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Stephen Greenblatt has argued that the ghost in Hamlet represents an intrusion of the past onto the present, bearing with it the command to remember. This essay explores one aspect of the intrusion of the medieval past upon the Renaissance present of the play, conjured up by Hamlet’s exclamation, ‘by Saint Patrick’. In this reference, Hamlet calls up the tradition associated with Saint Patrick’s Purgatory in Ireland, which originated, in literary form, in the twelfth-century Latin treatise, the Tractatus de Purgatorio sancti Patricii. In this medieval text, just as in Hamlet, the imagination is not the diametrical opposite of truth, especially when it came to knowledge of the afterlife. The Tractatus explains Purgatory as something like a vast piece of poetry, which was nevertheless essentially true.


Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry

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Book Chapter

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