Up close and personal with Hamlet

SALIL DESAI visits Kronborg Castle — believed to be the home of one of Shakespeare’s most famous and recognisable characters — and explores its fascinating past and entertaining present

In all probability, not many of us have seen a stage enactment of Hamlet. So how would it feel, to not just watch a live performance of this famous play, but at the very location in which Shakespeare set it: the Kronborg Castle in Denmark?

It’s pretty mind-blowing. Take my word for it. Located in the suburb of Elsinore (Helsingor in Danish), just a 40-minute train ride from Copenhagen, the Kronborg Castle is a U.N. heritage site that provides a fantastic sightseeing experience.

Poised right on a narrow outlet to the Baltic Sea, Kronborg Castle was strategically built to be the perfect extortion point — a fortress meant to harass all passing ships, especially Swedish and Norwegian, to pay a handsome toll to the King of Denmark in medieval times. The cannons mounted on its ramparts were not so much for protection, as they were for coercing ships into submission. Indeed, it is due to the power of literature that this much-hated place in history is now looked upon benignly.

The castle itself looms majestically, its high spires and formidable sandstone structure a typical example of erstwhile Renaissance architecture. There is no evidence to suggest that Shakespeare ever visited Kronborg or based his story on real events that happened there. It is believed that he used the setting on the basis of hearsay, simply because it was the best-known place in Denmark for outsiders, and carried the connotation of fear and intimidation.

The castle houses a lovely museum, with exhibits from the era of the Danish King Frederick II and his royal quarters. Particularly remarkable is the banquet hall in which the king entertained lavishly, and the stunning paintings that adorn its walls.

But the best part of the visit to Kronborg is, of course, watching scenes from Hamlet being performed by professional actors. It was riveting to see Claudius repenting his sins, as Hamlet lurks in the shadows, waiting to kill him, as was Hamlet’s soliloquy, full of doubt, unable to slay his uncle at the moment of confession and prayer, lest it send Claudius to heaven instead of hell. The actors may not be well-known, but they certainly put in their best, emoting and acting with competence, and you can’t help but applaud.

The performance also includes light-hearted spoofing of some acts, including a puppet show, for a better connect with young audiences. The actors also mingle freely with castle visitors, pose for photographs, smile and chat in the spacious courtyard.

Kronborg has had a long tradition of some of the greatest actors in the world enacting Hamlet at the venue. It is therefore fascinating to view the gallery of photographs dedicated to these performances, either on stage or as a part of various film adaptations, shot on location. This includes legends like Sir Laurence Olivier, to equally charismatic performers like Richard Burton, Christopher Plummer, and recently, even Jude Law.

As hours pass and you wander around the castle, wondering whether you might also bump into the ghost of Hamlet’s father somewhere, a strange reluctance to leave sets in. “To go or not to go,” is the question that your soul puts to you. Alas, there is no choice. Shakespeare has long ensured that no one can dwell at Kronborg, except for the legend of Hamlet.

(Salil Desai is a Pune-based crime novelist and film-maker.)

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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 9:31:48 PM |

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