Kronborg Castle: Where Shakespeare set Hamlet

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

I have Hamlet on my mind as I stand inside the train station at Helsingor, north of Copenhagen. As well I might, because this Danish town is better known in English as Elsinore, the setting for William Shakespeare's play.

The station's interior does indeed seem crazed. A huge chandelier hangs from intricately carved roof panels, above an ornately decorated staircase and walls bearing coats of arms.

At yet there is method in it. In the late 19th century, local businessmen cottoned onto the appeal of the town and its castle to lovers of Shakespeare's plays; hence the station's pseudo-renaissance decor.

The tourism pull of Kronborg Castle, the model for the play's Elsinore Castle, continues today. It's at fever pitch in 2016, which is both the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death, and the 200th anniversary of the first performance of Hamlet at the castle.

A key attraction is the annual Shakespeare Festival, held in the castle grounds in August. Over the years the festival has featured actors such as John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh.

The festival is hosted by HamletScenen, which also offers tours. At the station I'm meeting William, one of its guides, who is taking me on a tour of Shakespeare's Elsinore.

We start with the statues of Hamlet and Ophelia that stand in the station forecourt. They're somewhat old-school: he with cape and billowy pants, she with a wardrobe malfunction. However, there is something in Ophelia's distraught expression that suggests her ultimate suicide (spoiler!).

As we cross the road into the town, William tells me the story of Hamlet comes from an old Danish legend of a chieftain's son in Jutland whose father was murdered by his uncle, the son pretending insanity until he could take his revenge.

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So why did Shakespeare move the setting to Elsinore?

The answer lies in Kronborg Castle's location. On a strategic narrow strait connecting the North Sea to the Baltic, it was an important royal residence.

After it was reshaped into a renaissance palace in the 1580s, an English acting troupe performed in the town. Some of these actors later worked with Shakespeare, lending the playwright eyewitness accounts of its splendour.

Furthermore, says William, as we stand in front of a hotel, two of the actors fell in love with the same innkeeper on this very location. Her name was Gertrude, the same as Hamlet's mother and the only Danish given name which appears in the play.

This is all a bit tenuous, it seems to me, but it's fun to speculate on the links between the town and the script. We then walk on to the site of a former Carmelite monastery, which William nominates as the likely inspiration of the "Alas poor Yorick" churchyard, which is Ophelia's resting place.

The castle looms beyond its outer battlements on a promontory thrusting into the strait. It was this decorative location, surrounded by water, which was in Danish architect Jorn Utzon's thoughts as he designed the Sydney Opera House.

William leaves me at the entrance to the castle, which I enter through a grand gate flanked by statues of Mercury and Neptune.

From a big open courtyard, visitors can enter four exhibitions. The first focuses on the castle in its heyday, featuring royal apartments set with grand marble fireplaces, decorated ceilings and luxurious bedchambers.

These lead to the Queen's Gallery of paintings, with a fine view of the strait, and then a glamorous ballroom.

Across the courtyard is the chapel, with a magnificent marble and alabaster altar, and colourful carved pews. Though it was once converted to a military gymnasium, it's been restored to its original glory.

There are also historical tapestries to view, and gloomily lit "casemates" below the castle. Though they look like dungeons, they were used both for storage and for shelter during times of bombardment. In one dark room there's a statue of Holger the Dane, a warrior from medieval literature.

For all the serious history behind the castle, and the grim finale of Shakespeare's play, there's something to smile at in the castle shop: a selection of tiny felt Hamlets holding little skulls, ready to be hung on a Christmas tree.

Something is silly in the state of Denmark, to paraphrase the Bard.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitdenmark.com.

GETTING THERE

Qantas and Emirates fly to Copenhagen via Dubai, see qantas.com.au. Helsingor is 45 minutes by train from Copenhagen.

STAYING THERE

Hotel CPHLiving, cphliving.com. Funky Copenhagen hotel floating on a barge. From $275 a night.

City Hotel Nebo, nebo.dk. Budget choice next to Copenhagen Central Station. From $100 a night.

TOURING THERE

The Shakespeare's Elsinore tour can be commissioned from HamletScenen via hamletscenen.dk, fee by negotiation.

Entry to Kronborg Castle costs 140 krone ($28) July-August, 90 krone ($18) at other times. See kongeligeslotte.dk.

Tim Richards travelled at his own expense.

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