A chill wind was slicing in from the Baltic as we stepped off the train that runs from Copenhagen to Helsingør, providing a foretaste of the “bitter cold” (Hamlet Act 1 Scene 1) of Elsinore Castle. Its towers and battlements rose theatrically beyond Helsingør harbour, where our route across the quays was guided by posters depicting Shakespeare with the words “To be or not to be”.
Helsingør, which was staging a season of Shakespeare events, was evidently determined to make the most of its links to the playwright, even though Prince Hamlet – if he even existed – dated from several centuries before the castle was built. But Helsingør could hardly be blamed for Shakespeare’s use of his well-earned dramatic licence to locate his play there. And the more we learned about Shakespeare’s use of authentic detail to fire his audience’s imagination, the more we appreciated the qualities of the castle itself, whose own tale of vanity and ambition, the rise and fall of dynasties and empires, has Shakespearean grandeur and poignancy.
Once beyond the harbour, you follow a path alongside the castle moat, fed by the Baltic, and pass the giant earthen buttresses that form the outer line of defence. You enter an ornate gateway and find yourself in a cobbled courtyard the size of a small city square. It provides a suitable indication of the scale of the castle, which was built by Frederik II, the ambitious ruler of both Denmark and Norway from 1559 to 1588. He was keen to impress his new bride, his 14-year-old cousin Sophie, whom he married in 1575 – but also to offer a show of defiance to Erik XIV, the equally ambitious king of Sweden three miles away across the Oresund strait, a Shakespearean rivalry for which the Danes would pay dear.
The castle – known by Danes as Kronborg – took ten years to build. Its most striking features included a ballroom that was the largest hall in northern Europe and a gallery sixty metres long where the queen and her entourage could take a walk without having to brave the weather outside. The walls were hung with lavish tapestries depicting scenes from the reigns of Danish monarchs. All of this was funded with dues that Frederik levied on ships passing through the Oresund strait on their way to and from the Baltic.
There is no mystery over how Shakespeare knew about the castle. Elizabeth I was courting Frederik to join an alliance against Spain, and visiting English courtiers, actors and musicians returned with reports of the castle and its ceremonies. Its renown grew when James VI of Scotland – the future James I of England – married Frederik and Sophie’s 14-year old daughter Anne in 1589 and celebrated the marriage there.
Thus the arras that hid Polonius was most likely one of the castle tapestries and his body was dumped in a “lobby” that consisted of a royal ante-room. The cannon-fire that recurs through the play echoes the ceremonial volleys that were fired when important visitors were toasted – as well as showing further defiance to the Swedes. The cannon were “brazen”, made of brass – unlike English cannon, made of iron.
Rosencranz and Guildenstern were the names of two high Danish families, often to be found on the castle’s guest-lists. So striking are these details that some scholars contend that Shakespeare must have visited the castle. Their case is weakened by some striking anomalies. There are no beetling cliffs with a “dreadful summit” – this part of Denmark, like Norfolk, is irredeemably flat. There is no high eastward hill either, and here Shakespeare may have been misled by a contemporary etching depicting an imaginary hill on the Swedish side of the sound.
My own view is that Shakespeare, in all his genius, elaborated on the travellers’ tales he heard, deploying the aforementioned poetic licence where appropriate. That was certainly the case when it came to Hamlet himself. Danish legend tells of a chieftain named Horwendil who was murdered by his brother Feng who then married his widow, Gerutha. The murder was avenged by Horwendil’s son Amleth, who feigned madness and killed Feng with his sword. The legend dates from the eleventh century or earlier and an English account was published in London in 1589, ten years before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.
As we wandered the network of corridors and staircases, the wind raging outside, it was not hard to sense the paranoia that suffuses the play. Much of this we learned from an engaging book, Hamlet’s Castle and Shakespeare’s EIsinore by David Hohnen. The castle itself, once Shakespeare had done with it, has a narrative that is rich in hubris and irony. The repeated celebratory firing of cannons damaged its structure. When repairs were started in 1629, embers from a workman’s crucible caused a devastating fire. The castle was rebuilt at vast expense by Frederik’s son and successor, Christian IV. He and his son Frederik III embarked on a series of disastrous wars with Sweden, costing Denmark one-third of its territory as well as many of the castle’s treasures, looted by the Swedish army. The castle never recovered its former glory and over ensuing centuries it served as both a barracks and a prison.
Restoration started in 1938 and it is now (in 2017) a World Heritage Site. After briefly braving the wind on the eastern battlements to gaze at Sweden across the Oresund, we headed back over the quays, stopping at Helsingør’s newly-built public library, a stunning example of Danish open-plan architecture with dazzling views of the castle. The Shakespearean theme was extended with a lovingly-crafted Hamlet exhibition, whose highlight was a display of wild flowers – fennel, rue, columbine – from Ophelia’s final speech.
As a parting souvenir, we were given a poster of Hamlet’s defining soliloquy, printed in English and Danish – which, so we learned, renders “To be or not to be” as “At vaere eller ikke”.