Kronborg (Hamlet’s) Castle was the muse that drove me to Denmark, the Shakespearean work my compass to being too much in the sun. Hamlet is my favorite of the Bard’s plays, and I couldn’t wait to wrap myself up in its blanket of a dual mystical history: the history of Kronborg as Frederick II’s Renaissance masterpiece, and the history of Elsinore as Hamlet’s abode.
Helsingør is an forty minute train ride away from Copenhagen, a speedy trip that ventures into the countryside as you travel north. Kronborg castle is discernible on the horizon, rising up with braided spires on the lip of the water. From the station, I passed an outdoor flower market and walked along the water until the entrance came into view. Boats bobbed in anchor, and the wind picked up fiercely and didn’t loosen up until later in the afternoon.
The grounds, even from the walkway up, are stunning. Towering, powerful, a castle lacking its once-upon-a-time intimidation but overwhelming in royal charm, as strong as the expanse of sea. It feels like a passage through layers of style that are bright and, in a way, healing. It feels like a release, an escape somewhere exotic and calming.
No wonder Shakespeare was inspired by Kronborg. Though it’s not known whether he actually visited the castle, he must have understood its undeniable beauty and ideal atmosphere to set the stage for tragedy.
The Castle Grounds
The entryway opens up into the castle’s courtyard, from which the chapel, the Royal Apartments, the casemates, and other exhibits are accessible. A pathway outside of the grounds leads to the canons, still protecting their land.
Kronborg Castle was originally built in 1420. In 1574, the renaissance palace that stands today was designed and constructed, and served as the home of King Frederick II; it caught fire in 1620, but was identically reconstructed. It was a military stronghold as well, and fell under the army’s reign in the 1780s. Before that, though, the walls embraced the ruler’s loving marriage to his wife (and first half-cousin), Sophie, said to be the happiest royal union in Europe.
At 38, after leading his country in war and finally intending to be wed, he chose Margrethe of Pomerania and summoned her to Kronborg. She arrived with her entourage, a fourteen-year-old Sophie and her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Mecklenburg; and for Frederick II it was seemingly love at first sight. Margrethe, dejected, returned home as Frederick II and Sophie lived blissfully through marriage and eight children. Talk about a juicy love story!
The Royal Apartments are exquisitely decorated with tapestries commissioned for the castle, Renaissance works, twinkling chandeliers, and darkly wooded furniture set against white walls. And the windows! Oh, the way they let natural light in.
The winding halls and rooms lead you through to the grand ballroom, the grandest of its time. A typical party saw up to twenty-four dishes being served, and once the guests had left, it was used to store produce and building materials. It may not have always been a dance zone, but boy, wouldn’t it be nice to waltz around here?
The Scope of Sea and Sky
Take the 143 (fitting? After you see the view, very much so) steps up to a panoramic view of Helsingør and a look at the castle’s courtyard. The vantage point feels like that of a bird’s—a low-flying bird, but one sweeping over a spectacle of unannounced beauty.
It was crazy hair for me for the rest of the day, but so worth it. All of the videos I took from up there are bombarded with the sound of the wind powering through.
Below the castle’s bastions lie the casemates, a gloomy underground passage of tunnels that served as protection for soldiers during times of attack. I entered not having first read the description of the crypt-like darkness, and assumed that it had once served as some sort of dungeon. Far from it: the casemates stored six weeks’ worth of provisions for 1,000 soldiers, with plenty of space for both men and their horses to barricade themselves if the castle were under siege or battle. Resting here, according to legend, is Ogier the Dane, who remains in a deep sleep until the castle is attacked.
A Shakespeare Summer Festival
I was lucky to be there in the summertime, as the castle puts on Hamlet reenactments over the course of the season. Theatre is so important to me, an art that gives and gives of itself and exposes the human experience in deeply moving ways. Expression seeks feeling, and exposing myself to that is always cathartic. It is so welcomed, in fact, that I stayed at the castle for five hours instead of the three I’d planned, because I was caught under theatre’s spell.
Beginning at 12:30 in the afternoon, performers would take center stage in certain rooms around the palace and deliver Shakespeare’s lines in the setting of inspiration. I watched moments play out as close to imagined by the writer as possible and followed the trajectory of the story through the castle, bringing new life to the work and experience. (AKA, it filled my heart with so much literary happiness and I, at times, was close to bursting with how intimate theatre was.)
We were privy to interactive performances, the actors speaking to (and about) the audience in the same breath that they spoke to one another. Polonius, the ringleader who shepherded us from one place to another, told me through all of our run-ins that my outfit of a three-quarter length shirt and denim shorts worried him because of how chilly it was. I brushed him off every time, but silently wished I had his cloak on to shield me from the incessant wind.
My favorite scene performed was the coronation scene, where Hamlet hangs behind and recites his first soliloquy. The actor was so sullen, so bereaved over his stepfather’s ascent to the throne and King Hamlet’s death, and I was entirely in the moment. I had goosebumps (over the goosebumps from the cold) all over, hanging onto his words even after he walked away in preparation for the next scene.
I also loved the play within a play, from the deception Hamlet clued us in on to watching King Claudius’s jovial face slowly drop.
The Throes of Immersive Theatre
At some point in the afternoon, a member of the castle cried “Help!” from behind, after we had just witnessed a bout of Hamlet’s madness. Pivoting around, the group of us still gathered found him panting and gesturing to the arch he had just run through. “I’ve just seen a phantom… King Hamlet! Hurry, follow me!” He ushered the few of us that followed through a dark entryway, pointing to the end of the passage. “Over there!” He stammered. “He was right over there!”
After a beat, a ghoulish voice met us and echoed through the cave, a bluish white figure projected ahead an invisible screen. The voice of the actor portraying Prince Hamlet sounded overhead, and he and his father’s spirit exchanged words of vengeance for the king. I was living for the breathlessness of the Kingsman member, still stricken with fear over the conversation that just transpired.
There’s an exhibit housed in the castle about Hamlet and the number of performances that have occurred in the castle, including a BBC film, Hamlet at Elsinore, starring Christopher Plummer, made on the grounds. Sometimes I don’t think it could get any better, and somehow it always does.
Kronborg Castle is a literary paradise.
Spending the day in the palms of literature and history’s hands was so cool. I was coerced into staying longer by the scenes that I ran around to see, the ballroom Claudius’s place of worship, a game of chess in a small office before Hamlet’s puppet show, catching Ophelia and Hamlet in intimate moments that they had to steal in random spots. It had that double layer to it, blending the history of the royal family who hosted grand parties in their ballroom, who loved one another deeply, who probably looked out the windows and, no matter what circumstances were pressing on them, returned to a state of tranquility.
Kronborg Castle is the ideal day trip. It is a literary paradise, an interesting real-life story, a wind tunnel, and pure magic. It is an ecstasy of love.
Have you visited Kronborg Castle?