When hell freezes over: mount Hecla and Hamlet's infernal geography.
Prospero [to Ariel]: I'll chain thee in the north for thy neglect, Within the burning bowels of Mount Hecla; I'll singe thy airy wings with sulphurous flames, And choke thy tender nostrils with blue smoke; --John Dryden's adaptation of The Tempest (1) Their Question was of purgatory, where, And whether 'tis at all, if so, 'tis here. --David Lloyd, The legend of Captaine Iones relating his adventure to sea (London, 1631), 14
PURGATORY IN HAMLET AGAIN. For many in the field of early modern studies, this might seem to be well-worn terrain. Purgatory was the site of contests over religious beliefs, theologies, and ideologies within the period itself, and the site of scholarly struggles to interpret these contests within our own time. Recent critical exchanges about the meaning of purgatory have focused almost exclusively on religious concerns, however, and thus have overlooked an obvious but pervasive question of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates about the afterworld: where is it? This early modern concern with purgatory's geographical specificity has gone virtually unexamined, and it is what I will consider here. I will be arguing that in Hamlet purgatory is associated with the Icelandic volcano Mount Hecla. As I will show, within the period Mount Hecla was widely reputed to be the northern entrance to purgatory. Identifying this association has its own topical rewards for a reading of the play, but much more important for the field of early modern studies is what contemporary debates over Mount Hecla reveal about the relation of supernatural geographies to early modern cartographic sensibilities. The ways in which purgatory was accommodated--or not--into the period's cartographies suggest, even more broadly, how people conceptualized and experienced their spatial environment.
What is the place--literally and imaginatively--of purgatory in a mapped environment? The answer for authors of the period was neither simple nor univocal. For some, the supernatural and the cartographic co-existed in a palimpsestic relationship; (2) for others, purgatory was an embarrassing superstition that the self-consciously newfangled modes of cartographic measurement could disprove. The debate itself, with its diverse range of positions, often destabilizes our own traditional set of working categories (Medieval/Renaissance, myth/fact, fantasy/real, religion/reason) and the dominant scholarly meta-narrative about a progressive early modern disenchantment of space. (3)
This debate about the place of purgatory also enables us to reconsider the presentation of the supernatural on the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century stage. The complicated, multifaceted discussion about the relationship of earthly geography and the supernatural is manifested within the drama of the period. Hamlet, with its insistent questioning about the geographies and the ontologies of the afterlife, presents one of the most potent explorations of early modern notions of the early modern spatial environment. Reconsidering the status of purgatory within the play, attending to its ambiguities not only as a theological construct but as a spatial one, enables us to better approach Hamlet's phenomenology.
The early modern fervor to map the environment was not restricted to the surface of the globe. The "undiscovered country" of death was, in fact, folded into a discourse of exploration and discovery. (4) This phenomenon has been discussed by Philip Almond, who quotes, for instance, from Joseph Glanvill: "Indeed, as things are for the present, the LAND OF ESPIRITS is a kind of America, and not well discover'd Region; yea, it stands in the Map of humane Science like unknown Tracts, fill'd up with Mountains, Seas, and Monsters." (5) Glanvill's emphasis on the unknown perhaps does not do justice to those who did try to map the netherworld. Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), collates some examples of how various authors were calculating the space of hell. While some argued that it was "in the centre of the earth, 200 Italian miles in diameter," another "will have this local hell far less, one Dutch mile in diameter, all filled with fire and brimstone: because, as he there demonstrates, that space, cubically multiplied, will make a sphere able to hold eight hundred thousand millions of damned bodies (allowing each body six foot square) which will abundantly suffice." (6) This mathematical approach to understanding the reality of hell--the idea that it is "material and local," and thus has a diameter and cubic space--persisted throughout the early modern period. In 1714 Tobias Swinden, in An Enquiry into the Nature and Place of Hell, ridicules Drexelius's calculation that there would be 100,000,000,000 of the damned in a hell that was only one square German mile. Swinden does not attack the mathematical approach, but its inaccuracy: the interior of the earth is clearly insufficiently large to house all of the souls of the damned, and thus Swinden argues that, based on mathematical calculations, hell must instead be located inside the center of the sun. (7)
Purgatory, like hell, was largely presumed to be located within the earth. (Swinden's solar theory was a minority opinion.) A definition of purgatory from 1659 sums up a dominant understanding: purgatory is "a subterraneous caue, fill'd with flames and horrid instruments of torture, which his there confined and imprison'd soul must, till expiated endure." (8) Because of its subterranean location, purgatory seemingly defied conventional practices of surveying and cartography. Attempts to map purgatory were ridiculed by Protestant polemicists. As Peter Marshall writes: "the intense hostility to the Roman teaching on the next life remained a staple of anti-papal polemic throughout the period. While this polemic attacked Purgatory on a number of fronts--its association with clerical abuses, its inculcation of unchristian fear, its alleged disparagement of Christ's Passion--a persistent theme was the absurdity of the Catholic geography of the afterlife, its tendency to participate and localize imaginary realms, to map out the confines and borders of the hereafter" (114). Protestants liked "to demonstrate the unreality of these places through an ironic evocation of their very concreteness" (116).
An excellent example of this strategy can be found in John Veron's The Hvntynge of Purgatorye to Death (London, 1561). Veron rehearses the familiar anti-Catholic argument that the popish Mass is a corrupt money-making enterprise predicated on the existence of a fictional purgatory: "this faigned purgatory, and vaine opinion of praying for the deade, which be onely grounded vpon the foolishe imaginations and dreames of a sorte of superstitious and coueteous persons" (sig. A4v). In contrast to this assertion of purgatory as imaginary, within the text a Catholic priest is portrayed as minutely calculating the geographical space of purgatory. To lose the material, spatial reality of purgatory would result in a profound loss of ecclesiastical income; clergy thus have a vested interest in maintaining belief in purgatory as a particular location, and the priest's interest in knowing the exact situation of purgatory is compared to that of a money-grubbing landlord. The sixteenth-century emergence of land surveying was driven in large part by the desire of landlords to have a more accurate way to assess revenue from rents and leases, and this priest is fully conversant with the techniques and terminology of geodesy. Here, the character Didimus describes the parish priest:
Notaries do take very muche payn and are verye diligente too expresse in their deedes and writtings the situation and bou[n]des of the houses, landes, and tenementes, that they do writt of, but none could I euer fynde in all my lyfe so experte and kunninge, that was able too sette out so perfectly the situation and butting of euery house and lande, that he doth writte of, as our master doctour was to measure and limite hell, the lymbe and purgatorie. As farre as I can perceyue, he can tell in what Climate they be all, what eleuation of the Pole they haue, how many degrees thei sta[n]de one from an other, on what syds they be situated or lye, whether it be in the East or in ye West in the Northe or in the South. (159v)
The friction between the geographic and even geodetic discourse--of an interest in measures and degrees, metes and bounds--and the presumed imaginary nature of the location being surveyed here produces the effect of the absurd that Marshall describes.
Early modern debates about the existence of purgatory, then, were not merely abstract exercises in theology. While these debates frequently revolved around theological positions and Biblical exegesis, they also considered the question of whether or not purgatory was a physical, geographical space. Certainly we encounter arguments against purgatory like those of the early reformer John Frith--for purgatory, "we haue no infallible evidence, but only phantasicall imaginacio[n]s" (9)--but these positions find a counter weight in those who argued about purgatory's actual location. Those who sought to discredit belief in purgatory did so not only with a wave of the hand and the derogatory epithet of "fable," but also through the pressures of empirical and cartographical evidence. In sixteenth-and seventeenth-century discourse, "purgatory" was located not only on the fault line of theological difference, but also on the fissure of poetry and proof.
Indeed, the force of thinking about purgatory as fantasy came from the equal and opposite reaction of thinking about purgatory as a physical space. These two modes--the intensely materialist approach to the space of the dead and the oppositional movement towards fictionalizing hell and purgatory altogether--are, in fact, often explicitly connected in texts of the period. For instance, Burton's authorial voice, Democritus Junior, first notes the argument that a material hell has identifiable terrestrial portals. He cites Anthony Rusca: "Whatsoever philosophers write (saith Surius), there be certain mouths of hell, and places appointed for the punishment of men's souls, as at Hecla in Iceland, where the ghosts of the dead men are familiarly seen, and sometimes talk with the living: God would have such visible places, that mortal men might be certainly informed, that there be such punishments after death, and learn hence to fear God" (318). Yet he then also observes, "But these and such like testimonies others reject, as fables, illusions or spirits, and they will have no such local known place, more than Styx or Phlegethon, Pluto's court, or that poetical Infernus, where Homer's soul was seen hanging on a tree, & c." (318).
Early modern discussions about the place of purgatory swung between these poles of materialism and fiction. Perhaps following suit, recent scholarship on the afterlife in Hamlet has also been polarized. On the one hand, Margreta de Grazia, in Hamlet without Hamlet, has shown how the modern emphasis on Hamlet's psychological interiority has obfuscated the play's materiality and concerns about the land, its engagement with the actual mud and loam of the earth. (10) Thus in her reading "the graveyard scene conjoins concern about Last Things with issues of entitlement" (142), since "in 1600 the eschatological setting might have brought to mind more immediate issues of [land] allocation" (140)--"Doomsday" resonating of both divine judgment and land ownership (140-42), of both the hereafter and the very earthy here. On the other hand, Stephen Greenblatt, in Hamlet in Purgatory, notes that sixteenth-century religious reformers who wished to discredit belief in purgatory frequently resorted to labeling it a "fable," a charge which positions the idea as antithetical to material reality. (11) Greenblatt contends that Protestants considered "not only the fraudulence of Purgatory, its lack of scriptural basis, and its corrupt institutional uses but its special relation to dream, fantasy, and imagination" (35). Both of these arguments, in their different ways, are right. When we look past a modern, introspective Hamlet, we recognize the earthiness of Hamlet, an earthiness that surrounds the play's questions of the afterlife, from the issue of where to bury its many dead bodies to the location of purgatory. At the same time, anyone rooting about in the archive of early modern polemical religious literature will regularly encounter accusations that purgatory is a "fable." Contemporary accusations of purgatory's fictionality do indeed inform the play, as Greenblatt has extensively demonstrated. As the afterlife appears in Hamlet, then, it is both a material, loamy, rotten affair and the subject of abstract, philosophical, fantastical musings.
In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this dualism was a prominent feature in discussions of one of the most popular candidates for the entrance to purgatory, Mount Hecla. The Icelandic volcano became a notorious and much-debated site, one that swirled together the materially real and the fabulous. It was a space charted on maps and the source of legend; it was a place that collapsed the distinction between the empirically cartographic and the fantastic. Icelandic natural historians writing in Latin for a European audience at the end of the sixteenth century (a period which saw a flourish of popular interest in the island's history and features) had to confront this rather idiosyncratic "Icelandic environment [that] was popularly conceived of as having its own life," one in which "the natural and the supernatural merged." (12)
This dual nature of Mount Hecla can be found in Purchas his pilgrimage (1617), where we read about the northern adventures of the explorer Henry Hudson. In the context of a passage that is saturated with evidentiary protocols--specific places as indicated by nautical degrees, specific years, specific eyewitness accounts--Hudson sails by Iceland, where they "saw Mount He[c]la cast out fire (a noted signe of foule weather towards; others conceiue themselues and deceiue others with I know not vvhat Purgatorie fables hereof confuted by Arngrin Ionas an Islander, who reproueth this and many other dreames related by Authors, saying, that from the yeere 1558. to 1592. it neuer cast forth any flames)." (13) The popular association of Mount Hecla with purgatory is explained away in this lengthy parenthetical digression. In contrast to the "reports" that verified previous aspects of the experience, here the "Authors" who claim a connection of the volcano with purgatory are refuted by a native observer (Arngrin Ionas) who has documented the years in which it was inactive: the fires of purgatory, presumably, burn continuously, so a hiatus dispels the notion that this is a portal to the netherworld. This parenthetical moment in Purchas may be seen as participating in the strategy of considering purgatory a "fable," the literary "dreame" of "Authors." But the fictionalizing of purgatory here is hardly simple or complete. We find in this moment the declared fiction being disproved by recorded fact; we find authorial dreams being argued against with the habits of recorded measurement associated with what today we call science. And the very necessity of Purchas's parenthetical disclaimer about Mount Hecla stems from a robust tradition of identifying this volcano as a locus of postmortem purgatorial punishment. What we find here, in short, is the idea of purgatory located within the discursive crosscurrents of both the fabulous and the materially real, of story and discovery, of skepticism and belief. It is, like the volcano Mount Hecla that Henry Hudson's men saw from the side of their ship, a space that invites at once the rigors of empiricism and the elusive qualities of fantasy.
Discussions of purgatory therefore brought together a constellation of contemporary concerns: the role of the imagination and varying perspectives on how to read Scripture and different theological positions on the nature of divine justice, to be sure, but also an emergent geographic sensibility, one which encompassed issues pertaining to mapping, land ownership, discovery, mathematics, etc. Within the period, purgatory is a topic of interest not only because of the controversy of its existence--did it or didn't it?--but because it presents the challenge of comprehending the supernatural in a newly cartographic world. Encounters with purgatory--as a reader, as a voyager, and, as in Hamlet's case, as a witness of the supernatural--sparked questions not just of purgatory's validity, but also of its possible location, and how that location might or might not be accommodated into a geographic consciousness. Identifying the location of Denmark's purgatory in Mount Hecla, then, provides more than just a topical allusion for a detail of the play; it provides a referent that comes attached to diverse epistemological understandings of the environment that may or may not segregate the natural from the supernatural, or earth from purgatory. Within a variety of early modern texts--madrigals, maps, exploration narratives, Hamlet--Mount Hecla sits at the nexus of a cultural investment in mapping and examining the environment and beliefs about the supernatural. In better understanding the dynamic interplay of these modes as they pertain to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century conceptualizations of Mount Hecla, we can better understand the supernatural environment of Hamlet itself.
Hamlet is caught not only in early modern theological crosscurrents, but in the geographical foment that coincided with cultures of religious belief. Part of the emotional uncertainty of how to relate to the dead emanates from a geographical uncertainty about where the dead reside. In Hamlet, we encounter a space similar to that in Henry Hudson's brush with the supernatural: in the midst of a landscape imagined through early modern territorial and cartographic protocols (the nation-state and the geodetic map), purgatory maintains a disconcerting presence, its fabulous, discredited flames still burning within an empirical geography.
Geography is central to Hamlet. As de Grazia has compellingly argued, the critical focus on Hamlet's "deep and complex inwardness" (1) back-reads the play through the lens of modernity and thus ignores the play's key premise, that of the prince's dispossession. "As Hamlet's dispossession has been ignored, so, too, has Hamlet's investment in land" (3). De Grazia writes, "In a world in which men fight and kill for land ... the importance of the realm to Hamlet might well be a given. It does more than give substance to his state of dejection at the play's start: it knits him into the fabric of the play. The play opens with threatened invasion and ends in military occupation. Framed by territorial conflict, it stages one contest over land after another" (2-3).
The action of the play is presented against a backdrop of frenetic activity and international political tensions. Hamlet is a family drama, and a personal drama, happening in the midst of military action worthy of Henry V. In the opening scene, Marcellus seeks to know the reason for the general burst of activity, "[w]hy this same strict and most observant watch / So nightly toils the subject of the land," why "such daily cost of brazen cannon / And foreign mart for implements of war," "[w]hy such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task / Does not divide the Sunday from the week" (1.1.70-75). (14) What, in short, is the reason "that this sweaty haste / Doth make the night joint labourer with day"? (1.1.76-77) Why the toil, the sweat, the haste, the labor through the sabbath and the night? Why the cannons, why the ships? Marcellus seems exasperated by the lack of information. "Good now, sit down, and tell me he that knows," he cajoles (1.1.69). "Who is't that can inform me?" he demands (1.1.78). What is going on? Somebody tell me!
Horatio can answer: "That can I. / At least the whisper goes so" (1.1.78-79). His direct offering of explanation qualified by the acknowledgment that he knows only rumors, Horatio launches into a complicated and detailed account of political affairs.
Our last King, ... Whose image even but now appeared to us, Was as you know by Fortinbras of Norway Thereto pricked on by a most emulate pride Dared to the combat, in which our valiant Hamlet Did slav this Fortinbras, who by a sealed compact Well ratified by law and heraldry Did forfeit with his life all these his lands Which he stood seized of to the conqueror; Against the which a moiety competent Was gaged by our King, which had return'd To the inheritance of Fortinbras, Had he been vanquisher, as by the same co-mart, And carriage of the article design His fell to Hamlet. Now, sir, young Fortinbras, Of unimproved mettle, hot and full, Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there Sharked up a list of lawless resolutes For food and diet to some enterprise That hath a stomach in't, which is no other, As it doth well appear unto our state, But to recover of us by strong hand And terms compulsatory those foresaid lands So by his father lost. And this, I take it, Is the main motive of our preparations, The source of this our watch, and the chief head Of this post-haste and rummage in the land. (1.1.79-106)
If this were Henry V, we would be in France, awaiting the invasion of a hotheaded prince with a disregard for laws of inheritance and land transfer. Fortinbras the younger appears as a sort of amalgam of Hotspur and Hal, attended by the type of ragtag force assembled by Falstaff, trying to take by force lands which passed hands through a just and highly codified structure (one of "sealed compact," "article[s]," all "well ratified by law").
If we take Marcellus's "sit down" as a cue for an embedded stage direction, the action of the scene shifts from the hasty comings and goings of numerous characters (Barnardo, Francisco, Horatio, Marcellus) and the rapid-fire of one-line dialogue exchanges to a more visually static stage and a slower, complex narrative history an early modern audience was presumably meant to take in. What is striking about this lengthy political account is its explanatory function. The description of the conflict between Fortinbras and Hamlet (or, perhaps more properly speaking, between the Fortinbrases and the Hamlets, as the conflicts of the fathers descend to their heirs) is given in the immediate wake of the ghost's departure. It provides an explanation not only for the wider preparations for martial conflict, but for the ghost itself. (15)
The speech seems to be the continuation of a moment forty lines earlier, in which Barnardo tried to explain about the ghost to the newly arrived Horatio and Marcellus.
Barnardo: Sit down awhile, And let us once again assail your ears That are so fortified against our story What we have two nights seen. Horatio: Well, sit we down, And let us hear Barnardo speak of this. Barnardo: Last night of all, When yond same star that's westward from the pole, Had made his course t'illume that part of heaven Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself, The bell then beating one-- Enter Ghost. Marcellus: Peace, break thee off, look where it comes again. (1.1.29-39)
The exchange--one for which, this time, the participants are unquestionably seated--seeks to offer a measured, reasonable account of the sighting of the ghost, a figure that "harrows [its observers] with fear and wonder" (1.1.43). Barnardo begins his speech in the spirit of a deposition, clearly stating the time of the event (as measured both by the stars and the clock) and the witnesses. The report is interrupted by the ghost's return. Horatio's subsequent description of political events (quoted earlier) resumes the conversation, and Barnardo jumps back in to connect the dots: "Well may it sort that this portentous figure / Comes armed through our watch so like the King / That was and is the question of these wars" (1.1.108-10).
The appearance of the ghost is thus folded into an account of earthly territorial conflicts. The war over land provides a logic for the ghost's appearance; the underworld and the earthly world appear to be part of one political continuum. (16) Horatio says as much when he follows Bernardo's explanatory comment with his own offering of a supernatural/political precedent: "In the most high and palmy state of Rome, / A little ere the mightiest Julius fell, / The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets" (1.1.112-15). He further observes that these and other acts were "prologue to the omen coming on / Have heaven and earth together demonstrated" (1.1.122-23). That heaven and earth work in conjunction--or, in the case of the ghost, that purgatory and earth work in conjunction--seems to Horatio an acceptable explanation for the ghost. Horatio had, after all, been brought onto the scene precisely because of his initial skepticism about the ghost: Marcellus presents Horatio to the other watchmen (and to the theater audience) by announcing that
Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy And will not let belief take hold of him, Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us. Therefore I have entreated him along With us to watch the minutes of this night That if again this apparition come, He may approve our eyes and speak to it. (1.1.22-28)
Later, after the first encounter with the ghost, Barnardo triumphantly turns to Horatio, asking where his skepticism now lies.
Barnardo: How now, Horatio, you tremble and look pale. Is not this something more than fantasy? What think you on't? Horatio: Before my God, I might not this believe Without the sensible and true avouch Of mine own eyes. Marcellus: Is it not like the King? Horatio: As thou art to thyself. Such was the very armour he had on When he the ambitious Norway combated. So frowned he once, when in an angry parle He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice. (1.1.52-62)
Horatio's skepticism is initially pitted against the prospect of ocular proof; he is brought to the site of the ghost's appearance that he may "approve our eyes," as Marcellus put it. The proof offered by the "true avouch / Of [Horatio's] own eyes," however, pales in comparison to the political logic that explains the ghost's appearance. Appareled in his familiar armor, King Hamlet, even as a ghost, continues to participate in geopolitical affairs. The region of the netherworld thus becomes one more political space of the play, integrated into the vague geography in which Denmark, Norway, Poland, and England are close neighbors.
This cluster of countries was probably familiar to an early modern English audience. Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it became normative to view the earth from the side, to gaze at a form belted by the equator. But of course there is no determined "side" to a sphere, and other perspectives are equally legitimate, although they might now be disorienting to modern eyes. Thus, it is rather startling to find that Mercator's Atlas begins its discussion of the earth's regions by staring down on the world from above, looking directly at the top of the earth's imaginary axis. As John Gillies has demonstrated, Hamlet is a play that is informed by, and perhaps even directly conversant with, Mercator's Atlas. (17) Looking at this opening map, the one that corresponds with the description of the depicted countries, the affairs of Denmark, Poland, Norway, and England would appear to be of the utmost worldly importance. It is again a bit startling to our own geopolitical sensibilities to realize that, within the organization of Mercator's Atlas, England is grouped with these northern areas, rather than Continental Europe. (In the 1638 English edition, the countries are presented in this order: Iceland, England, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Russia, Poland....)
Yet another country becomes more visible when the earth is seen from this perspective: Iceland. When, as became customary in early modern cartography, the planet was cleaved in two along its axis and the hemispheres flayed for a comprehensive viewing of the earth, Iceland did not suffer a happy fate. While Iceland is comfortably whole (albeit folded in a page crease) in Mercator's vision of the north, in his dual hemisphere world map the county is shorn in two--one half clings to the western edge of the eastern hemisphere, while the other half clings to the eastern edge of the western hemisphere. In viewing the world in its entirety, Iceland appears so insignificant as to not invite concern about its undignified division. But in its home map, Iceland appears as more of a geopolitical player, as much a neighbor of Norway and England as, say, Poland.
Iceland long played an important role in the region's history of territorial contests and the waxing and waning of political powers. Prior to receding from the European political stage in the seventeenth century, Iceland was an important part of the territory that was controlled by the merging and diverging crowns of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, with the latter being the most enduring and influential. (18) Economically, though, in the fifteenth century the English dominated the country to such an extent that this period has been dubbed "the English century" in Icelandic historiography. (19) While in the sixteenth century the Germans supplanted the English (Hastrup, 137), the lure of a rich fish trade kept the English-Icelandic relationship highly active. Writing about Iceland in 1559, William Cuningham notes, "It is now much trauailed to of english me[n], & Danes." (20) Interest in Iceland was fuelled by an increasing number of travel reports which appeared at the end of the sixteenth century; Iceland also began appearing on European maps at this time, such as those by Ortelius [1590), Mercator (1595), and Hondius (1611) (Hastrup, 123).
One feature of Iceland's topographical landscape was of particular interest to the English public. We return to Mount Hecla, the volcano observed by the sailors on Henry Hudson's ship. This volcano was such an identifying topographical feature that it is visible even on the tiny bifurcated Iceland that appears on the dual-hemispheric opening map of the world in Mercator's Atlas. In the map of Iceland proper we clearly see Mount Hecla, "vel mons perpetuo ardens"--the mountain of perpetual burning, spewing fire and brimstone. The scene encompassing the volcano and the ship in the foreground could easily be used to illustrate the encounter of Henry Hudson's men with Mount Hecla. We can almost imagine the port side view from the ship, hidden from us, where slack-jawed sailors marvel at seeing an entrance to purgatory, intermingled with those who scoff at their belief, and with those who were not sure what to believe. (It is worth noting that the ship might not be engaged in exploration. With its guns a-blazing, it might be one of the insufficient number of Danish ships sent to protect the island from the North African pirates then roaming the North Atlantic.) (21) Indeed, this image of the ship and Mount Hecla serves well as an emblem of the argument I want to make about the status of purgatory in Hamlet, and, more broadly, about the ontological and epistemological position of purgatory for an English audience around 1600.
Mercator's map of Iceland epitomizes the coexistence of purgatory and empirical cartography. The inscription on Mount Hecla, "mons perpetuo ardens," seems to imply more than a geological fact, especially since the volcano was not perpetually burning. The perpetuity of the fire suggests an eschatological significance. Indeed, the Latin prose commentary accompanying the map reports the volcano's association with the dead, its reputation for "mak[ing] a great noise, which the inhabitants say is the howling and lamentation of soules." (22) This vivid and detailed pictorial depiction of a legendary entrance to purgatory or hell is found in close proximity to the map's scale, set off to the side. This is a modern map, one that flags its mathematical and geodetic precision, one that, in contradistinction to its medieval predecessors, has scored lines upon the face of the earth and sea. The ship and its population are thus floating between signs of cartographic accuracy and a picture of a renowned eschatological space.
Mount Hecla was a flashpoint in the discussions about the reality of purgatory and its purported geographical existence. Under Danish rule, Iceland had officially become Protestant in 1538. For subsequent Protestant bishops, the prominent existence of a volcano that was a reputed portal to purgatory or hell was an embarrassment. Thus Bishop Gudbrandur (who was also a geographer and the first Icelandic cartographer, whose map of Iceland was included in Ortelius's atlas) (23) commissioned Arngrimur Jonsson to write a corrective about the Icelandic geography. Arngrimur was a continentally trained humanist who published his writings about Iceland in Latin and clearly directed them towards an international audience; his "work was much admired in Denmark, and he was largely responsible for the growing antiquarian interest in old Icelandic literature, and for bringing Icelandic studies into the international scholarly arena" (Hastrup, 133). His Brevis Commentarius de Islandia (Copenhagen, 1593) is the text cited in Purchas his Pilgrim as evidence that Mount Hecla cannot be an infernal nether region of torment, based on the fact that the volcano did not throw forth any flames between 1558 to 1592. Similarly urged by the bishop, Arngrimur's contemporary Oddur Einarsson "was anxious to correct what he felt to be an unfavourable external impression of Iceland" (Hastrup, 215) and took up the issue of Mount Hecla's association with the afterlife in his natural history of Iceland, Islandslysing. Qualiscunque descriptio Islandiae (1589). "In spite of Oddur Einarsson's attempt to rehabilitate Hekla, however, it remained associated with Hell-fire for centuries. In Icelandic cartography of the period and well into the eighteenth century, Hekla looms large on both Icelandic and foreign maps, often appearing as the central feature of the island" (Hastrup, 215).
An excerpt of Arngrimur Jonsson's text was translated into English in the first volume of Richard Hakluyt's The principal nauigations, voyages, traffiques and discoueries of the English nation (London, 1599). Dismissing as poppycock the association of volcanoes with the supernatural, Arngrimur-via-Hakluyt writes,
is it possible therefore that [fierie mountaines] should seeme strange, or monstrous, whenas they proceed from naturall causes? What? Doe they any whit preuaile to establish that opinion concerning the hell of Island ...? For my part, I thinke it no way tolerable, that men should abuse these, and the like miracles of nature, to auouch absurdities, or, that they should with a kinde of impietie woonder at them, as at matters impossible. As though in these kindes of inflammations, there did not concurre causes of sufficient force for the same purpose. There is in the rootes of these mountaines a matter most apt to be set on fire, comming so neere as it doeth to the nature of brimstone and pitch. There is ayer also, which insinuating it selfe by passages, and holes, into the very bowels of the earth, doeth puffe vp the nourishment of so huge a fire, together with Salt-peter, by which puffing (as it were with certeine bellowes) a most ardent flame is kindled. For, all these thus concurring, fire hath those three things, which necessarily make it burne, that is to say, matter, motion, and force of making passage: matter which is fattie and moyst, and therefore nourisheth lasting flames: motion which the ayer doeth performe, being admitted into the caues of the earth: force of making passage, and that the inuincible might of fire itselfe ... doeth bring to passe.... (556-57)
Thus the phenomenon of the volcano is not a "matter impossible," but a "miracle of nature." Brimstone and pitch are not the materials of demonic torment, but natural agents in a (humorally understood) geological process, likened to the man-made tortuous instruments of contemporary warfare.
Such natural explanations for the flames of Mount Hecla must confront, however, a deep legacy of the place's association with purgatorial suffering. The fifth book of William Cuningham's The cosmographical glasse conteinyng the pleasant principles of cosmographie, geographie, hydrographie, or nauigation (London, 1559), "in whiche the partes of th'Earthe, perticulerlye (according to the late obseruations of Cosmographers in oure age) are exactlye described. With the Longitudes and Latitudes of Regions," provides an analysis of Iceland in these scientific terms, and then notes: "Rou[n]de about this Ila[n]d, for the space of 6. or 7. mo[n]thes, th'Ise swimmeth, making a miserable sound, & noise, so that th'inhabitauntes suppose that in the mount Hecla, & in this Ise, the soules of men & women, are tormented" (176). Purchas quotes Olaus Magnus who "obserued, that this ice was violently cast against the Rockes by force of the winds, and so made a mournfull sound afarre off, as if miserable howlings were heard there. Hereupon the Islanders thinke the soules of the damned are tormented in this Ice" (649). Arngrimur, translated in Hakluyt, similarly writes, "But round about the Iland, for the space of 7. or 8. moneths in a yere there floateth ise, making a miserable kind of mone, and not vnlike to mans voice, by reason of the clashing together. The inhabitants are of opinion that in mount Hecla and in the ise, there are places wherein the soules of their countreymen are tormented" (562). In addition to the claims of the inhabitants, the Icelandic "historiographers" also claim "that, both in the Isle, and in mount Hecla we appoint certain places, wherein the soules of our countrimen are tormented" (563). Arngrfmur argues that the sounds of the shifting ice do not resemble mens voices, and falls back upon standard Protestant arguments against purgatory (563). After having reported accounts of the tormented souls of Hecla appearing to their friends, however, the dismissal of the topic feels weak and pro forma. The effect of rational explanations for Mount Hecla's howling souls was often, perhaps, merely the perpetuation and further dissemination of the tales of infernal activity.
It could be that the tales of Hecla's moaning and wailing souls were just too inherently fascinating to be countered with reason. In a popular late seventeenth-century dictionary, these sounds have become part of the pithy definition of the place: "Hecla, a Mountain in Iseland sending forth a noise like the cries of to[r]mented persons." (24) The underground cries, while often explained away as the noise of shifting ice, and the sightings of ghosts seem to become afforded the status of fact in some cases. Gabriel Richardson describes "Hecla, feareful with apparitions of dead men, nourishing the opinion of Popish Purgatory." (25) The factuality of the apparitions themselves does not seem to be questioned; the author merely disapproves that they are used to further the notion of purgatory.
In Mount Hecla, religious and scientific conversations intersected. The description of the volcano in Mercator's Atlas intermeshed discourses of cartography, natural philosophy, demonology, and fantasy (46). And Johannes Kepler (an ardent Lutheran) chose to open his allegorical lunar geography, Somnium, sive Astronomia Lunaris (1634; written 1609), in Iceland. The frame narrator falls asleep, and dreams he is reading a book which begins, "My name is Duracotus. My home is Iceland, which the ancients called Thule." (26) Kepler wrote the extensive notes for the text himself, and they reveal a sense of geography that reflects Mercator's depiction of the northern world, with Iceland, Scotland, England, Norway, and Denmark huddled together in a tight region. Kepler also states in his notes that he chose Iceland as the setting because he "saw in this truly remote island a place where I might sleep and dream and thus imitate the philosophers in this kind of writing" (87), but "[i]t was not, however, because of the islands that Plutarch named in the Icelandic Ocean that I chose Iceland for the hypothesis of my Dream. One reason, among others, was that at that time there was on sale, in Prague, Lucian's book about the trip to the moon ... along with stories of St. Brendan and St. Patrick's purgatory in the subterranean regions of Iceland's volcanic Mount Hekla" (88). (The absorption of the Irish St. Patrick's purgatory within Mount Hecla suggests that the volcano was becoming the preeminent northern purgatorial site; a Dutch tract makes a similar association of the two places.) (27) More generally, Kepler sources his information thus: "The history of Mount Hekla, the volcano, is known from maps and geography books" (91). Iceland was associated with exploration; it was the hub for those searching a northern passage, and had also served as the destination of Columbus's trial run before he braved the voyage west to the Americas (Lear, 47). As Kepler's modern editor John Lear notes, "Altogether, it would have been difficult to choose a more logical place than Iceland from which to launch a scientific expedition to explore beyond the earth" (48).
A similar instance of the scientific encountering the philosophical at Mount Hecla is found again in Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. In his section "Digression of Air" in the second part of the book, "Cure of Melancholy," the authorial voice of Democritus Junior imagines himself as a long-winged hawk, floating and swooping above the earth, providing an overview of the geography of the entire planet, and wondering about its many natural features. He wonders about the earth's topography, and about what lies beneath its surface. "If it be solid earth, 'tis the fountain of metals, waters, which by his innate temper turns air into water, which springs up in several chinks, to moisten the earth's superficies.... Or else it may be full of wind, or a sulphureous innate fire, as our meteorologists inform us, which sometimes breaking out, causeth those horrible earthquakes" (319). In order to find out for himself, "I would have a convenient place to go down with Orpheus, Ulysses, Hercules, Lucian's Menippus, at St. Patrick's purgatory, at Trophonius' den, Hecla in Iceland, AEtna in Sicily, to descend and see what is done in the bowels of the earth: do stones and metals grow there still?" (317). This sentence brilliantly synthesizes the convergence of the mythological, the theological, and the scientific. Democritus Junior's desire is that of modern inquiry, to understand the geological composition of the earth and to examine its stones and metals. The imagined means of achieving this knowledge, however, is to become a figure of classical mythology who can descend into one of the known portals of the Christian afterlife.
Mount Hecla, then, was a prominent site on early modern cartographic representations of the northern world, and was also an important location on the popular geography of the imagination. The arrival of Iceland on European maps in the 1590s, the dissemination of Icelandic natural histories, and the island's exotic and vivid volcanic features made it a point of interest for natural philosophers. (28) Mount Hecla's ancient association with hell and purgatory made it a subject of interest for theologians and poets in a period when the reality of purgatory was still a matter of heated dispute. And Mount Hecla's fame was probably not only the result of theological tracts and scientific curiosity, but the consequence of heavy sea traffic between England and Iceland (a country supplying the English not only with fish, but with the sulfur necessary for making gunpowder). The sailors and fishermen surely told travelers' tales upon their return, and perhaps to companions for whom the status of purgatory was a lively concern.
The question about the netherworld in Hamlet is not simply, "is it, or is it not?" The question is also, "if so, where?" Hamlet, famously, is obsessed with the geography of death, with the burial of the body, with the thinness of the line between the ontological states of the living and the dead. Concerns about the place of Ophelia's burial, for instance, are not just questions about real estate, or about the morality of suicide, or about the ability of wealth and privilege to override canon law. The scenes at Ophelia's grave, with their insistent earthiness, interrogate in immediate sensory ways the relationship of the material body to death. And the more emphatic the sense of bodily decay (Ophelia's, Yorrick's, Alexander the Great's) the more the play questions not just the whereabouts of flesh-turned-clay, but also the whereabouts of the soul. Where is Ophelia now? Where is Yorick? Where is Hamlet's father?
While these questions are the subject of abstract philosophical meditations, they are also subjected to the pressures of literalism. Greenblatt writes that "[t]he desperate impatience that Hamlet expresses is to know why the Ghost has returned, not whence it has returned" (238). But the "whence"--and the "where"--of the Ghost are issues of both performative and conceptual import for the play. As de Grazia points out, the play insistently identifies the floor of the stage as "here," the "here" of Denmark (36). The spatial interplay of the Danish here and a purgatorial hereafter are dramatically represented in the swearing scene. "When underground, occupying the region theatrical tradition continued to reserve for devils, the Ghost falls into the ranks of the damned and diabolic" (41). Yet, as would be visible in performance, the actors running around on the top of the stage trying to locate the "old mole," and the actor presumably running around under the stage--with only thin panels separating him from the groundlings (42)--are in close physical proximity. The scene stages a dizzying set of spatial relations: the bodies of human actors above and below a stage; the armored, material body of a dead father under the earth his son stands upon; a spirit imprisoned in a distant eschatological space.
Where is this eschatological space? If he is returning from an actual, geographical purgatorial space, there would have been three dominant popular possibilities for this location: St. Patrick's purgatory in Ireland, Mount AEtna in Sicily, and Mount Hecla in Iceland, all renowned entrances to the afterworld. Hamlet does specifically mention St. Patrick. After his private encounter with the ghost, in which he learns of his father's murder, Hamlet is joined again by Horatio and Marcellus. They beseech him to say what he has learned, but Hamlet is reluctant to repeat the ghost's message for fear that his friends will reveal it. After securing a promise of discretion, Hamlet begins to tell the tale: "There's never a villain dwelling in all Denmark / But he's an arrant knave" (1.5.122-23). As Harold Jenkins glosses the line, "The disclosure which Hamlet was apparently about to make he suddenly turns into a jest." (29) Actually, the statement both is and is not a jest; thinking of Claudius, it is truth to Hamlet, but in its generality it becomes a witticism. The line marks a pivot from the chilling seriousness of the conversation with the Ghost to the double entendres that mark Hamlet's "antic disposition" which he "puts on" a bit later in the scene (1.5.170).
Horatio: These are but wild and whirling words, my lord. Hamlet: I am sorry they offend you--heartily, Yes, faith, heartily. Horatio: There's no offence, my lord. Hamlet: Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio, And much offence too. Touching this vision here, It is an honest ghost--that let me tell you. (1.5.132-37)
The invocation of St. Patrick partakes in the verbal dualism of the scene. Horatio's casual "There's no offence" is met by Hamlet's assertion that there is indeed an offence--namely, the unrevealed fratricidal murder of his father. "By Saint Patrick" partakes in the double registers at work here, serving at once as a formulaic idiom and as a deeply significant local reference. (30) It is just shortly after this exchange that the ghost once again makes his presence known from below, with his imperative "Swear" (1.5.149). Hamlet responds in a jocund way: "Art thou there, truepenny? / Come on, you hear this fellow in the cellarage?" (1.5.150-51); "Well said, old mole, canst work i'th'earth so fast?" (1.5.161). The scene's repeated sense of "dwelling" (in the cellarage; in a mole tunnel) positions St. Patrick's purgatory as a possible home for the ghost. The "by" in "by Saint Patrick," in a play so concerned about the precise whereabouts of the dead, could also function as a spatial preposition. And yet, the reference, as so much of the language in this scene, simultaneously suggests truth and jest, since, as Greenblatt notes, "For later Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, the pilgrimage site in Ulster had become part of a repertory of Irish jokes"; St. Patrick's purgatory was "a standing joke for Protestants" (99). We seem to be informed of the ghost's whereabouts in purgatory even as we are reminded that there is no such thing.
If the Ghost is not in St. Patrick's purgatory, might we look to Mount Aetna? We note Hamlet's line, "my imaginations are as foul / As Vulcan's stithy" (3.2.79-80). While there are scattered references to Vulcan in Shakespeare's plays, this is the one instance in which the god is associated with his underground workplace. ("Stithy": a forge, smithy OED 3; Hamlet's line is the first example the OED cites for this word.) Thompson and Taylor gloss the line thus: "The workshop or forge of Vulcan, the blacksmith-god; it was reputedly situated underneath Mount Etna and hence associated with the notion of hell" (302n). The reference to Vulcan's underground workshop carries through a visual image from the players' speech about Pyrrus in act 2. There, "the hellish Pyrrhus" (2.2.401) appears almost as a devil, with "sable arms," "Black as his purpose," with a "dread and black complexion," "Roasted in wrath and fire" (2.2.390, 391, 393, 399). Pyrrhus finds himself in an Ilium with a "flaming top" (2.2.413), in which "vengeance sets him new a-work" as did "the Cyclops' hammers fall / On Mars's armour" (2.2.426, 427-28)--the Cyclopes being Vulcan's laborers. (In Peter Heylyn's Mikrokosmos [Oxford, 1625], we read that people "suppose [Mount Aetna] to be the shoppe of Vulcan, and the Cyclops; the grosse Papists hold therein to be purgatory" .) The invocation of Vulcan here might be specific to Mount Aetna, but it could also be tied more generally to the neologism "Volcano." The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first English usage from Purchas ("1613 PURCHAS Pilgr. VIII. xiv. 686 A Vulcano or flaming hill, the fire whereof may be seene..aboue 100 miles"), but the word also appears in John Florio's Italian-English dictionary of 1598 ("a hill that continually burneth and casteth out flame and smoke"). (31) A volcano very much in evidence in Shakespeare's part of the world in the late 1590s was not Mount Aetna so much as Mount Hecla, which erupted for six straight months in 1597. (32) By the mid-seventeenth century, Robert Boyle is writing simply of "the famous Volcan-Hecla, in Island." (33)
Contemporaries repeatedly equate Mount Aetna and Mount Hecla. (34) The cultural popularity of Mount Hecla as a northern alternative to Mount Aetna is illustrated in a song by Thomas Weelkes, one of England's most famed composers of madrigals. In 1600, Weelkes published a collection that included "Thule, the Period of Cosmographie," the first part of which goes as follows:
Thule, the period of cosmographie, (35) Doth vaunt of Hecla whose sulphureous fire Doth melt the Dozen clime and thaw the sky; Trinacrian Etna's flames ascend not higher. These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I, Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.
(The author of the text of "Thule" is unknown, but "[so] many texts Weelkes set echo Shakespeare that some people suggest the two men collaborated." (36) The volcano here marks a convergence of geographic and Petrarchan discourses, providing a northern orientation for the "I" caught in the purgatory of love. While the Petrarchism is hardly unique, what is of interest here is the way in which Hecla is positioned as a northern counterpart to the famed Sicilian landmark ("Trinacrian": Of Sicily; Sicilian. OED). While the two volcanoes are typically identified as being parallel, in the madrigal they are positioned almost as rivals; Thule "vaunts" of Hecla, and positions it in a comparative context ("Etna's flames ascend not higher"). The madrigal implies that the Sicilians could keep their purgatory, thank you very much; the north had its own. As Mary Floyd-Wilson has discussed, the English sense of self-identity was very much dependent upon their "frozen clime": "England's northern climate and the English people's northern status colored their perspective on everything from fashion to medicine to politics." (37) Hamlet is definitively a northern play, taking place in a space that is "very cold" (1.4.1), even "bitter cold" (1.1.6). It is thus fitting for the northern purgatory to be located in the frozen country of Iceland, rather than the Mediterranean climes of Sicily.
The ghost of Hamlet pere appears dressed for the weather of a northern purgatory, wearing "the very armour he had on / When ... He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice" (1.1.59-60, 62). (38) His appearance in armor also invokes another association of Mount Hecla. In a sixteenth-century tract, we read that there "are particular Purgatories, assigned vnto them for some special cause." (39) Mount Hecla's assignation appears to be military deaths. We read in Purchas: "The common people thinke the soules of the damned to be tormented here: it is certayne that diuers and horrible spirits are obserued in this Mountayne and about it; for if a Battaile be fought in any place, the Islanders, especially they that sayle and fish in the Sea neere to Hecla, know the day of the Battaile fought, although they know not where it be done: for they see (as they report) wicked spirits going forth, and returning, and bringing soules with them" (648). While Hamlet's father did not die in battle, the repeated references to armor, and what we know of the other characters' memories of him, identify him as a martial leader.
In Veron's The Huntinge of Purgatorye, we read again that different purported entrances to purgatory were associated with different types of deaths and manifestations of spirits. Here, though, Mount Hecla is the purgatory for those who were murdered:
[O]f the pyt of Islond, that is to saie: how that there be spirites that offer the[m]selues visible vnto men, for to do the[m] seruice: In that place, they see visions of those, that haue ben drouned, or slayne by some other violente death, which shew them selues before men of their acquayntaunce, in so much that they, that know nothinge of their death, do thinke verely, that they be ye very persones their selues, and ye[t] they see them before their eies: wherby it cometh to passe, that some times they go about to take them by the hande, perceyuinge not that they be visions, tyll they see them too vanishe awaye before their owne faces. (sig. Z1r-v)
The phrase "that know nothinge of their death" here is ambiguous; do these spirits reveal themselves to men who do not know that they are dead, or, more intriguingly, does the phrase apply to "slayne by some other violente death," meaning that people do not know of the murder? In either case, the homicidal conditions of Old Hamlet's death make this Icelandic volcano his appropriate post-mortem abode.
Within the play, we find lines suggestive of a northern location. We find the anatopism of Claudius's comment to Gertrude in the wake of Polonius's murder: "The sun no sooner shall the mountains touch / But we will ship [Hamlet] hence" (4.1.29-30). Denmark, of course, has no mountains. ("Hence" intriguingly also meaning "from this world, from this life" or "elsewhere (than in this world); in the next world. Obs." [OED, "hence," adv. def. 3 and 3b]). Ophelia conjures images of snow-capped mountains with her song, "White his shroud as the mountain snow" (4.5.36). (The coexistence of snow and fire in Iceland's volcanoes was a recurrent topic of interest within the period.) The Ghost's lament, "My hour is almost come / When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames / Must render up myself" (1.5.2-4), may seem generic enough, except that contemporary commentaries on Mount Hecla repeatedly emphasize that the volcano is an important regional source of sulfur (also known as brimstone, a substance of Biblical as well as worldly import, as it was a key ingredient in gunpowder). And, in a play that repeatedly invokes geographical direction (the "star that's westward from the pole" [1.1.35], "yon high eastward hill" [1.1.166], "this heavy-headed revel east and west" [1.4.17]), Hamlet's exclamation that he is "but mad north-north-west" (2.2.315) employs the directions of a compass. This reference has seemed to baffle editors of the play, (40) but we might pose a simple question of geography: what is north-north-west of where Hamlet stands in Denmark? Iceland. And what is in Iceland that would make him mad? Mount Hecla, the site of purgatory for murder victims, including those who were secretly murdered by brothers who then proceed to wallow in "a couch for luxury and damned incest" (1.5.83) with the dead man's wife--the site, presumably, where Hamlet's father is being subjected to tortures so horrible they cannot even be told (1.5.14-20). Cause for madness (and anger), indeed.
More generally, contemporary descriptions of Iceland nearly always identify it as a protectorate of Denmark. To an English audience with even a vague sense of their place on the map, there might well have been a sense of being sandwiched between Danish territory, with Denmark to the northeast and Iceland to the northwest. And a Danish Iceland was home to one of the most studied and debated possible entrances to the afterlife. If a Danish king is sent to purgatory--the nearness of which is dramatically indicated by the ghostly voice emanating from underground--to which other purgatory would he go, if not Mount Hecla? After all, he owns it. ("Island called of Ptollo. Thyle, is an Ilan[n]de suiecte to the king of Denmarke"; "This Island being subject to the Danish Crown, is govern'd by a particular Vice-Roy, sent thither by the King of Denmark.") (41)
The co-existence of purgatory and the court at Denmark is suggested throughout the play. The Folio's line of "Denmark's a prison" (Arden 3, p. 466) powerfully aligns the space of Denmark with the space of purgatory, given that the Ghost lives in a "prison-house" (1.5.14). The imagined and real soundscape of the play also perhaps holds purgatorial allusions. For a play that has no actual battles, Hamlet is full of cannons; they are being made or purchased (1.1.72), shot off as part of the king's drinking sprees (1.2.126), used as a metaphor for rumor (4.1.42), and used as part of wordplay (5.2.141). (Additionally, there is the homophone of "canon" [1.2.132, 1.4.47].) The play calls attention to this soundscape when, after Q2's stage direction "A flourish of trumpets and two pieces goes off," Horatio questions, "What does this mean, my lord?" (1.4.6), and learns that it signifies that the king "[k]eeps wassail" (1.4.9). Details like the cannon fire that accompanies Claudius's drinking binges have been ascribed to a bit of Danish local color, but perhaps the locale they evoke lies elsewhere. (42) The Icelandic volcanoes, and Mount Hecla in particular, are repeatedly associated with cannons and gunfire. Arngrimur-via-Hakluyt (Hakluyt, perhaps not incidentally, being an author with whom Shakespeare appears to have been familiar (43)) describes an eruption of Mount Hecla: "and so (euen as in vndermining trenches, and engines or great warrelike ordinance, huge yron bullets are cast foorth with monstrous roaring, and cracking, by the force of kindled Brimstone, and Salt-peeter, whereof Gunne-powder is compounded) chingle and great stones being skorched in that fiery gulfe, as it were in a furnace, together with abundance of sande and ashes, are vomited vp and discharged" (556-57). Similar examples abound in contemporary literature. (44) The sound of cannons in Hamlet may very well create an auditory allusion to volcanoes. The effect is that purgatory is at once over there and right here, a phantasm and physically real.
Most importantly, the specter of Mount Hecla haunts the graveyard scene. In a notoriously complex and powerful theatrical moment, Laertes and Hamlet confront each other at the grave of the dead Ophelia. In a moment that breaks a series of taboos--of decorum, of respect for the dead, of expressing incestuous desire--Laertes leaps into Ophelia's grave. In the original staging, he seems to have jumped into a depression created by the lowering of the trap door.
Laertes: O, treble woe Fall ten times double on that cursed head Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense Deprived thee of. Hold off the earth awhile, Till I have caught her once more in mine arms. Leaps in the grave. Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead Till of this flat a mountain you have made T'o'ertop old Pelion or the skyish head Of blue Olympus. (5.1.235-43)
The imperative to the graveside attendants ("Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead") is a suicidal death wish in a play where young people contemplate, threaten, or commit suicide (Hamlet, Horatio, Ophelia). Laertes fantasizes about being buried alive, and his choice of referents (the mountains Pelion and Olympus) transpose the pathetic scene of yet another hugger-mugger, imperfect funeral rite into mythic terms and proportions. (In Greek mythology, in the war with the gods the giants piled Pelion on top of the mountain Ossa in order to reach the home of the gods, Mount Olympus [Jenkins, 390n].) In the stage direction for the first quarto, "Hamlet leapes in after Laertes." While this action might be contested, (45) Hamlet undoubtedly verbally leaps in after Laertes, following his metaphoric lead only to surpass him:
Hamlet: 'Swounds, show me what thou'it do. Woul't weep, woul't fight, woul't fast, woul't tear thyself, Woul't drink up eisel, eat a crocodile? I'll do't. Dost come here to whine, To outface me with leaping in her grave? Be buried quick with her, and so will I. And if thou prate of mountains, let them throw Millions of acres on us till our ground, Singeing his pate against the burning zone, Make Ossa like a wart. (5.1.263-72)
Hamlet counters Laertes' "pile your dust upon the quick and dead" with the assertion that they shall both be "buried quick" with the dead Ophelia. And Laertes' mountains shall be outdone by Hamlet's "millions of acres," an accumulation that leads to the top of the mountain touching the "burning zone." Jenkins has glossed this reference thus: "that part of the celestial sphere within which the sun supposedly moves, corresponding to the tropical zone on earth" (392n).
The cosmological resonance might well be there, but it is overpowered by the emphatic earthiness of the scene as a whole. De Grazia writes, "In the graveyard scene, everything--props, dialogue, gesture--combines to convert the floorboards to elemental earth.... Everything in 5.1. is focused on that little patch of recessed ground that at the Globe would have been indicated by the open trap, the 5' x 2' rectangle at the center rear of the stage floor" (37, 129). Throughout the play, the stage floor has been referenced as Danish soil (36-37), and discussions of land ownership seem to become concentrated at Ophelia's grave. The banter between Hamlet and the gravedigger not only signifies the materiality of the earth through the action of digging with a shovel and chucking around human remains found in the dirt, but also in the constant references to the legal mechanisms of landownership, down to the tanner's hide, associated both with the parchment upon which contracts are written and units in which land was measured (the Anglo-Saxon "hide"). (46) Even in his frenzied mountain-building fantasy, Hamlet is thinking in specifically geodetic terms, "millions of acres," although the hugeness of the number is one that admittedly would challenge an early modern surveyor's skills.
The imagery here is particularly intense, perhaps because the images do not serve an analogical purpose, as is typically the case in Shakespearean plays. Instead, Laertes and Hamlet co-create an imagined environment that they inhabit from within. They imagine themselves--with their feet quite possibly still within the lowered region of the stage that was earlier inhabited by a spirit in purgatory--inside the base of a massive mountain, one with a burning top. They imagine themselves into the space of Vulcan's stithy, a space alluded to earlier in the play. They imagine themselves, it would seem, into Mount Hecla--"the hel of Island, shut vp within the botome of one mountaine" (Hakluyt, 562).
This scene, in many ways the emotionally climactic one of the play, is part of a broader spatial dynamic. Hamlet begins with inward movement, of people moving towards Elsinore. Hamlet has come home from Wittenberg; Fortinbras's army is about to invade; the Ghost returns from purgatory; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive from Wittenberg; the players come to the castle. But then the play turns to an outward movement, of people moving away. Laertes goes to Paris; Fortinbras is only passing through on his way to Poland; the Ghost recedes; the players go away; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern depart for England. As does Hamlet. Hamlet's ostensible errand to England, to collect tribute money (3.1.169; 5.2.39), puts him in the position of Hamlet the Dane, heir to the Danish throne, traveling through his empire, an empire in which Iceland would have been in the same political category as England, part of the Danish territory of conquest. For the rest of the play, the geographic horizons seem to expand. Hamlet's encounter with pirates is part of traveling in the North Atlantic (even if anachronistically). His inky cloak is traded for his sea-faring clothes. Instead of messengers arriving with news, sailors do the job. As part of this expansion, the Ghost, once so spatially near, drifts off. But in imagining himself inside of a mountain for the dead that bears an uncanny resemblance to Mount Hecla, Hamlet seems to have followed him after all.
As Greenblatt notes, representing purgatory on the Elizabethan stage would have been politically dangerous, given that Protestant reformers were trying to shut down the doctrine and the locale, and given that officials were wary of perceived Catholic sympathizers. That said, Hamlet almost, but not quite, represents purgatory through "a network of allusions: 'for a certain term,' 'burned and purged away,' 'Yes, by Saint Patrick,' 'hic et ubique'" (237). We can refine this position even further by considering which variety of purgatory Hamlet seems to represent. As we have seen, purgatory was not just an abstract theological concept, but a space associated with particular geographic locations. It was a feature not only of the psychological landscape, but of the actual landscape--even if it was subjected to the oppositional pressures of skepticism and empiricism. So, is Hamlet's purgatory that of Mount Hecla? In a definitive sense, no. The place is never named. (47) But in a suggestive sense that integrates with the general geography of the play, I would say yes.
What are the consequences--for reading Hamlet, for appreciating the dynamics of theater, for understanding the place of purgatory in early modern England--of identifying Mount Hecla as the locus of Hamlet's purgatory? Most basically, it provides another layer for comprehending the historicity of the play's spatial dynamics. Recognizing the cultural significance of Mount Hecla and Iceland at the turn of the seventeenth century helps us to better understand the play's northern geography and the implications of that setting. But more particularly, it brings our attention to the staging of the supernatural, and suggests how inhabiting a supernatural geography may have been experienced and understood by some of Shakespeare's audience. If the site of purgatory that lurks behind the play is Mount Hecla, we find multiple relationships of the immaterial and the material. Mount Hecla is a distant volcano in Iceland, and yet very present; the locus of the Ghost under the stage, and the imagined space of Ophelia's grave. This play on shifting and overlapping geographical referents is itself a hallmark of the early modern theater; theatrical double vision was an important part of the spatial dynamics of the early modern stage.
Dramatists frequently called attention to the engagement of multiple, simultaneous spatial frames. Russell West considers dramatic moments in which Jacobean plays invoked the theaters' urban setting of contemporary London. For instance, the reference to a real-life tavern near the Globe in Twelfth Night creates a situation in which "the fictional place of the tale and the real context of performance are superimposed upon each other, to the point where the boundary between the two threatens to dissolve." (48) West argues that
[t]he Jacobean stage thus produces an overlapping of two modes of spatial reference, a sort of 'double consciousness' encompassing normally mutually exclusive modes of representation (referential and fictional). The spectators are obliged to participate in a form of double vision, being simultaneously conscious of the fictional world as an intact entity convincing enough to displace the real, and of the stage as a manifestly limited performance space which butts up against other spaces, those of the audience, and of the position of the theatre in a real quarter of London. (43-44)
The theater's self-referential invocation of the space of London is one form of double vision. Within Shakespearean drama we often find another spatial doubling, one in which actual locations are coupled with fantasy spaces. Francois Laroque studies this dynamic in an essay that employs a dizzying range of visual analogies:
So, real geography in Shakespeare often seems to be paired with a kind of imaginary twin or double place: the city of Verona and the forest in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Athens and the wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the court and the forest of Arden in As You Like It or Venice and Belmont in The Merchant of Venice.... [The geographical couplings] work as a kind of trompe l'oeil ... provid[ing] the spectator with a perspective effect, or anamorphosis, when the place changes or dissolves into another as in a masque.... This palimpsest-like geography, which superimposes stratum upon stratum, meaning upon meaning, with further associations provided by puns, echoes and correspondences, combines the classical, the medieval and the early modern in a constellation of routes leading to no particular place or centre.... In this way, Shakespeare's European maps take us into the heartland of fantasy. They lead us to a number of vague territories or forests where fairies, witches, hungry bears, rich heiresses with a golden fleece or magic handkerchiefs are just so many signs that history is always interspersed with fabula and real topography with fantasy. (197, 218-19)
From trompe l'oeil to anamorphis to palimpsest: these all provide various ways for using the language of the two-dimensional visual arts to express an art that not only represents space, but is itself spatial.
Hamlet dramatizes a supernatural environment which doesn't consider eschatological spaces as carefully distinct and bounded from chthonic ones: in the graveyard scene, Hamlet and Laertes are fleetingly in purgatory just as much as they are in Denmark. Depending upon one's beliefs, this duality can be seen either in West's terms or Laroque's. If one held a belief in the material reality of purgatory, then "fictional and real locality are condensed so as to refer simultaneously to two ostensibly mutually exclusive levels of spatial location." If, however, one held purgatory to be a fable, then we find the interspersion of "real topography with fantasy." Either of these dualities participates in the representational dynamics of Mount Hecla's purgatory. As it was associated with Mount Hecla, purgatory held an ontological status that was at once insistently material and emphatically immaterial. Mount Hecla was composed of rock and brimstone, but was also associated with fable. It was a point on the map and part of an ecclesiastical fiction. It was a mountain and the home of ethereal souls.
Recognizing the geographical specificity attached to discussions of purgatory enables us to further reconsider its role on the stage, and indeed of the theater's representation of supernatural geographies more broadly. If we see purgatory as a "fable" (pace Greenblatt pace Tyndale), then the theater, in its traffic in fantasy and illusion, becomes itself a vehicle for conveying a doctrine that has been evacuated and fictionalized. If, however, we see purgatory as both fabulous and real, as both the stuff of story and a site of hard materiality--seeing purgatory as Mount Hecla appears on maps of Iceland, with hellfires burning next to a navigator's compass--then the staging of purgatorial space becomes something altogether different. The stage is not a site for pointing up defunct religious beliefs, but a site in which the complexities of supernatural space can be better portrayed than in any other artistic medium. The inherent nature of the theater, with its constant invitation to see and not see, to see actors' bodies and great kings, to see a wooden O as well as bloody battles, lends itself to the depiction of an early modern supernatural geography. This depiction is not purely representative, but suggests how a supernatural environment might have been experienced and inhabited off stage as well.
This essay is an abridged version of chapter three of my forthcoming book, Supernatural Environments in Shakespeare's England: Spaces of Demonism, Divinity, and Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). I am grateful to the members of my writing group who workshopped that chapter, especially Katherine Rowe, Lauren Shohet, Matt Kuzukso, Claire Busse, Alice Dailey, Jane Hedley, and especially Nora Johnson.
(1.) Cited in Dion Boucicault, "Shakspere's Influence on the Drama," The North American Review 147.385 (1888): 46.
(2.) I am adapting the notion of the palimpsest that Jonathan Gil Harris has so brilliantly deployed in his analysis of early modern time to a reading of early modern space; see Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), asp. 13-19.
(3.) For a fuller discussion of this topic, see the epilogue of my forthcoming Supernatural Environments.
(4.) This chapter has been influenced by Peter Marshall's essay " 'The map of God's word': geographies of the afterlife in Tudor and early Stuart England," in Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall, eds., The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 110-30.
(5.) Joseph Glanvill, A Blow at Modern Sadducism in some Philosophical Considerations about Witchraft (London, 1668), 115. Cited in Philip C. Almond, Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 35.
(6.) Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York: Empire State Book Co., 1924), 318-19.
(7.) For a synopsis of Swinden's argument, see Almond, 125-26. For an early discussion about how the lack of space disproves an intra-terrestrial purgatory, see William Fulke, Two Treatises written against the Papistes (London, 1577), 50.
(8.) Thomas White, The Middle State of Souls. From the hour of death to the Day of Judgment (London, 1659), 3. Cited in Philip C. Almond, Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 72.
(9.) John Frith, A Disputation of Purgatorye (Antwerp, 1531), sig. b5"
(10.) Margreta de Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
(11.) Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). Greenblatt's touchstone for the label of "a poet's fable" (35) is a quote from William Tyndale's An Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1850), 143. Greenblatt's theological positioning of the play, in which "a young man from Wittenberg, with a distinctly Protestant temperament, is haunted by a distinctly Catholic ghost" (240), seems the most appropriate to me.
(12.) Kirsten Hastrup, Nature and Policy in Iceland 1400-1800: An Anthropological Analysis of History and Mentality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 273.
(13.) Samuel Purchas, Purchas his pilgrimage, or Relations of the vvorld and the religions obserued in al ages and places discouered (London, 1617), 924. "Hecla" is here spelled "Heela," but this must be a typesetter's error; elsewhere in the text "Hecla" is used. "Hekla" is a variant, and the form most commonly used today. I am using "Hecla" as it was the more common early modern form.
(14.) This and all subsequent references to the text are from Ann Thompson and Nail Taylor, eds., Hamlet, The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series (London: Thomson Learning, 2006).
(15.) For a quick summary of pre-new historicist explanations of the ghost, see Harry Morris, Last Things in Shakespeare (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1985), 19n.
(16.) Here I strongly disagree with the note of Thompson and Taylor: "It seems curious that the men, in all three texts, seem to recover from the shock of seeing the Ghost and move so quickly to the indirectly related topic of Denmark's preparations for war, though this preoccupation makes the Ghost's reappearance more effective" (155n). Old Hamlet, after all, "was and is the question of these wars" (1.1.110).
(17.) John Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 87-91.
(18.) Gunnar Karlsson, Iceland's 1100 Years: The History of a Marginal Society (London: Hurst and Co., 2000), 127. For a thumbnail sketch of the political transformations, see Hastrup, 31-32, 116-17.
(19.) Karlsson attributes the phrase to the Icelandic history Bjorn porsteinsson's dissertation from 1970 (118).
(20.) William Cuningham, The cosmographical glasse conteinyng the pleasant priniciples of cosmographie, geographie, hydrographie, or nauigation (London, 1559), 176.
(21.) In a single raid in 1627, pirates abducted 410 Icelanders, or about 0.75% of the total population. The prisoners were taken to Algeria, where they were enslaved awaiting ransom from Denmark and other European nations. Ten years later, twenty-seven of the captives managed to return to Iceland (Karlsson, 143-45,147).
(22.) I have used the Latin edition for the images, as it is most readily available to me as an original archival text. I am using the English translation of the original Latin for the text, however; here Gerhard Mercator, Atlas or a geographicke description of the regions, countries and kingdomes of the world (Amsterdam, 1636); 46.
(23.) Hastrup, 266, with a reproduction of the map.
(24.) Elisha Coles, An English Dictionary explaining the difficult terms that are used in divinity, husbandry, physic, phylosophy, law, navigation, mathematicks, and other arts and sciences (London, 1677), sig. Q4".
(25.) Of the state of Europe. XIIII. Books (London, 1627), 39.
(26.) John Lear, ed. mid intro., Kepler's Dream, trans. Patricia Frueh Kirkwood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965), 87-89.
(27.) Philips van Marnix van St. Aldegonde, trans. George Gilpin, in a discussion of purgatory and the souls of dead men in fish, writes, "That S. Patriks purgatorie in Ireland, lies fast by the sea side, neare vnto a mountaine called Hecla, where our mother the holie Church of Rome doeth beleeue, that the sillie soules are as ill punished in yse, as in fire" (The bee hiue of the Romishe Church , 146v).
(28.) Karlsson writes that "geographical literature was popular in sixteenth-century Europe, and Iceland, with its extraordinary natural features, of course became one of its favoured subjects" (157). Sebastian Munster's Cosmographie Universalis (Basle, 1550), for instance, contains a depiction of Mount Hecla in eruption; this text went through multiple editions from 1550 to 1614 and appeared in Latin, German, French and Italian. See Henry Phillips, Jr., "An Account of an Old Work on Cosmography," Proceedings of the Am erican Philosophical Society 18.105 (1880): 448,444. Another text specifically on Iceland is Dithmar Blefkens, Islandia, siue populorum & mirabilium quae in ea insula reperiuntur accuratior descriptio (Leiden, 1607), cited in Rienk Vermij, "Subterranean Fire: Changing Theories of the Earth during the Renaissance," Early Science and Medicine, 3.4 (1998), 326n. This article contains fascinating information about how volcanic activity was primarily of interest to medical circles, trying to understand terrestrial heat in the face of Aristotle's categorization of the earth as cold.
(29.) Harold Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, The Arden Shakespeare, Second Series (London: Routledge, 1989, and New York: Methuen & Co., 1982), 223n.
(30.) To borrow again from Jenkins's gloss, "To seek a particular source for this belief is to ignore the very great fame of St. Patrick's Purgatory, in an Irish cave, much visited by pilgrims. The story was that all who spent a day and night there would both be purged of their sins and have visions of the damned and the blest" (224n). For an extended discussion of St. Patrick's Purgatory, see Greenblatt, 75-101. Significantly, as Greenblatt notes this is the only time that St. Patrick is invoked in the Shakespearean corpus (233).
(31.) A vvorlde of words (London, 1598), 455.
(32.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Hekla. June 18, 2009. The page cites Sigurdur Thorarinsson, Hekla, A Notorious Volcano, trans. Johann Hannesson, Petur Karlsson (Reykjavfk: Almenna bokafe1agid, 1970), 17.
(33.) Robert Boyle, New Experiments and observations touching cold (London, 1665), 394.
(34.) See Cuningham, 175; Hackluyt, 561, 562; Peter Heylyn, Mikrokosmos (1625), 528; Edmund Bohun, in A geographical dictionary (1693), 186; Gabriel Richardson Of the state of Europe. XIIII. Books (London, 1627), 39.
(35.) In Historia Mundi: or Mercator's atlas (London, 1635), we read in the description of "Iseland": "The most doe suppose this bee that Thule mentioned by the Ancients, which also Ptolemie doeth call Thule; the middle whereof he placeth in the 30. Degree of Latitutde, and 63. of Longitude.... An Island the most famous of all other with Poets, when by this, as being the farthest part of the World, they would intimate any thing farre distant" ("period" = farthest point.) (33).
(36.) Ruth Padel, http://www.ruthpadel.com/pages/HowStrangelyFogoBurns.-htm. This essay by the poet Padel offers an interesting close reading of the lyrics to "Thule" as both a written and sung text. She notes that "Weelkes's Dedication to the book containing 'Thule' makes one of the earliest contemporary Shakespearian allusions."
(37.) Mary Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 4. See also Daryl W. Pahner, "Hamlet's Northern Lineage: Masculinity, Climate, and the Mechanician in Early Modern Britain," Renaissance Drama n.s. 35 (2006): 3-25.
(38.) Greenblatt reads the fact that "the Ghost on the battlements returns not in the semblance of the poisoned man whose flesh has hideously crusted over but in the complete armor of the powerful warrior-king" (213-14) in terms of the psychology of memory, but within the play characters comment on his garb in terms of its association with a frigid battle (one that involved sleds and ice). It is interesting to recognize the challenges that this armor has posed in modern performances; as Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass note (after quoting the actor John Gielgud), audiences have laughed at a clanking, armored ghost. "Ridicule, rather than fear, has been the usual lot of Hamlet's Ghost" (Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000], 246). The comi cal effect is evidence of a modern epistemological rift between the material and the supernatural, a division that would not have been part of early modern understandings, as is partly exemplified by the ontological status of purgatory itself.
(39.) Lewes Lauaterus, trans. R.H., Of ghostes and spirites walking by nyght (London, 1572), 103. See also Easting, 187.
(40.) See the very different glosses of the line in Jenkins, p. 258n; Thompson and Taylor, 261n; Philip Edwards, ed., Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, 2003), 146n; G. R. Hibbard, ed., Hamlet, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 223n.
(41.) Cuningham, 175. Patrick Gordon, Geography anatomiz'd (London, 1699), 221.
(42.) "No jocund health that Denmark drinks today, / But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell, / And the King's rouse the heaven shall bruit again, / Re-speaking earthly thunder" (1.2.125-28). For a discussion of contemporary Anglo-Danish relations (at the turn of the seventeenth century, very active, in part because of James's marriage to Queen Anne of Denmark) and the excessive drinking habits of King Christian IV, see Michael Srigley, "'Heavy-headed revel east and west': Hamlet and Christian IV of Denmark," in Gunnar Sorelius, ed., Shakespeare and Scandinavia: A Collection of Nordic Studies (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002): 168-92. It is interesting to note that military tensions between Christian IV and Charles IX of Sweden had caused the Danish king to extensively build up his arsenal, including his massive Cannon Hall (174).
(43.) For Shakespeare's knowledge of Hakluyt, Francois Laroque cites Numa Broc, La Geographie de la Renaissance (Paris, 1986), 225. Laroque, "Shakespeare's Imaginary Geography," in Andrew Hadfield and Paul Hammond, eds., Shakespeare and Renaissance Europe, Arden Critical Companions (London: Thomson Learning, 2005), 196.
(44.) See the more extensive examples in chapter 3 of my Supernatural Environments.
(45.) See Jenkins, 391n; Thompson and Taylor (428n), whose edition has a stage direction for Laertes to leap out of the grave before grappling with Hamlet (5.1.247); and Sheldon P. Zitner, "'Four feet in the grave,' " TEXT 2 (1985): 139-48.
(46.) De Grazia, 146. See also 35 and her entire chapter, "Doomsday and domain."
(47.) The only Shakespeare play that mentions Iceland is Henry V, 2.1.36-37, when Pistol says, "Pish for thee, Iceland dog! Thou prick-eared cur of Iceland!"
(48.) Russell West, Spatial Representations and the Jacobean Stage: From Shakespeare to Webster (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2002), 43.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
|Previous Article:||The French source of the earliest surviving Arabic Hamlet.|
|Next Article:||"To buy, or not to buy": Hamlet and Consumer culture.|