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How Europe helped to inspire Shakespeare

An aerial image of Kronborg Castle, Helsing�r (Photo by Blom UK via Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

A chance lockdown discovery leads CHARLIE CONNELLY down memory lane to the Danish castle that inspired the Bard.

We all have little jobs around the house that we’ve planning to get around to – for years in some cases. One of mine was going through a big box of old DVDs that needed sorting out and last week it took a global pandemic for me to finally sit cross-legged on the floor and get thoroughly stuck in at last.

In the middle of matching loose discs to their correct cases I came across one orphan with no identifying marks. Slipping it into the player I closed the drawer and pressed play, at which the television screen, from which I was sitting no more than four feet, was suddenly filled completely by my own stupid face. I reeled backwards and let out a yelp that brought my wife running in from the other room.

When this understandable alarm had diminished to manageable proportions I realised to my disappointment this wasn’t some kind of time-travelling message from a future me assuring us of a post-virus world of greater European unity and a government with a philosophy based on kindness and tolerance. Instead it was a film I’d presented for the BBC about 15 years ago on the subject of literary Denmark.

A prime-time series that profiled nice places to go seems even further off now than it ever did, but there it was on the screen so that kind of thing definitely happened in the olden days, a prelapsarian era when people didn’t only leave their homes at will but went to places that weren’t the supermarket. Good times.

We sat and watched, taunted by the younger me driving around Zealand babbling about Hans Christian Andersen then parking my behind on Karen Blixen’s writing chair as if driving around, babbling and sitting on other people’s chairs was the most natural thing in the world.

One part of the film in particular invoked a particularly profound sense of yearning, especially this week marking the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death. Kronborg Castle sits on a nipple of land on the eastern coast of Zealand, looking out across the Øresund strait towards the Swedish town of Helsingborg that’s so close you can see traffic moving along the opposite shore. It’s a perfect castle location at the narrowest point of the strait, and at the height of Danish military power in the late 16th century Frederick II had turned it into a formidable fortress that exacted lucrative tolls on all shipping going in and out of the Baltic Sea. It’s a combination of beautiful Renaissance architectural flourishes – turrets in three corners with ornate copper roofs that have gone bright green with age – and a forbidding military structure of considerable size that from the water must look absolutely impregnable.

The reason I was there and babbling on screen was that Kronborg is also the setting for Hamlet. Helsingør, the Danish town that huddles behind its military protector, is the Elsinore of the play, estimated to have been written by the Bard at the dawn of the 17th century.

Watching myself wandering around the castle led me to a thought process free of social isolation to some of the Shakespeare locations I’ve visited over the years. There’s the house in Stratford-upon-Avon in which he was born, of course, and visiting his grave inside the parish church was an experience I found more moving than I expected. Ordinarily both these sites of literary pilgrimage would be absolutely packed this week, but possibly for the first time since the Shakespeare revival started in earnest during the late 18th century they will be padlocked and deserted, empty like ‘the painting of a sorrow, a face without a heart’ described by Claudius to Laertes in Hamlet.

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I thought too of some the productions I’ve seen, from a magical rendering of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the perfect setting of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre to an RSC production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at Stratford-upon-Avon a couple of years ago that contained enough anti-Brexit asides to recruit the Bard firmly to the Remain cause.

And a Remainer he would certainly have been. Like every jobbing actor and playwright of the period worth their salt, Shakespeare worked with one eye permanently on the rest of Europe. The companies of the day earned as much of their corn touring abroad as they did treading the boards at home. There are frustratingly large gaps in what we know of Shakespeare’s life, long periods in which we have no idea where he was or what he was doing. It’s likely that, certainly in his younger days, he spent chunks of that time trundling around the continent with a bunch of other actors in a cart loaded with props, costumes and bits of scenery.

English performers were hugely popular on the continent in Shakespeare’s day. Indeed the first theatre ever built in Poland, in Danzig around 1600, was designed specifically to accommodate English touring companies. It became part of a well-trodden circuit that encompassed what are now Czech and German lands, the Baltics and Scandinavia – including Kronborg.

We’ll never know if Shakespeare actually showed up at Kronborg but the references in Hamlet have just enough detail to suggest detailed knowledge of the place, even if it wasn’t the man himself who was able to provide it.

On the day I visited I was able to walk the outer ramparts where in the opening scene of Hamlet the ghost of the prince’s murdered father Claudius spooks the guards and sets in train the events of the play. I stood beneath the windows of the apartments constructed for the use of the royal family, where Claudius would have lingered and died. I poked my head into the chapel where Claudius prayed before confronting his queen and Hamlet’s mother Gertrude.

I strolled through the banqueting hall in which ancient tapestries hung, one of which could well have been the arras behind which Ophelia’s father Polonius met his end (watching the DVD confirmed that the ‘poor old Polonius, eh? Stabbed in the arras’ line I introduced to the script was cut for the broadcast even though I delivered it perfectly after jumping out from behind what might have been the actual arras). And I walked through the courtyard with Karen, the woman then in charge of the annual performances of Hamlet that take place right there, in the open air, on the very spot Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote the play more than 400 years ago. Ghosts of some of the greatest actors in the world flit around here, soliloquising and dilly-dallying, making everything in the courtyard feel like a play within a play.

If we don’t know whether Shakespeare actually visited Kronborg we can be sure that three people he knew very well definitely did. In 1586 the castle had just been extensively modernised by Frederick II and that year three English actors arrived, engaged for the summer to mark the fortress’s rebirth at the request of the Danish ambassador to London. They were Will Kempe, George Bryan and Thomas Pope, known associates of Shakespeare, when all four were part of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men troupe, to the extent that the Bard even wrote roles with Kempe specifically in mind. Hence when he came to write Hamlet, modernising an ancient tale just after the castle itself had been modernised, and set it at Kronborg, Shakespeare had expert location knowledge to call on even if he hadn’t seen the place for himself.

The annual performances at the castle have attracted some of the biggest names in the acting profession. Hamlet is a role to which every actor aspires, but the chance to play the prince in the intended setting of the play has proved intoxicating to leading men from many different countries. The first performance took place in 1816. It was two years after Britain and Denmark had signed a peace treaty towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars and happened also to be the bicentenary of the playwright’s death.

Danish soldiers garrisoned at Kronborg staged the play, with a young lieutenant named Nicolai Peter Nielsen in the title role who would go on to be one of Denmark’s finest actors after he left the army. This was no knockabout version either: a special prologue was written for the occasion by the poet Adam Oehlenschläger that concluded, ‘Here Hamlet is played; outside on the terrace path the spirit itself walks by’.

The current tradition began in 1937, when the Old Vic company came over from London, a production directed by Tyrone Guthrie with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet and Viven Leigh as Ophelia (and an up and coming 23-year-old called Alec Guinness as Osric). The first night was washed out by rain and transferred to a nearby ballroom but the following evening the sun shone and 2,500 people witnessed a performance from Olivier that had the man from the Times declaring, ‘When Hamlet came out it was indeed as if time had for the moment got out of step with reality’.

The following year saw a German production starring the great German actor Gustaf Gründgens in a performance attended by Hermann Göring, who happened to be holidaying nearby on his yacht. But in 1939, as the shadow of war loomed over Europe, John Gielgud arrived – to a fusillade of cannon and a brass band playing It’s a Long Way to Tipperary – with Fay Compton leaving her sick bed in London to play Ophelia.

Karen Blixen was in the audience. ‘Between the acts, I went backstage on the Bastion and smoked a cigarette with Hamlet in his long cape,’ she wrote afterwards. ‘The evening was so clear and full of stars I might have really entered Shakespeare’s world.’

Since then a succession of household names have played the Dane at Elsinore including Richard Burton, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Simon Russell Beale and Jude Law. A BBC production was filmed there in 1964 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, directed by Philip Saville with Christopher Plummer as Hamlet and Michael Caine as Horatio.

Companies from across Europe and beyond have staged Hamlet at Kronborg, above ‘the dreadful summit of the cliff that beetles o’er his base into the sea’ which is not, in truth, that dreadful a summit but hey, Shakespeare wasn’t writing a documentary. The roster of Hamlets reminds us of better times, of European integration and the ability we take for granted to wander across continents. What better time to appreciate them than in the week marking the beginning and the end of the life of Shakespeare, the European?

They should still have left my arras joke in, though. Philistines.

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