Literary Destination: Visiting Hamlet's Castle in Denmark
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
Marcellus, in Hamlet, Act I Scene IV
Shakespeare fans, there are many pilgrimages for you to take on your Shakespeare Travel Bucket List (hmm sounds like something I should create, doesn't it?), and today I'm here to add one more.
Should you find yourself ever in Denmark, Kronborg Castle in Helsingor is one location not to miss for its literary and historical significance. It is the castle in which Shakespeare's ever-popular The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (aka Hamlet) is set though in the play it is called Elsinore.
As a side note, I'd call it a pretty ballsy move on Shakespeare's part to set his play there considering it's likely he never actually visited the castle. It's akin to Emily Dickinson writing poems about the ocean when she really never left her apartment. So much for "write what you know!" Ah, well, it seems to have worked out for both of them. Let's continue.
Hamlet, for beginners
If you've never managed to read or watch a production of Hamlet (it is, after all, Shakespeare's longest work), here are the basics: Hamlet's father, the King of Denmark, has been killed. After getting tipped off by his dead father's ghost, Hamlet comes to suspect his uncle, Claudius, of being responsible for his death. Claudius doesn't exactly exude innocence, having taken his brother's throne and his wife, Gertrude, along with it.
In many ways, it's a classic tale of revenge, and yet Hamlet spends the vast majority of the play wondering if his uncle is guilty, trying unsuccessfully to trick him into confessing, and musing on the meaning of life and the nature of madness.
Apart from Hamlet's numerous soliloquies, the secondary characters and their plot lines are quite rich. Let's take Ophelia, for example. The tragic Ophelia loves Hamlet but, suffering at the hands of Hamlet's likely feigned madness, descends into a genuine madness herself, pushed over the edge by Hamlet's famous explosion at her, "Get thee to a nunnery!" (and maybe his accidental murdering of her father contributed as well). This father is quite the character, too: Polonius is the character who speaks many of the famous adages even non-Shakespeare readers will recognize, such as "To thine own self be true," "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," and "Brevity is the soul of wit."
Ghosts, murder, unrequited love, revenge, madness. It might be 4+ hours long, but this play is famous for good reason!
It's based on a Norse legend, though Hamlet's exact source is still debated. Shakespeare's theatrical rendition of the legend gained popularity immediately after he first wrote it for his acting troupe, the Chamberlain's Men, in 1600 or 1601. Its popularity has hardly flagged since. Famous actors and actresses have vyed for roles in the play since Shakespeare's own time,
Visiting Kronborg Castle
After visiting the opulent nearby Fredericksborg Castle, the best word I could use to describe Kronborg by comparison is, "understated." This is not a castle with artwork and adornments covering every square inch of wall or ceiling, like many other royal palaces. By comparison, it's rather modest. In fact, as the convenient placards explain in both English and Danish, the royal families who spent time in this castle would economize by carrying their dishes and silverware from one castle to the next. Practically impoverished, right?
Kronborg Castle is a military fortress turned into a palace. Having visited quite a few castles in my time, I'd say something that makes this castle stand out among others is how well it informs tourists of the day-to-day life of the royals who lived there. Placards throughout the castle highlight how they lived in and used each room, as well as specific information about the royal family's history.
All in all, this castle absolutely gets my personal recommendation. Go on and roam the halls wondering if you should be or not be (maybe skip musing whether or not to kill your uncle, though. Odds are, he's probably nice).
Here are some highlights from my favorite rooms and areas of the castle that you won't want to miss on your visit:
The King's Chamber
Decorated relatively simply with painted ceilings, this room was one of the most important in the castle. It's where the King would hold important meetings about the future of Denmark with his trusted advisors as well as the occasional party with his buddies.
From the bay window, the King could look down at the front door of the castle to see who was arriving (like a grander, ritzier peep hole, with a much more impressive view).
The Ballroom/Throne Room
Once the largest ballroom in Northern Europe, it's hard to capture the magnitude of this room in picture or words. It's over 200 feet long and 40 feet wide, but suffice it to say, you'll feel like no more than an insect to be in it.
When the castle was occupied by the royal family, for most of the year, this room served as a storage room for fruits and vegetables, dried meat, and even building materials. However, on the occasion that a feast or ball would be held, this room would really shine. An enormous table would be placed down the center of the room around which guests were seated for an impressive many-course feast. Center pieces on the table would've been a boar's head or a stuffed peacock or the like. And the party would last for days!
When a fire destroyed much of Kronborg Castle in 1629, the Chapel was one of the only rooms to be spared. The pews, decorative panels, gallery, and altar are all original (though for a while, the furniture was moved out to use this room as a gymnasium while the castle functioned as an army barracks).
While certainly not the dream destination of a claustrophobic person, the casemates in the basement of the castle are both creepy and interesting to visit. You can walk your way around this maze of gloomy, low-ceilinged passageways where soldiers have hidden for weeks on end while the castle was under siege. =
While you're down there, check out the statue of Holger the Dane, or Holger Danske. The legendary stories of Holger the Dane have made him a bit of a national hero in Denmark
This makes Kronborg a literary site for another reason in addition to Hamlet, for it is the Hans Christian Anderson fable, Holger Danske, that this statue of Holger can be found at Kronborg:
But the most beautiful sight of all is old Kronborg, and in a deep, dark cellar beneath it, where no one ever goes, sleeps Holger Danske. He is clad in iron and steel and rests his head on his strange arms; his long beard hangs down over the marble table and has grown through it. He sleeps and dreams, and in his dreams he sees all that happens here in Denmark. Every Christmas Eve one of God's angels comes to him and tells him that what he had dreamed is true; he may sleep again, for no real peril threatens Denmark. But should real danger come, old Holger Danske will rise in his fury, and the table itself will burst as he wrenches his beard from it, and the mighty blows he strikes for Denmark will be heard throughout the world.
Climbing up the narrow steps to Kronborg Castle's roof rewards you with stunning views. From up here, you can see all the way to Sweden (and understand the strategic advantage of having a stronghold at this particular location). Here, the channel between the two countries is only 4 km (2.5 miles) wide.
Spend some time up here enjoying the breeze, and take heed lest a ghostly visitor should come to you as he did to Hamlet and his friends.
Watch Hamlet at Kronborg Castle
When you've got a Renaissance castle in which the most famous playwright of all time set one of the most famous plays of all time, of course you can expect to find some live theater performances there.
Every summer from June until August, Kronborg Castle hosts "Hamlet's Wonderful World" daily from 10 am - 5 pm. While I got there in October and missed seeing this, it sounds like a lot of fun. Each famous scene of the play is performed in various locations as the actors move the play around the castle and its grounds. When they are not performing, the characters move about the castle carrying on with their ordinary lives and interacting with visitors.
Live productions of Hamlet have been taking place every August here for two hundred years. In fact, it is the oldest continuous Shakespeare performance in the world. In 1937, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh starred as Hamlet and Ophelia and really set a trend for other big-name actors to join in future years.
Additionally, a movie version of the play by the BBC starring Christopher Plummer was shot at Kronborg Castle in 1963.
Tips for visiting Kronborg Castle
By car: Take about a 30 minute drive from Copenhagen on the E47 highway or the longer but more scenic coastline drive.
By train: Take a train from Copenhagen's Central Station to Helsingor (45 min), then take a 15-20 minute walk to the castle.
Or book a tour with a local tour company to see.
Types of tours available: Self-guided tours using the brochure at the front office or guided tours (included in ticket price) available. Check the website for current guided tour times.
Tickets: Tickets can be pre-purchased online or bought in person at their box office.
Ticket prices change depending on which season you come, varying from DKK 95 ($15 or 13 €) for adults in the off-season to DKK 145 ($23 or 20€) during Hamlet's Wonderful World. Children under 18 are free year-round. There is a discount for students showing an ID.
Information for families: Because you can do a self-guided tour and most furniture and valuables are roped off, I'd say this is an okay tour to bring children to.
Languages: Plaques throughout the castle give information in English and Danish. During Hamlet's Wonderful World, the characters speak in English.
Tips for visiting:
Even if you're unsure on your exact dates, tickets are valid for one year from the date of purchase (except June, July, and August).
If you're going during peak season (summer), I recommend avoiding any lines and buying online before you arrive.
Come with a full stomach and an empty bladder and get ready to take your time here. Spend the afternoon wandering the many rooms and spending time reading the informative plaques in each room. They will really enhance your experience of the castle.
Kronborg Castle is only about 30 minutes from the famous and beautiful Fredericksborg Castle. If you want a full day, you can visit one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
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