April 29, 2016
This past Saturday marked the 452nd birthday of William Shakespeare. Coincidentally, it also marked the 400th anniversary of his death. Widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, many around the world have recently paid homage to his great literary works. One such notable tribute came from none other than the Prince Charles, along with actors Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judy Dench and Benedict Cumberbatch, who recited Hamlet earlier this week in London to celebrate this legendary anniversary. (watch it here).
Shakespeare, who is often referred to as England’s national poet, was not Danish. However, he does have some very interesting Danish ties. For instance, one of the most recognized quotes from all of Shakespeare’s works is one that you have most likely heard before. It is the line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and is spoken by an officer of the palace guard, after the ghost of the dead king appears before Hamlet. (Read more about the plot of Hamlet here)
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Penned around 1599-1601, it is set in Denmark (the full title of the play is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark) and may have also been a cunning way for Shakespeare to flatter the future king. Perhaps Shakespeare was doing a bit of 17th century self-promotion and had Anne of Denmark in mind?
She was the Queen consort of Scotland, England, and Ireland, as the wife of King James VI and I. King James, whom she was married to from 1589 until her death in 1619, was King of Scotland (VI) from 1567-1625, and King of England and Ireland (I) from 1603-1625. In addition, her older brother was Christian IV, the reigning King of Denmark and Norway (1588-1648) when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. Furthermore, in 1574 her father, Frederick II, built Kronborg Castle at Elsinore, which is the setting for Hamlet. Therefore, it is safe to say that Queen Anne had some legit Danish ties!
The castle she lived in as a girl has an intriguing history in its own. Often referred to today as, “Shakespeare’s Castle,” it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. However, 580 years before being recognized as one of the most important Renaissance castles of Northern Europe, King Eric VII built the first castle on the site and called it “Krogen” (translation: The Hook). In fact, remnants of the old walls can still be seen on the site today. In 1574, King Frederick II began construction on the magnificent castle and its fortifications, which he named “Kronborg” (translation: crown castle). Since Øresund (The Sound) was the gateway to the Baltic Sea from 1429-1857 and Denmark controlled this passage, thanks to Kronborg Castle, it played a key role in the history of Northern Europe.
In 1629 a disastrous fire destroyed much of the castle, but Queen Anne’s brother, King Christian IV, had it reconstructed nearly identical to what it had been. Today you can take a tour of the castle three times each day, explore the crypts that hold ancient secrets and meet Holger Danske (Holger the Dane), and enjoy live performances of Shakespeare’s plays in the courtyard, where centuries ago noblemen did the same.
As scholars continue to deliberate and reinterpret the text he created, millions of high school students each year discuss and learn to decipher his tales, and countless theater festivals all over the world honor Shakespeare’s immense theatrical works, it is safe to say that William Shakespeare’s lasting link to Denmark is more intriguing than fiction.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question.” (Act III, Sc. I)