‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ says palace guard Marcellus to palace guard Horatio, while standing atop the parapet of Castle Elsinore. That line, as many will be aware, is from Hamlet, and that castle is this one: Kronborg Castle, on the outskirts of Helsingør (anglicised to Elsinore), in Denmark.
Why did Shakespeare choose to set his stage drama, the Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in Kronborg Castle?
Well, there is speculation that Shakespeare may have visited Kronborg Castle during his travels. It seems unlikely, but there are sufficiently large gaps in the timeline of William Shakespeare that a trip to Denmark cannot be entirely ruled out.
Although I suspect it’s mostly just a case of wishful thinking.
The first iteration of Kronborg Castle, that of a royal residence built for King Eric of Pomerania, was constructed in 1420 CE.
The castle’s positioning, on the northernmost tip of the island of Zealand, where the Øresund strait (the passage of water between Denmark and Sweden) is just four kilometres wide, meant Kronborg Castle had control of this crucial entranceway to the Baltic Sea.
Which meant the Danish king could collect a toll from every foreign vessel that wished to pass through this body of water.
Denmark became tremendously wealthy as a result – with dues from the shipping toll accounting for two-thirds of the national revenue.
Between 1574 and 1585 King Frederick II expanded the citadel, transforming it into a grand Renaissance Castle.
In 1629 it burnt to the ground. Only the chapel survived.
The castle was rebuilt, only to be captured by the Swedes in the 1658-1660 Danish-Swedish War.
The Danes soon recovered their cherished castle, minus a bunch of treasures and artworks looted by the Swedes.
Take yourself down into the basement of Kronborg Castle and wander through its many dark corridors and rooms and you’ll eventually come upon an oversized, brooding hulk of a man with a beard grown so long it reaches the ground. This is Holger Danske, or Holger the Dane, or Ogie the Dane, a legendary Danish figure who has had a role in various European poems and sagas that stretch all the way back to the 10th Century CE.
It’s said that Holger Danske will hibernate in Kronborg Castle’s basement until Denmark is next in peril, at which time he will rise from his stone throne and come to the aid of his nation.
Why did Shakespeare set Hamlet in Kronborg Castle?
Probably because Hamlet, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, is based on a much older work of fiction, in this case the Danish legend, Amleth.
Amleth, which features a comparable storyline to Hamlet, is thought to have been adapted from an even older Norse legend.
And it turns out Shakespeare wasn’t the only western European to reproduce this Scandinavian tale in the late 16th Century, as there was a French version of the story released in 1572, and a separate English stage production completed in 1589. Shakespeare’s version of the story, undoubtedly the most famous of all, was written sometime between 1599 and 1602.
But Shakespeare’s interpretation of the story isn’t necessarily the definitive edition. Perhaps we’re still waiting for the best version yet.
There are frequent trains running to Helsingor Station from Copenhagen. The journey takes 40 minutes.