‘Gentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore’ (Hamlet, 2.2)
For centuries theatre audiences all over the world have heard Shakespeare’s Danish prince Hamlet welcome his friends to the court of Elsinore; a place populated by ghosts, corrupted by intrigue and murder, fired by deep passions and elevated by some of the most profound thoughts ever produced by the human mind. But Shakespeare’s fictional setting is also a real place: To this day Hamlet’s home is very much alive at Kronborg Castle, one of the finest examples of North European Renaissance architecture, and a UNESCO heritage site. This is a unique place; where stories of the past are relived in the present, where fact and fiction mysteriously blend, and where acclaimed actors flock every summer to perform at the international Shakespeare festival. In 2016 the festival will present an exuberance of shows and activities to celebrate the double anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616 AND the first ever performance of Hamlet at Kronborg in 1816. If you are wondering where to be in the great Shakespearean year of 2016, this is the event not to be missed for lovers of theatre, history, culture and nature in a wonderful corner of northern Europe.
When arriving in the charming harbour town of Elsinore, with its cosy and colourful medieval streets, historic churches and sailors’ inns, visitors are met with the sight of Kronborg in all its austere majesty. The town is sheltered by this magnificent fortification overlooking the sea separating Denmark and Sweden. The towers rise high above the waves and seagulls fill the air with the sound of their mysterious call. Welcome to Elsinore, home of Hamlet, where the fortified walls tell stories inextricably linked to Shakespeare’s iconic play.
‘We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart’ (Hamlet, 1.2)
In the 1570s the Danish King Frederik II turned the first fortress built here into a building, which quickly became famous throughout Europe for its beauty and power, as well as for the lavish customs of Frederik’s court. One particular custom – that of having cannon salutes accompany toasts at the royal table - actually reappears in Hamlet, when the young prince laments the drinking habits of the court, but how might Shakespeare have heard about such a thing?
Frederik II’s Kronborg attracted visitors from afar, among them three English actors, who were later to join forces with Shakespeare himself as members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men: George Bryant, Thomas Pope and the famous comedian Will Kemp. If Shakespeare knew something of what Hamlet’s home looked, sounded and felt like, we can probably thank his three friends, who would have arrived at Frederik’s court hoping to entertain the king; just like the group of travelling players arrive at Elsinore in the play and are welcomed with enthusiasm by Hamlet himself.
‘Upon the platform where we watched’ (Hamlet, 1.2)
Perhaps it is thanks to Bryant, Pope and Kemp that visitors today can re-live favourite scenes from Shakespeare’s play through the sights and sounds provided by Kronborg’s stunning architecture and surroundings: from the platform, where cannons face Sweden beyond the sea and where it is easy to imagine the presence of an armour-clad ghost, to the labyrinthic ‘casemates’ (vaulted tunnels beneath the castle), where Hamlet’s complaint that “Denmark is a prison” suddenly feels very real. In fact, Kronborg did become a prison for convicts during the 18th century; another haunting story witnessed by these walls..
‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane’ (Hamlet, 5.1)
And speaking of ghosts; the casemates also house somebody who might bear a curious resemblance to Hamlet’s father, the warrior king. Down here sits the statue of the legendary warrior ‘Holger Danske’, slumbering in his stone chair, resting his hands on his mighty sword, but ready to awake the day something is really rotten in the Danish state. Holger Danske appears in sources from the 13th century, which was also the century in which the Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus recorded the legend of Prince Amleth, later to be transformed by Shakespeare into the most famous of all dramatic characters. Shakespeare used a French translation of Saxo’s tale, but the legend of Amleth would not have arrived in Paris had not been for the Danish scholar and publisher, Christiern Pedersen, born in Elsinore and, like Horatio, would set out from Hamlet’s home to tell the story of his prince to the rest of the world..
‘That is the question..’
When the story arrived in London by the end of the 16th century Shakespeare’s stroke of genius was to use an old Danish legend to formulate what has become the world’s most famous question: ‘to be, or not to be’. Every generation, ours included, inherits Hamlet’s doubts and is faced with his choices between being and non-being, between action and non-action, in a never-ending search for meaning and identity. With one line, so simple that everyone can remember it and so complex that no one can fully grasp it, Shakespeare presents us with an inescapable dilemma of the human condition, and at Kronborg visitors may re-trace and re-experience Hamlet’s existential journey in an evocative and inspiring setting.
‘Now might I do it.. Now he is praying..’ (Hamlet, 3.3)
From dark vaults beneath the castle the visitor might progress upwards to the beautiful chapel, where it is easy to imagine Hamlet looking down from the galleries at his murderous uncle at prayer.. And further up to the ‘Telegraph Tower’ high above the sea, where the first ever performance of Shakespeare’s play at the castle is believed to have taken place in 1816. That year, a group of soldiers garrisoned at the castle decided to put on the play to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and the lines of Elsinore’s young prince were spoken ‘on location’ like never before. Since then Kronborg has hosted some of the finest international Shakespearean actors of their generations, arriving here to perform in the stately rooms and under the stars in the beautiful courtyard.
Home of Hamlet: 1816-2016
In addition to marking the 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, the Shakespeare Festival therefore also marks 200 years of performing Hamlet at Kronborg. This summer audiences from all over the world will once again be able to walk along the the deep dark water of the moat, reflecting the shimmering light from many burning torches, and enter the courtyard to hear the actors ask, once again, ‘who’s there?’
Who will be there? The ghosts of the past to re-tell their stories in the present..