Shakespeare's accuracy in setting Hamlet in a Danish castle he never visited is intriguing, writes Rodney Bolt.
'Which room did Shakespeare write Hamlet in?" was a frequent question when tourists were first admitted to Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, in the 1920s. The line elicits knowing chuckles from present-day visitors to what is now one of Denmark's top tourist attractions. We, of course, know the Bard never visited Denmark, and that the Elsinore castle he specifies as the setting of Hamlet is based on pure imagination. Or is it?
I am not so sure. In the course of researching a historical novel, I came across curious strands of insider information about Kronborg Castle in Shakespeare's play. Somebody, it seemed, had given the playwright the low-down on castle life. Were these details purely coincidental?
I was in the town of Elsinore, a 45-minute train ride from Copenhagen on the wind-cracked coastline of the Sound (the narrow gateway to the Baltic) to find out.
Stepping out of Elsinore Station and standing between statues of a remarkably effete Hamlet and a bimbo-esque Ophelia, I look across to the castle. Forbidding bulwarks butt the waters of the Sound; incongruously dainty towers spike the air. Gulls screech.
Right on cue, a sailing boat passes by. I can picture Hamlet huddled on board, coming home from university at Wittenberg to mourn his father. Shakespeare's power in evoking a setting (or perhaps remembered fragments of films and productions I have seen) have fixed some scenes from the play firmly in my mind: the old king's ghost on a "bitter cold" battlement; the stab at a figure lurking behind an arras; Hamlet, unobserved, contemplating whether he should kill the villain Claudius as he kneels in prayer. I wonder what I will find in reality.
My research has already lifted a corner of the veil. In Shakespeare's time, travelling bands of English players roamed the Continent. They were hugely popular, wowing the crowds with their acrobatic style, sumptuous costumes (often court cast-offs), and sexiness. One contemporary poem celebrated a "tumbler" from such a troupe: "His hose they fitted him so tight/His codpiece was a lovely sight."
Language was no barrier. Fynes Moryson, an English traveller of the time, noted men and women "flocked wonderfully to see gesture and Action, rather than heare them, [as they speak] English which they understand not".
In 1586, about 15 years before the first production of Hamlet at the Globe, one group of English players, most likely Leicester's Men, visited Elsinore, performing at the inaugural celebrations of a newly rebuilt Kronborg Castle. They also played in the courtyard of the Elsinore Town Hall, to which the crowds flocked so wonderfully they knocked down a wall.
Among the players was one Wilhelm Kempe, now commonly acknowledged as being Will Kempe, "my Lord of Lester's jesting player". Kempe went on to become one of Shakespeare's most popular clowns, playing Dogberry and probably Falstaff.
"I think Kempe could very likely have given Shakespeare the detail he needed," says local Hamlet expert William Jansen, standing on the castle "platform", the cannon-lined bastion overlooking the Sound. "But there's another very likely source of information. The Sound provided the main sea access to the Baltic. Elsinore at the time would have been swarming with English merchants, many bound back for London."
But merchants are less likely than players to have known the inside layout of the castle. Kronborg is ranged around a square central courtyard - royal apartments occupying the north wing, chapel and great hall in the south, the east and west wings a hotchpotch of personal chambers and reception rooms. The courtyard walls are clad in pale grey sandstone. I can quite imagine Polonius striding past, in a flap; Hamlet pacing the perimeter as he reads.
Jansen points out that the bastion is where the ghost of old Hamlet appears. In my mind, I had placed that higher, up on the ramparts. After all, doesn't Horatio talk about "the dreadful summit of the cliff/That beetles o'er his base into the sea"? I check my copy of the play. Jansen is right. The scene takes place "upon the platform where we watch", beside the cannons. "In Shakespeare's time there would have been a drop straight into the Sound," Jansen says. "The surrounding bulwarks are a later addition."
The cannons raise a further point. Shakespeare shows a knowledge of the Danish custom of kanonen-skol - the custom Hamlet thinks "more honour'd in the breach than the observance", of firing off salvos of ordnance as a royal toast - some time before news of the practice (and later the practice itself) reached England.
But, the cold "bites shrewdly" out here, there's "a nipping and an eager air", so we cross the great courtyard to the chapel.
This is one part of the castle not ravaged by war or fire since those inaugural celebrations. It is richly carved, with private, screened pew-rooms for the king and queen up at clerestory level - an ideal spot for Hamlet to look down unobserved at Claudius kneeling in supposed prayer before the altar, before storming off to confront his mother, Queen Gertrude, in her "closet".
And what do we learn? That a year or two before the English players arrived, the terrace on the east wing was covered over to give the queen direct access to the chapel gallery from her rooms. The topography of Hamlet, with the prince going directly from the praying Claudius to Gertrude's closet, does seem to show someone knew their way around the castle.
In the queen's closet, the intrigue continues. If we take "closet" to mean bedroom, then there is one scenario: a doorless arch, which would have been covered by an arras (tapestries lined all the walls for warmth), leads to the king's room. So it makes perfect sense that Hamlet, when he thrusts his rapier through the arras, assumes he has killed the king, not a hiding Polonius.
The other scenario: if we take "closet" to mean the queen's adjoining salon - which was hung with tapestries depicting Danish monarchs - that makes sense of Hamlet being able, in the speech that follows the stabbing, to compare portraits of Claudius and his father. Jansen even comes up with a feasible hiding place for Polonius' body - a musicians' gallery overlooking the salon - so you might indeed, on leaving the queen's closet, "nose him as you go upstairs into the lobby". (The "lobby" is a wide gallery, reached by a flight of stairs, along the length of the west wing between the queen's salon and the great hall).
It all fits. That cluster of scenes in Hamlet makes a circuit of the castle - from the chapel, along the east wing passageway to one end of the queen's apartments in the north wing, through the apartments, and then (with the reference to "nosing" Polonius' body), back to the great hall along the west-wing gallery.
Other revelations follow: Shakespeare, alone among his English contemporaries, correctly uses the Danish word Dansker, to mean Dane; the dumb show that precedes the play-within-a-play, when the travelling players perform for the king, was a Danish and not an English custom. Most intriguingly, Hamlet's two university friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, would appear to come from notable local families. The Guildensterns even have their own chamber at the castle.
Far-fetched? Possibly. Pure coincidence? Perhaps so. Or maybe the diligent playwright did indeed consult Will Kempe for the sake of accuracy and a little local colour. "However you view things, I think there is no doubt that Shakespeare made a concerted effort to place Hamlet here," says Jansen. He believes the canny Bard was playing a careful card to flatter the future King James I, whose wife, Anne, was sister to the Danish king, and who had lived at the castle. James also stayed there, soon after they were married, some years before Hamlet was written.
With much to ponder, I make my way back to the station - built, incidentally, by the Rosencrantz family.
The Telegraph, London
Emirates has a fare to Copenhagen for about $2070 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. You fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Copenhagen (6hr 55min); see emirates.com. The rail journey from Copenhagen to Elsinore (in Danish: Helsingor) takes 45 minutes, and costs DKK 108 ($21).
Kokkedal Castle is a dreamily renovated 18th-century castle on a coastal estate 20 minutes by train from Elsinore. Afternoon tea is a must, with Danish pastries followed by cakes made by the in-house pastry chef. Kokkedal Alle 6, Horsholm, see kokkedalslotcopenhagen.dk. Doubles from DKK 1495 ($290) including breakfast.
SEE + DO
Kronborg Castle, one of the most important Renaissance castles in northern Europe and the setting for Shakespeare's Hamlet, is open year-round, and offers special "Follow in Hamlet's Footsteps" tours in July and August. See kronborg.dk.
Hamlet Scenen is a summer Shakespeare festival featuring top international companies performing at Kronborg Castle, from August 1-10. See hamletscenen.dk.
THREE MORE THINGS TO DO
Hamlet Scenen is a summer Shakespeare festival featuring top international performers (Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi and Jude Law have all been there) performing at Kronborg Castle. hamletscenen.dk.
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (louisiana.dk). A spectacularly situated museum, with a sculpture garden looking out to sea, and superbly curated exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, 10 minutes by train from Elsinore.
Maritime Museum (mfs.dk) Imaginative, installation-like displays in an underground museum built around a dry dock beside Kronborg Castle, by hip, high-flying architect Bjarke Ingels.