Shakespeare's Elsinore

By Berry, Ralph | Contemporary Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare's Elsinore


Berry, Ralph, Contemporary Review


'But what is your affair in Elsinore?' asks Hamlet (1.2.174). Standing in for Horatio, I reply that I am here to visit the town and castle, as guest of the Danish Tourist Board. My objective is to study the location for its bearing on the play. I think that the place tells us a great deal about Hamlet.

Shakespeare conflated the port, Helsingor, and the castle, Kronborg, into one word: Elsinore. The play is clearly set within the castle and its grounds, save perhaps for the graveyard scene (5.1). It is Kronborg that matters, a word never mentioned in Hamlet but the key to the play. This is the fortress that Frederik II built to enforce Danish command of the Oresund Straits, and with it the power of levying customs duties. The castle/palace was burned down in 1629, then rebuilt by Christian IV with a virtually unchanged exterior. The inner arrangements were modifications rather than radical changes to the original. Hence the Kronborg we see is very close to the Elsinore Shakespeare incorporated into Hamlet. The imaginative fictions take off from the physical realities.

The first of these realities to strike one is the sheer military power of the fortress. On two sides of the angle overlooking the Sound are the guns, facing north and east. The gun emplacements are on a terrace, and this is the 'platform' where the action of 1.1 and 1.4-5 takes place ('upon the platform where we watch,' says Marcellus, 1.2.213). For the Elizabethans, 'platform' was customarily used to denote a gunsite. It is perfectly possible to play those early scenes on the terrace, and this has been done. I even think that Horatio, in 'A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye' (1.1.112) might be punning unconsciously on 'moat', observable from the terrace. The sound of cannon is specified in the text. Claudius makes it a royal ritual to have the cannon salute his drinking, and the last scene has the finest of these effects. 'Let all the battlements their ordnance fire,' says the King (5.2.267). Then comes

Give me the cups, And let the kettle to the trumpet speak, The trumpet to the cannoneer without, The cannons to the heavens, the heaven to earth, 'Now the King drinks to Hamlet.' (5.2.271-75)

That is a particular stage effect, but Shakespeare never lets us forget that Hamlet is rooted in military and political realities, starting with the 'daily cast of brazen cannon' (1.1.76) described in the opening scene. From inside the Great Hall, one looks out through the windows at the gun-terrace just below. And Hamlet ends, says Martin Holmes in The Guns of Elsinore, 'with the crash of artillery that stood, in so many Elizabethan minds, for the armed might of Denmark.' (P. 181)

With military power goes absolute internal security. One feels this as one passes through the outer entrance, which leads under the walls to an open space before the arched entrance to the courtyard. Each side of this space is flanked by a wall with a small window ('The King's Window', dated 1584 and 1585) from which all corners can be scrutinized. They are trapped in a chamber between entrances. These windows realize the sense of surveillance that is everywhere in Kozintsev's film. Through the arch one goes into the great courtyard, which to me is a vivid illustration of the central metaphor.

'Denmark's a prison.' I have never before felt such resonance in the phrase, and in the follow-up references to 'prison' (2.2.241-51). The courtyard, which is almost square, is enclosed on all four sides by the palace elevations. It feels like a prison exercise yard. When Rosencrantz delicately hints at the consequences of Hamlet's misbehaviour, 'You do surely bar the door upon your own liberty' (3.2.328-9), he is not exaggerating the power behind him. This is a play where doors close, not open. They act as barriers. Nobody gets out of Elsinore if the authorities want to keep them in.

The courtyard is capable of transformation into a theatre. …

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