The Hamlet Castle
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." (Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV)
In the play, a guard, Marcellus, says these words. After Hamlet follows the ghost, Marcellus has to follow as well. Marcellus's words were meant to indicate how something evil and vile is afoot.
I was reminded of these words from the play when my companion unwittingly commented “There is something lousy about the weather in Denmark. The chill and cold showers are a constant!”
Having been in Scandinavia for seven years now, I didn’t agree with his flick assessment. After all, the summer is mostly warm and incomparably idyllic.
“But for most part of the year, it’s cold here”, he countered. Well, yes.
We were caught off-guard by a sudden rain while walking towards the Kronborg Castle in the Danish town of Helsingor (pronounced as Elsinore). As we walked out from the train station, the outline of the famed ‘Hamlet Castle’, as Kronborg Castle is better known, began to emerge. It stands rested on a truncated hill towards east, and dominates the narrow channel of Baltic Sea that separates Denmark and Sweden.
A stone gated entrance, engraved on which are the years when the castle was under construction, receives tourists. Inside, a moat runs around the castle. Though supposed to act as a protective barrier, the moat could not deter Swedes from infiltrating the castle in 1650s. Now, it comes across as a pretty collar, brimming with white swans. Another entrance through the walls leads to a wide centre courtyard. When I visited, the castle had already seen off the screening of the play Hamlet, which is held every summer by Royal Shakespeare Company in this courtyard.
The castle was originally built as a fortress in the first half of the 14th century. The fortress was the ‘toll gate’ of those times and commanded entry taxes to the ships passing through the Baltic Sea. The fortress began to be recognised as an outstanding piece of architecture after it was shaped into a castle in the 1580s. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its porch houses canons from the time when the castle was under military administration between 1800 and 1900. “These cannons still work”, our guide informed us, “They are often fired as a salute to the Queen as she passes by on her way to her summer house.”
The Shakespearean tragedy about Prince Hamlet of Denmark ensured Kronborg Castle its place in history. However, debate rages on whether this was the fort on which the play was fashioned for Shakespeare never visited Denmark. Some do believe that there is an element of truth in the play as one Prince Amleth did live in Denmark in the thirteenth century. Others believe that Shakespeare took the inspiration of his play from another English playwright Thomas Kyd’s work Ur-Hamlet. Whatever the truth be, Kronborg Castle has gained wider fame through Shakespeare. The management thanked its benefactor by etching his portrait in stone on one of the walls of the castle, and the souvenir shop sells miniature Shakespeare figurines.
Standing atop its bulwark on a clear day, one can notice the Swedish town of Helsingborg on the other side of the sea. The distance between the two countries seems tantalising short, a short swim away. However, the Baltic is frigid at this time of the year and except for diehards, no one would risk a dip. Despite the cold, we found a few locals catching fish in the shallow waves. From time to time, they would retreat behind the stone wall to examine the catch and escape from the chilly wind, before coming back to the sea and attempting another catch.
The sun had begun to set, even though it was only four in the evening. A crossing ferry disturbed the horizon and gently pulled us out of the medieval times that the Kronborg Castle had taken us to. Gradually, we made our way out as the sky turned a shade darker. Soon the castle would be drowned in complete darkness.
“There is something dark about the state of Denmark”, my friend commented as we left.
A version of this story appeared in National Geographic Traveller India