To see or not to see – that was the question. Husband Jack, daughter Zoe and I were comfortably ensconced in Copenhagen – our last city to visit in Scandinavia – quite possibly our favorite. There were still lots of things to see in town, but Jack wanted to go to Kronborg Castle. Zoe, our theater-loving daughter, agreed. I wanted to stay in town – but, obviously, got out-voted. And so, on a gray, cool-ish day, we caught a train for the 45 minute ride to Helsingør, or, in English, Elsinor.
Shakespeare fans will immediately recognize the name. The castle at Elsinore was the home of Hamlet. There may well have been a real Hamlet, but he would have lived 400 years before Shakespeare wrote his play and several hundred years before the first castle was built. There is no record that Shakespeare ever visited Elsinore. During the late 1500s, a troupe of actors from England performed there so it’s possible that Shakespeare heard of Elsinor and its legends from them. However it happened, today the castle is indelibly linked with Shakespeare’s creation and they make the most of that connection.
Helsingør is positioned at the top of the Ǿresund, a body of water between the nearest bits of Denmark and Sweden and the shortest route from the north to Copenhagen. In the 1400s, the king of Denmark built a fortress on the point and, armed with cannons, extracted tolls from all ships sailing through the narrow passage.
It was a lucrative proposition. Between 1574 and 1585, King Frederick II turned the Middle Ages fortress into a Renaissance palace, complete with copper-plated roofs and spires, an ornate chapel and a magnificent ballroom.
In 1629 a fire destroyed a large part of the castle’s interior. A later king plundered much of what was left. For 300 years, the castle was nothing but a fortress and barracks for the Danish army.
Today the structure has been restored – though not to the glory of Frederick II’s reign. Furnishings are minimal – but what is there is interesting. The castle boasts an impressive collection of tapestries. And the chapel, which was unharmed by the fire, is a marvelous example of the brilliantly colored splendor of the Renaissance décor.
I can only tell you about visiting the castle in summer – we were there in July.
The biggest time for Shakespeare lovers is August when companies from many countries perform Shakespeare plays on an outside stage built over the castle moat.
For the months of June, July and August, guests can experience “Hamlet Live.” Checking a chalk board in the castle courtyard, we could see when and where scenes from the play would be enacted. Liberties were taken but Jack, who had never seen (or read) the play, came away with a good sense of the story.
Backtracking a bit, from the Helsingør train station, it’s about a 20 minute walk to the castle, but there are things to be seen on the way. The harborside walk passes through the Culture Yard, once a dry-dock, now the location of an ultra-modern building housing exhibits, a multimedia library, events, a café, tourist information and public restrooms. (As one who visits many restrooms in my travels, I can say without equivocation, bathrooms in this part of the world are unbelievably clean. And they confirm my opinion that Americans are thoughtless and messy.)
Outside, there was a large sculpture made of junk – a comment on the extensive pollution of the world’s oceans by non-perishable plastic. At the end of a pier is a rock with a polished steel male figure, HAN (meaning “he” in English), an echo of the famous Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.
The path to the castle crosses over water, through an impressive gate and around massive walls, over the moat and through another large doorway into the castle courtyard.
We’d just arrived when Yorick, a jester, ran in, mounted the central fountain pedestal and, in a loud voice, sang to the crowd. His song – about a powerful king who had obtained the throne by killing his brother and marrying his widow – a foreword to scenes to come.
Checking the chalkboard, we noted the schedule of theatrical action. Between touring the open parts of the castle and racing from one end to another to catch the dramatic vignettes, we logged a lot of activity points. We saw King Claudius and Queen Gerturde coming out of the chapel to greet us peasants. Yorick, for his bad jokes was put in stocks and visitors were invited to pelt him with wet sponges. Later we watched him juggle and entertain the Queen and Ophelia in the Queen’s chamber.
A lot of drama happened in the ballroom/throne room with a crazed Ophelia, a sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes, the death of Queen Gertrude and pretty much everybody else. It’s definitely Shakespeare light but adds color to the historic building.
In 2000 the castle was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list because it is an excellent example of a Renaissance castle and because of its location, a major factor in the history of Northern Europe. A day-trip to Helsingør makes an interesting excursion from one of Europe’s most interesting cities, Copenhagen.