Did you know that the castle where Shakespeare’s play Hamlet takes place really exists? Elsinore Castle is actually Kronborg Castle, located in the small town of Helsingør (known as Elsinore in English), a short train ride north of Copenhagen in Denmark. It is a magnificent renaissance palace from the late 16th century, now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Approach to Kronborg Castle, Helsingør, Denmark

The approach to Kronborg Castle

Nobody knows for sure whether Shakespeare himself ever visited the place, or only heard about it from others. I passed through Helsingør earlier this month on my way from Copenhagen to Sweden and decided to check out Hamlet’s Castle. Since this year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Kronborg is staging a special event called “Hamlet Live” over the summer months. I figured this could be fun, and indeed it was! 🙂

Hamlet’s Castle comes to life

Throughout the day, actors in costume performed different scenes from the play (in English) in the rooms where they take place in the story.  A board near the entrance in the courtyard was regularly updated to show what scene was happening where and when. I walked through the sequence of rooms three times in order to catch as many scenes as possible, and managed to see the main characters in action: Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, and of course Hamlet.

King Claudius during a scene (Hamlet's Castle)

King Claudius during a scene

One of my favourite moments was when Hamlet, after finishing a scene, started playing chess with a visitor! I expected the actors/characters to interact more with us, but this didn’t usually happen, although you could often see them walking around between scenes. However, upon first entering Hamlet’s Castle, I came across a woman in a kind of pirate/gypsy costume who warned me against the ghost lurking in the casemates, the underground passages under the castle.

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I never did see the ghost, but I was just in time to join an English tour of the casemates at noon. A young docent led us through the dark, cold and damp tunnels where the soldiers used to live. You really had to watch your step on the uneven stones, and your head through the low archways. There was barely enough light to see, and definitely not enough to take photos. It was really hard to imagine anybody being able to live down there.

Kronborg Castle's courtyard, Helsingør, Denmark

Kronborg Castle’s courtyard

One wing of the castle (on the right as you enter the courtyard) contains all the main rooms such as the Great Hall, King and Queen’s Chambers, Chancellery, and the Queen’s Gallery The other wing, accessed through a separate door on the left side, leads to several more rooms decorated with immense and incredibly detailed tapestries. The chapel and gift shop are also accessed by individual doors off the courtyard. A fire in 1629 destroyed most of the original furniture so what you see now is from the 17th century. However, seven of the tapestries are originals, as well as the furniture in the chapel.

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A bit of history

Hamlet is a fiction of course. In reality, Kronborg Castle was the home of King Frederik II and his wife Sophie. They moved into the remodelled fortress in 1584 and had seven children together, the fourth of whom eventually became the illustrious King Christian IV. The Danish kings’ names alternated between Frederik and Christian, followed by increasing roman numerals. I’m not sure if there was a reason for this, or if it just denotes a complete lack of imagination…

The Danish Monarchy is the oldest continuous monarchy in Europe (dating back to the 10th century) and fourth oldest in the world. Since 1849 however, it has become a Constitutional Monarchy, just like Canada, meaning that the powers of the monarch are restricted by a constitution, and in practice limited to ceremonial and diplomatic functions.

The Queen's Chamber, Kronborg Castle, Helsingor

The Queen’s Chamber

Current Queen Margrethe II and her family reside in Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen. Kronborg Castle these days acts as a museum but continues to be seen as “Hamlet’s Castle”. In fact, there is a long-standing tradition of performing Hamlet “on location” at the castle. The tradition goes back to 1816 when the play was performed here on the occasion of the bicentenary of Shakespeare’s death. During the mid 20th century, international stars like Laurence Olivier (1937) and later Richard Burton (1954) played Hamlet at Kronborg. Performances are still staged for visitors in the summer.

If you go

You could easily visit Kromborg Castle as a day trip from Copenhagen. The train ride from Copenhagen Central Sation to Helsingør takes only 45 minutes. The Copenhagen Card includes both transportation and admission to the castle.

If you don’t have the card, expect to pay 140 DKK (*) to visit the castle during “Hamlet Live” (June 1 to August 31, 2016) while outside this period the cost goes down to 90 DKK. Students and children pay less. You can also use your ticket to get 20% admission to the M/S Maritime Museum of Denmark, which is the other big attraction in town, and located on the way to the castle. Or you can use the ticket from the Maritime Museum to get 20% off on your Kronborg admission. The Copenhagen Card also includes the Maritime Museum.

Helsingor, Denmark

View of the town from the site of the Maritime Museum

If you’re on your way to Sweden, why not spend a night or two here before taking the 20-minute ferry ride across the sound to Helsingborg, Sweden? The ferry ticket costs 32 DKK one-way (without a car), and takes you directly to the train station on the other side. You can purchase ferry tickets from Scandlines on the second floor of the Helsingør train station.

I chose to spend two nights at the Helsingør Bed and Breakfast (500 DKK a night). It’s a bit of a misnomer though, as the room has a kitchenette but they don’t serve breakfast. Located about 2 kms to the castle and 3 kms to the train station, the house is very peaceful and its backyard fronts the water. It’s a pleasant walk to town, or you could use the local train line part of the way (but you need to have your tickets beforehand as the stations don’t seem to be manned).

Helsingør on a summer evening

Helsingør’ streets on a summer evening

Helsingør itself is a pleasant town with a pedestrian main street full of shops and restaurants. When the weather is good, most people sit outdoors on the terraces. You can find accommodation nearer the centre of town of course, but it will probably be pricier than staying on the outskirts. You could even stay in Helsingborg (Sweden).

(*) Exchange rates at the time of writing: 1 DKK (Danish Krone) = CAD$0.20 or US$0.15.

(Note: My visit was sponsored by Kronborg Castle. However all opinions, photos and video are my own.)


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