Purgatory, described in the 22nd of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as that “Romish Doctrine” that is “repugnant to the Word of God” stalks the pages of Hamlet from Hamlet’s ghostly father’s injunction to his son to “remember me”, to Hamlet’s agonized nightmare of revenge as scourge and minister. This is turned to a purgatorial laying bare of his own soul – “to be or not to be” -, until the final silence and the end of Hamlet’s purgatory when the flights of angels (in Horatio’s prayer, which is a jumbled translation of the “In Paradisum” from the Sarum rite) sing him to his rest before the drum of Prince Fortinbras brings the audience back into harsh political reality.
The Ghost’s demand that Hamlet “remember me” is freighted with liturgical and theological complexities. As Daniel Swift has reminded us in his discussion of Hamlet, a liturgical ‘remembrance’ is far from something simply passive and it is “the liturgical term [in the late medieval period] for the set of intercessory prayers given for a departed soul at regular intervals after death.”
Furthermore, the theological debates over ‘remembrance’ were at the very heart of Protestant controversies over the Eucharist. They were nothing short of a matter of life and death. The Ghost’s command to remember is indeed enough to drive anyone to the brink of madness.
And what of that strange, mad scene in the graveyard at the beginning of Act 5, with Hamlet and Horatio’s entrance being preceded by two clowns – a sexton and his mate? As the clowns prepare to dig Ophelia’s grave they begin with a theological question regarding Ophelia’s suicide and thus the propriety of Christian burial: “Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she willfully seeks her own salvation?”
It was, of course, illegal to perform church rites on the stage, and so, before the procession with the corpse of Ophelia enters, including a “Doctor of Divinity in cassock and gown”, who offers advice for their “maiméd rites” lest they “should profane the service of the dead” with a requiem inappropriate for a suicide, Hamlet meditates upon the funeral liturgy with the skull of Yorick, the erstwhile king’s jester.
As merely a stage rite this is necessarily “maimed”, at one level a far from exceptional scene in Renaissance drama (or, indeed, Counter-Reformation imagery) employing a skull as a reminder of mortality, a memento mori, at another an ironic echo of the words of committal from the Book of Common Prayer, intoned by the priest as the body is lowered into the grave.
In the 1549 Prayer Book the words are spoken to the deceased, but in 1552, and in subsequent Prayer Books, including that of 1559, there is a shift into the third person and the dead is spoken not to, but about. The dead, like Purgatory itself, are becoming more remote, a theme that underlies Hamlet’smeditations. As Eamon Duffy has observed:
If in the rites of the dying the prayer-book of 1552 seems to come from a different world not only from the medieval church, but even from the 1549 book, that gulf [between the living and the dead] is displayed even more starkly in the rites of the dead. 
Thus the priest intones, in words that would have been all too familiar to Shakespeare and his audiences as they watched and listened to Hamlet, “we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body that it may be like to his glorious body…”
Other uses of skulls on the Jacobean stage to remind us of the brevity and vanity of human life differ from Hamlet’s absorption with the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. Almost contemporary with Shakespeare’s play is The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607), normally attributed to Cyril Tourneur, in which the revenger Vindice holds aloft the skull of his erstwhile lady and utters the grim words:
Does every proud and self-affecting dame
Camphor her face for this, and grieve her maker
In sinful baths of milk….
Hamlet, however, placing the skull of Yorick on the ground, reflects on the “noble dust of Alexander”, which is changed not into a glorious, Christ-like body in the resurrection, but is rather traced in the imagination “till a’ find it stopping a bung hole.” Hamlet follows, and then distorts, the logic and narrative of Church’s liturgy of the burial of the dead:
as thus – Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Shakespeare is here deliberately unpicking the logic of the shifting theological emphases in the funeral liturgy from the Prayer Books of 1549, to 1552 and then 1559. In Duffy’s words:
The dead could be spoken to directly, even in 1549, because in some sense they still belonged within the human community. But in the world of 1552 book the dead were no longer with us. They could neither be spoken to nor even about, in any way that affected their well-being…. The service was no longer a rite of intercession on behalf of the dead, but anexhortation to faith on the part of the living.
And so, as Hamlet, still among the living, muses upon the fate of the great Alexander, he is disturbed by the arrival of the royal party with the Doctor of Divinity and the body of Ophelia “with such maiméd rites.” As Hamlet and Laertes leap, one after the other, into Ophelia’s grave, they, with Claudius and Gertrude, are in effect already not with the living but already amongst the dead, even now beyond the boundaries of the human community.
As has often been noted, the reformation of burial rites within the tradition of the English Prayer Books was both compromised and contentious. There were even protests from those who regarded burial as a merely secular matter.
In Hamlet Shakespeare is exploring both these anxieties and also, despite the prohibition in the Thirty-Nine Articles, the persistent ghostly afterlife of medieval beliefs in Purgatory and other “Romish doctrines” in the context of the dramatic culture of Renaissance revenge tragedy, unpicking in dramatic verse the theological world that was at the same time bound by the Book of Common Prayer.
As Robert Ornstein well expressed it, writing of an age of imposed liturgical uniformity, “Because he sees the world feelingly, Shakespeare performs the immemorial service of the artist to society: he humanizes the categorical imperatives which the stern didacticist offers as the sum of ethical truth.”Yet, it might be said, the 1559 Book of Common Prayer was a worthy opponent for Shakespeare, wrought upon the same rich tradition of language expressed through its ritual poetics.
 Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princetion University Press, 2001). For Greenblatt’s contribution to Shakespeare and the Eucharist see, “Shakespeare Bewitched,” in Jeffrey N. Cox and Larry J. Reynolds (Edited), New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts, Representing History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 108-35.  William Shakespeare, Hamlet. Act 1, Sc. 5, line 91.  See, Daniel Swift, Shakespeare’s Common Prayers, p. 159  Ibid, Act 5, Sc. 2.  Daniel Swift, op.cit. pp. 141-2.  Hamlet, Act 5, Sc. 1.  See, Daniel Swift, op.cit. p. 155.  Hamlet, Act 5, Sc. 1, lines 178-89.  See, for example the painting of the Repentant Magdalene (c. 1640) gazing upon a skull, by Georges du Mesnil de la Tour (1593-1652), discussed in David Jasper, The Sacred Body (Waco TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), pp. 91-2.  Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars. Second Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 474.  Booty, p. 310.  Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger’s Tragedy. Act 3, Sc. 5, lines 83-5.  Hamlet, Act 5, Sc. 1.  Duffy, op.cit. p. 475.  See, Geoffrey Rowell, The Liturgy of Christian Burial. Alcuin Club Collections, No. 59. (London: SPCK, 1977), pp. 84-93.  Robert Ornstein, The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965), p. 223.
This is an edited extract from David Jasper’s The Language of Liturgy: A Ritual Poetics. David Jasper is Honorary Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow