a truth-telling one-and the

audience loses sympathy it and so, to a degree, with Hamlet’s quest”(1113). While the story could still

be interesting if it were a devil, that fact would have to be made more obvious within the play itself.

There is no questioning the evil and deceitful nature of the witches in Macbeth, and so the audience

knows from the onset that Macbeth’s personal story is that of a fall. If Shakespeare intended the same

dramatic story and character arc for Hamlet as he did for Macbeth, then it stands to reason that the evil

of the supernatural entity that sets him on his path would have been made far more obvious.

With the possibility of the Ghost being a disguised devil rendered unlikely, the chief obstacle

standing in the way of viewing it as a Purgatorial spirit is the entire purpose that he appears in the first

place. In its initial conversation with Hamlet, the Ghost directly asks him to take “revenge” on its behalf

through the line, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” (Act 1, Scene 5, 25) Taken in a literal
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and face-value sense, this is indeed problematic in the Purgatory case because, according to Catholic

theology, Purgatorial spirits are suffering, but they are not vengeful. In fact, the Church has officially

condemned personal blood-vengeance from the beginning, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be

concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do

not look for revenge, but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,

says the Lord.””(Romans 12:17-19) With this as the case, how could a ghost with a personal vendetta

come from Catholic Purgatory? Traditionally, Purgatorial ghosts only appear to ask for prayers to help

speed up their purification, and these appearances are always permitted by God since the spirit has no

such power of its own. It should be noted that the act of Hamlet killing Claudius is not implied to be the

key to bringing the Ghost to rest, as it has already stated that its own sins are the reason for its

suffering, not the method in which it was murdered or any sort of unresolved matter from when it was

alive. From a personal standpoint, the Ghost has nothing to gain from vengeance.

Working with the theological assumption that a Purgatorial ghost can only appear if permitted

by God, it would stand to reason that the ghost of Hamlet’s father would be allowed to appear in order

to bring about justice. In this case, justice happens to be the same thing as sanctioned murder. Citing the

history of Catholic theology, David Beauregard argues that, “Clearly Claudius is a tyrant, both in his

murderous seizure of the throne and in his use of power, and so a just vengeance seems called for. The

Catholic tradition, stemming from Aquinas and extending to Suarez in the sixteenth century, allowed for

tyranicide under certain conditions” (93). We must remember that there is a cold-blooded murderer

sitting on the throne at the moment, and that no one knows anything about what he did. The only way

justice can be dealt is if, by this divine revelation, the information on the murder is revealed. At this

point, it’s worth once again bringing up the limitations the Ghost puts on Hamlet in how he peruses the

act,
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Ghost: “Taint not they mind, nor let they soul contrive

Against thy mother aught.” ( Act 1, Scene 5, 85-86)

By the phrase, “taint not they mind”, Hamlet is forbidden from allowing his motives of personal hatred

to cloud his mind in the pursuit of justice, mainly in regards to his mother who he seems to consider as

some sort of spiritual co-conspirator against his father. Hamlet is more likely intended to serve as a sort

of prosecutor to the king than an assassin in the night. From a theological standpoint, Beauregard notes

that “The avenger’s intention must not be directly by hatred for the offender, but rather by charity

intending some good such as the offender’s amendment or the common good” (94). This is not to say

that Hamlet always succeeds in accomplishing this dispassionate aspect of his mission. In fact, in the

bedroom scene when he confronts his mother, the Ghost has to reappear to remind him to stay

focused, as he is currently letting his emotions and obsession over his mother and uncle’s relationship

get in the way of the mission. Hamlet’s personal stumbles, however, should not distract from the purity

of the mission itself.

In addition to Catholic morality, there is a literary president for a purgatorial ghost delivering

condemnation outside of the genre of revenge tragedy. The concept of a ghost from purgatory

delivering a sentence wasn’t unheard of in Elizabethan England. According to I. J. Semper’s 1946 book,

Hamlet Without Tears, a Medieval text known as The Golden Legend was reprinted as late as 1527 and

could be found in Catholic households of the time. The text was a collection of hagiographies, or stories

and legends of saints, and featured one particular story about a soldier who entrusts his kinsman with a

horse before going off to fight a war with the Moors. The kinsman is supposed to sell the horse if the

solder dies in battle and give the money to the poor, but instead he keeps it for himself. The dead solder

appears and announces that he is suffering in Purgatory, predicting damnation for his treacherous

kinsman (I.J. Semper, 18). While the factual grounds for this story are unknown and it is likely a legend
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rather than a theologically confirmed event, the fact remains that the idea of a soul from Purgatory

acting as a punitive agent of some sort was likely known and accepted by the English Catholic laity of the

time. As such, it is not unreasonable to consider that this story and others like it may have influenced

the way Shakespeare choose to portray a Catholic Purgatorial ghost.

The Revenge Tragedy Contrasts

If the Ghost is indeed from Catholic Purgatory, how does this affect the story in comparison to

the traditional revenge tragedy? Perhaps the most striking consequence is that the legitimacy of the

Ghost is the very thing that puts Hamlet in his moral double-bind and fuels his internal conflict for the

rest of the play. It is worth noting that the play makes it clear that Hamlet has recently returned from

studying at Wittenberg, a location made famous by its serving as the location of prominent moments of

the Protestant Reformation. During these studies, Hamlet was no doubt taught the anti-Purgatory

theology that would have been held by both the Protestants of the plays setting and the Anglicans of

Shakespeare’s time. With so many features of the Ghost lending credence for its Purgatorial nature,

however, Hamlet is plunged into an internal battle on two fronts. The first fight is as to which theology is

correct and whether the Ghost should be ignored or obeyed. The second battle is simpler, yet

dependent on the answer to the first. Hamlet knows that killing is morally wrong, even having his

conscience deter him from suicide because he knows that killing himself is immoral, much less killing

another person,

Hamlet: “Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!” (Act 1, Scene 2, 129-132)


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In contrast to this conscience, he has been commanded by a rather convincing ghost that he must

complete a divinely sanctioned vengeance. It’s a decision he really doesn’t want to have to make, and

thus he hopes that he can find some way to prove the Ghost false though the play. This contrasts with

the avengers from other plays in the revenge tragedy tradition who almost instantly set out on their

mission. As Robert Miola puts it, “Shakespeare seizes upon the momentary doubt of, say, Clytemestra or

Medea, and transforms it into a pervasive, anguished question that probes the validity of the

supernatural imperative and the morality of revenge actions itself” (Miola, 35). In terms of revenge

tragedy, Hamlet may be the only protagonist to seriously consider the moral ramifications of his actions

to this extent, even when given divine permission.

Hamlet is similar in its theme of blood vengeance with its predecessor in successful English

revenge tragedies, Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Part of the reason for this is that both plays likely drew

from the same source material, the Ur-Hamlet. There were two versions of this original version of the

Hamlet story that Shakespeare could have drawn from. The first one was from the Danish historian

Saxo, first published in 1514, and the second in a collection of tragic stories by Francois de Belleforest

called Histoires Tragiques, which had several editions by 1601. Interestingly, Saxo’s version contains

hardly any references to scripture, while Belleforest’s expands on Saxo’s narrative with several

comparisons to biblical persons and events. Shakespeare borrowed none of Belleforest’s scriptural

references, and yet his rendition of the Hamlet story contains multiple original scriptural references

(Shaheen, 534). For further contrast, by Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and another revenge tragedy which

also drew from the same source material, John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge, contain little to no biblical

references. With this many examples of variations of the same revenge story, it’s interesting to note

how Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the only one to inject such a purposeful degree of Christianity into the

characters’ lines. Given that it’s not even prevalent in the original sources, Shakespeare must have had a

reason for going to the trouble of inserting them where he did, a reason that Kyd and Marston
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apparently didn’t share. This fact indicates that not only is Shakespeare setting his version of the story in

a Catholic world with Catholic morality, but that this unique element is what he is using to subvert the

revenge tragedy trope through the uniqueness of the authentic purgatorial Ghost.

Conclusion

Hamlet contains within it a certain uniqueness in how it carries out its role as revenge tragedy,

fulfilling its requirements as a tragedy while also breaking previously-established convection. This is

achieved through having an honest Purgatorial Ghost with a justified and divinely sanctioned mission of

vengeance, rather than a purely rage-filled ghost or demon demanding killing out of personal motives.

This authenticity is what achieves the required catharsis of tragedy for the character of Hamlet as he

struggles in his moral double-bind between his divine mission to kill rid the land of a tyrant, and his

natural reluctance to not commit murder.

The authenticity of the Ghost is established to the audience of the drama through visual cues,

such as the chivalric nature of its dress, as well as the natural pity and terror catharsis invoked from the

audience through the tragic story of the Ghost’s murder and sufferings. This burden is then transferred

to Hamlet when he receives his mission. Through the element of tragic drama, the suffering of Purgatory

is conveyed effectively to the audience though both this tragic catharsis, as well as the element of

withheld image of suffering that the Ghost endures.

From a theological standpoint, a Catholic purgatorial spirit is the only identification of the Ghost

which is able to justify these elements of pity for both itself and for Hamlet. If the Ghost were a demon,

as the Anglican theology would presume, it would remove any shred of sympathy and inadvertently turn

Claudius into the tragic hero who is victimized by a deceived Hamlet. Additionally, the fact that the
Daniel Charland, 18

Ghost suffers because of its sins being purged away eliminates other possibilities of afterlives—Christian

or otherwise— which consist of either no punishment or eternal punishment. The specific language used

accurately describes Catholic sacraments, indicating a theological purgatory and not a purely literary

one.

In contrast to other revenge tragedies, Hamlet contains the unique element of a protagonist

who doesn’t immediately rush to follow the orders of the avenging spirit, but takes the time to weigh

the consequences of his actions. Additionally, Hamlet contains many purposeful additions of scriptural

references that stand out from its source material and the other plays descended from said source.

While Hamlet has been consistently praised as one of Shakespeare’s greatest literary masterworks, a

Purgatorial reading of the character of the Ghost sets it even further apart from the rest of its fellow

revenge tragedies, exulting its uniqueness and subtle genius to even greater heights.
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Works Cited:

Bowers, Fredson. Title: Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642. Princeton University Press, 1971.

Catherine Belsey. Shakespeare’s Sad Tale for Winter: Hamlet and the Tradition of Fireside Ghost Stories.

David N. Beauregard. Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays. Associated University Presses, 2010.

Golden, Leon. “Aristotle, Frye, and the Theory of Tragedy.” Comparative Literature, vol. 27, no. 1, 1975,

pp. 47–58.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Herbert R. Coursen, Jr. Christian Ritual and the World of Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Bucknell University

Press1976.

I.J. Semper. Hamlet Without Tears. Loras College Press, 1946.

Naseeb Shaheen. Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays. University of Delaware Press, 1999.

Robert I. Lublin. “‘Apparel Oft Proclaims the Man’: Visualizing Hamlet on the Early Modern Stage.”

Shakespeare Bulletin: A Journal of Performance Criticism and Scholarship, vol. 32, no. 4, 2014,

pp. 629–47.

Robert S. Miola. Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy. Clarendon Press, 1992.

West, Robert H. “‘King Hamlet’s Ambiguous Ghost.’” PMLA, vol. 70, no. 5, 1955, pp. 1107–17.
Daniel Charland, 20

Literary Reflection

Writing this literary capstone has been the most intense and stressful project I’ve had to

undertake since learning the basics of college paper-writing in my freshman year. As I said many times

throughout the process, it felt like the “new math” of paper-writing that took apart what I knew and put

it together in a more complicated way that I just didn’t understand. I’d gotten pretty good at writing

regular English Literature papers by this point, and it took me a while to understand just how different

the capstone was.

I remember the first close reading paper I wrote where things really clicked for me was a poetry

paper comparing Keats’s To Autumn and Frost’s After Apple Picking in Lit 101. I was attracted to

choosing those two poems because of my love for seasonal aesthetics. My realization was solidified that

I wrote my best papers when given the choice of works to write about, rather than an element of the

same single work that everyone in the class wrote about. This carried through with what I consider two

of my greatest milestone papers, my final paper arguing that Beowulf is a Christian work at its core, and

a paper making the case for the Ghost in Hamlet being a Catholic depiction of a Purgatorial spirit.

Through these papers in particular, I realized that bringing my passion for my Catholic faith into the

subjects of my literary arguments carried with it a greater passion, interest, and drive to make my cases

and present good arguments.

When it came time to write the capstone, I grossly underestimated how different a paper it

would be. I thought that it was simply making a longer and more detailed version of a paper I had

already written in a previous class, and therefore chose my Hamlet paper to be expanded upon.

However, the approach, focus, and even the argument itself would end up beings shifted multiple times

to fit the required capstone format.


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One of the biggest changes I had to go through was my sources. In my first paper, I’d used three

main sources, but all of them had to get tossed out due to not being printed by acceptable presses in

the “literary conversation” of critics. Thankfully, I was able to utilize one of them as a historical source

thanks to its age, and the information from the other two happened to be in a more critically acceptable

book in the Loras library. My thesis claim also had to be adjusted, as it was eventually made clear to me

that I didn’t have to prove any large claims, such as the idea that Shakespeare was a Catholic himself.

Instead, I fine-tuned my thesis in a direction that had me do far more time-consuming research than I

had planned for, contrasting Hamlet with elements from similar works. I learned about the history of the

revenge tragedy genre, the importance of Seneca, and how it was both revived and deviated from in the

Elizabethan period. A lot of my new sources ended up not being used as I narrowed down to which ones

were relevant to my new, more specific, thesis.

Based on reader feedback, I replaced my initial section on historical background of Elizabethan

England with a section focused on the aspect of Hamlet being a drama, and thus a visual presentation. I

discovered the uniqueness of how the Ghost appears visually compared to other tragedy ghosts of the

time, as well as bringing in elements on what makes a play a tragedy in the first place. This last section

turned out to be the key to fitting everything together in my mind and solved a problem in my argument

structure that I didn’t even know I had. In the end, the paper that started as a more casual final paper

for a previous English Lit class was forged through fire into a far more sophisticated argument that has

revealed to me just how far my research abilities and critical thinking have come since my freshman

year.