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About the Author
Ralph Berry has been professor of English at the Universities of Ottawa and Manitoba as well as York University, Toronto. He is the author of Tragic Instance: The Sequence of Shakespeare’s Tragedies.
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Shakespeare's Setting and a Sense's of Place
By Ralph Berry
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2016 Ralph Berry
All rights reserved.
'But what is your affair in Elsinore?' asks Hamlet (1.2.174). Standing in for Horatio, I reply that I am here to visit the town and castle, as guest of the Danish tourist Board. My objective is to study the location for its bearing on the play. I think that the place tells us a great deal about Hamlet.
Shakespeare conflated the port, Helsingør, and the castle, Kronborg, into one word: Elsinore. The play is clearly set within the castle and its grounds, save perhaps for the graveyard scene (5.1) and 4.4 (the Danish coast). It is Kronborg that matters, a word never mentioned in Hamlet but the key to the play. This is the fortress that Frederik II built to enforce Danish command of the Øresund Straits, and with it the power of levying customs duties. The castle/palace was burned down in 1629, then rebuilt by Christian IV with a virtually unchanged exterior. The inner arrangements were modifications rather than radical changes to the original. Hence the Kronborg we see is very close to the Elsinore Shakespeare incorporated into Hamlet. The imaginative fictions take off from the physical realities.
The first of these realities to strike one is the sheer military power of the fortress. On two sides of the angle overlooking the Sound are the guns, facing north and east. The gun emplacements are on a terrace, and this is the 'platform' where the action of 1.1 and 1.4–5 takes place ('upon the platform where we watch', says Marcellus, 1.2.213). For the Elizabethans, 'platform' was customarily used to denote a gun site. It is perfectly possible to play those early scenes on the terrace, and this has been done. I even think that Horatio, in 'A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye' (1.1.112) might be punning unconsciously on 'moat', observable from the terrace. The sound of cannon is specified in the text. Claudius makes it a royal ritual to have the cannon salute his drinking, and the last scene has the finest of these effects. 'Let all the battlements their ordnance fire,' says the King (5.2.267). Then comes:
Give me the cups,
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without,
The cannons to the heavens, the heaven to earth.
'Now the King drinks to Hamlet.' (5.2.271–5)
This is a particular stage effect, but Shakespeare never lets us forget that Hamlet is rooted in military and political realities, starting with the 'daily cast of brazen cannon'(1.1.76) described in the opening scene. From inside the Great Hall, one looks out through the windows at the gun-terrace just below. And Hamlet ends, says Martin Holmes in The Guns of Elsinore, 'with the crash of artillery that stood, in so many Elizabethan minds, for the armed might of Denmark' (p. 181).
With military power goes absolute internal security. One feels this as one passes through the outer entrance, which leads under the walls to an open space before the arched entrance to the courtyard. Each side of this space is flanked by a wall with a small window ('The King's Window', dated 1584 and 1585) from which all comers can be scrutinized. They are trapped in a chamber between entrances. These windows realize the sense of surveillance that is everywhere in Kozintsev's film. Through the arch one goes into the great courtyard, which to me is a vivid illustration of the central metaphor, 'Denmark's a prison.' I have never before felt such resonance in the phrase, and in the follow-up references to 'prison' (2.2.241–51). The courtyard, which is almost square, is enclosed on all four sides by the palace elevations. It feels like a prison exercise yard. When Rosencrantz delicately hints at the consequences of Hamlet's misbehaviour, 'You do surely bar the door upon your own liberty' (3.2.328–9), he is not exaggerating the power behind him. This is a play where doors close, not open. They act as barriers. Nobody gets out of Elsinore if the authorities want to keep them in.
The courtyard is capable of transformation into a theatre. The space would serve admirably for theatrical performances, as it still does. Shakespeare leaves open the setting for the Play Scene in 3.2, so the director can choose to play it indoors (as in the Olivier film) or outdoors (as in the Kozintsev film). It is true that Kronborg courtyard once had a fountain in the centre, subsequently removed by the Swedes. But this fountain could have been turned off for theatrical performances, and its platform remains. Currently it is raised about 5 inches above ground and could easily be built up with temporary structures into a proper stage.
The chambers within Kronborg are directly reflected in the play. The 'chapel' to which the body of Polonius is removed (4.1.37) remains on view. 'The Queen's Closet', as Shakespeare terms it, must be included in what are now called 'the Queen's Rooms'. They are connected by a short corridor with 'the King's Rooms'. 'Lobby' calls for commentary. When Polonius speaks of Hamlet walking 'Here in the lobby' (2.2.161), he does not have in mind our sense of 'entrance-hall', as in a hotel. 'Lobby' means 'a passage or corridor connected with one or more apartments in a building, or attached to a large hall, theatre, or the like; often used as a waiting-place or ante-room' (OED, sense 2). Ben Jonson added the word 'gallery'. This is the sense that Hamlet conveys with 'you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby' (4.3.36–7), when a gallery on an upper floor is indicated.
The most striking interior feature is the Banqueting Hall, or Great Hall. This is vast, one of the largest interiors in Europe. And it contains (as it did in Shakespeare's time) many tapestries portraying Danish royalty, for which Kronborg was famous. Polonius, in hiding behind the 'arras'– the word is thrice mentioned – is taking advantage of the space between the hanging screen of tapestry and the wall. Hiding behind is the main associate of 'arras', but there is a front too, and Shakespeare makes use of it in the Closet Scene: 'Look here upon this picture, and on this; / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers' (3.4.53–4). The mainstream interpretation of 'picture' is 'miniature painting', and it would be decorous of Hamlet to carry a miniature of his dead father. But there is no reason why the two pictures should be of the same genre. The stage has sometimes used medallions, and even coins, to convey images of the late King Hamlet. Above all, the Kronborg tapestries are portraits of past and present kings; and one or more of them might perfectly well be on the wall of Gertrude's closet.
Harold Jenkins, in his Arden Hamlet, is dismissive of the hint:
The idea that Shakespeare had in mind the portraits of the Danish kings in a famous tapestry in the castle of Kronborg at Elsinore (Jan Stefansson, Contemporary Review, LXIX, 25–9, and others) is no more than a pleasant fancy. Theories of life-size portraits in the form of wall paintings or tapestries hanging on the stage, though often confidently asserted, are without substance. Der Bestrafte Brudermord, in which Hamlet says 'Dort in jener Gallerie hangt das Conterfait Eures ersten Ehegemahls, and da hangt das Conterfait des itzigen', and the famous illustration in Rowe's Shakespeare (1709), with its portraits hanging over the Queen's head, afford some evidence, however we interpret it, of stage practice in a later period, but none at all for Shakespeare's. (p. 518)
This is extraordinary certitude. How can Jenkins know when a stage tradition originated? Der Bestrafte Brudermord is a degenerate descendant of the Hamlet play that was part of the repertory performed by the English actor John Green and his touring company in Dresden in 1626. That is close enough to Shakespeare's day. Shakespeare intended a strategic ambiguity. He knew about the Kronborg tapestries, many of which are still in place. His lines give the actors maximum flexibility. If a tapestry with a portrait-design or wall-painting is available for a production, well; if not, a small stage property such as a miniature is serviceable, convincing and easy.
If Denmark is a prison, the escape route is the sea. The sea is the great symbol of Hamlet's liberation, taking on dramatic intensity in certain scenes. Kronborg is only a few yards away from the sea, but Shakespeare introduces some dramatic exaggeration here. The flat shore of the Straits is not like the rock-girt coast that Horatio evokes in
What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff That beetles o'er his base into the sea ... (1.4.69–71)
There is however a remarkable congruence between the sea vista, from Kronborg, and the intimations of the play. It is tellingly expounded by Hugh Hunt. In June 1950 he took his Old Vic production of Hamlet (with Michael Redgrave) to Kronborg. They arrived from Zürich in late afternoon, and after supper at their hotel, the Marienlyst, they went on to the castle for the first rehearsal:
All went smoothly until after midnight, when, the castle 'bell then beating one', we were surprised by the loud singing of a blackbird which in the strange stillness of those grey walls was peculiarly distracting. Smoking is strictly forbidden in the castle courtyard and we broke off to enjoy a cigarette on the grass rampart overlooking the sea. Our surprise was considerable when on emerging from the moonlit courtyard we saw the dawn breaking over the Swedish coast opposite us. It was a russet dawn; the sea was the colour of dried blood, and, stranger than all, the comparatively flat Swedish coastline assumed, by virtue of the rising sun, the appearance of 'yon high eastward hill'. Just then a cock crowed, and we knew how it was that Horatio and the watch observed the dawn so shortly after midnight – 'the dawn with russet mantle clad' that frightened the ghost from the battlements.
That looks like serious evidence of Shakespeare's local knowledge. He knew that at high summer the dawn comes not so long after midnight, at this latitude. Of course, "tis bitter cold' (1.1.8) points the other way, as does 'The air bites shrewdly, it is very cold' (1.4.1). But these hints are not decisive for a winter setting. Knight stressed that in northern Europe 'The air bites shrewdly' during the interval between sunset and sunrise, even in early summer. He added that Ophelia's flowers – pansies, columbines, and daisies – belong not to winter but to late spring. Besides, what was King Hamlet doing, 'sleeping in my orchard' (1.5.59) two months earlier? It is perfectly Shakespearean to conflate phenomena that are logically incompatible. The opening scene moves from midnight to dawn; and the audience can take this as dramatically compressed time, or a literal rendering in which stage time equals real time.
As Hunt viewed it, the low Swedish coastline took on the appearance of 'yon high eastward hill' (1.1.167). That line has been interpreted differently. Martin Holmes says that Shakespeare made 'a famous error' here. The illustration of Kronborg in a contemporary Elizabethan work, the Civitates Orbis Terrarum of Braun and Hogenberg, depicts a high hill facing Kronborg. So Shakespeare might have used that cue for a touch of dramatic exaggeration. At all events, Shakespeare depicts a view from the battlements that faces east, over the Sound. And so it does.
What emerges from seeing Kronborg is Shakespeare's familiarity with castle and outlook. Hamlet is well grounded in topography, both architecture and setting to adopt the untranslatable French term for the uniqueness of a vineyard, Shakespeare knows his terroir. But how could he have acquired this knowledge? The answer is beguilingly simple, and irrefutable. Three of Shakespeare's colleagues had been on the Danish payroll.
English players are known to have travelled on the Continent in the late sixteenth century. In 1585, 'certain unnamed English played (lechte) in the courtyard of the town hall at Elsinore, when the press of folk was such that the wall broke down'. Next season, the English followed up their success. We have it from the Household Accounts of the Danish court, which for August and September 1586 record:
36 daler paid to William Kemp, instrumentalist, for two months' board for himself and a boy, by name Daniel Jonns, which sum he had earned from 17 June when he was engaged, there till one month granted on his dismissal, in all three months, each month 12 daler.
The accounts also mention five other instrumentister och springere who were at court from 17 June to 18 September 1586. As the words indicate, they were all-round entertainers, skilled musicians and tumblers. Two of the five names stand out. One was 'Jurgenn Brienn', who has to be George Bryan. The other is 'Thomas Pape', who in his next engagement in Dresden becomes 'Tomas Papst'. He is easily recognizable as Thomas Pope. The three players with experience of the Danish court come into Shakespearean focus with the publication of the Folio in 1623. Immediately before the first play (The Tempest) is printed 'The Names of the Principall Actors in all these Plays'. The twenty-six names as printed include William Kempt, Thomas Poope and George Bryan. I do not know if it has been noted before that these three names are given in sequence (numbers 5–6–7 on the list) as if they comprised a natural grouping. One would expect these travelled players to talk about their experiences on the Continent. Their account of Denmark would have entered Company folklore.
Whether Shakespeare had more intimate conversations with the three is impossible to guess. Kemp was much the most famous. He pulled off a notable stunt in 1600, dancing all the way from London to Norwich. Today, this feat would be a charity run; then, it was simple self-publicizing. Kemp played many important clown roles, including Bottom and Dogberry, but he left Shakespeare's company, the Chamberlain's Men, in 1599. We do not know if he played Falstaff: David Wiles (Shakespeare's Clown) is sure he did, William Empson had doubts. Kemp was unquestionably a leading member of the company. I think Shakespeare must have had at least a good working relationship with him before the parting of the ways.
The other two are shadowy figures, for whom biographical sketches can be found in the second volume of Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage. Pope is referred to in the 1593 list of Strange's Men as 'Mr Pope'. The 'Mr' is significant; it means that he was on a higher footing than the rest, and had a share in the company and its profits. It is Gentlemen and Players in embryo, with the upper echelon being styled differently from the run-of-the-mill players. (Those who recall the English cricket team lists, up to the early 1960s, will recognize a characteristic English practice.) A contemporary satire mentions Pope:
What means Singer then,
And Pope the clown, to speak so boorish, when
They counterfaite the clownes upon the Stage?
(Samuel Rowlands, 1600)
from which he appears as one of those Clowns whom Hamlet so disliked: 'And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them' (3.2.38–9). Playwrights have seldom enjoyed warm relationships with actors who embroider the sacred texts. I cannot see Pope and Shakespeare as soulmates. Bryan looks more promising. He too sported the 'Mr' (like Shakespeare, of course) in an early list. Probably he left the Chamberlain's Men to become an ordinary Groom of the Chamber. He held this post at Elizabeth's funeral in 1603, and still held it in 1611–13. Bryan looks to me more socially attuned and adept than the two clown specialists. He would be a better guide to the customs of Danish royalty, and might well have played on his expertise to become Groom of the Chamber.
The professional connections between Shakespeare and his three colleagues are certain. Shakespeare must have encountered Will Kemp, Thomas Pope and George Bryan on innumerable occasions. Whether he had intimate conversations with one or more, or drew on company folklore for its account of Kronborg, cannot be established and is not important. What matters is that Shakespeare knew his Kronborg. 'Elsinore', as we pass through it today, is a country of the mind that comes to life, a site that glows with Shakespearean illumination. To see it is to come closer to understanding Hamlet. As the jockeys know, you have to walk over the course.
Excerpted from Shakespeare's Setting and a Sense's of Place by Ralph Berry. Copyright © 2016 Ralph Berry. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements List of Illustrations Introduction 1. Shakespeare’s Elsinore 2. Elsinore Revisited 3. Shakespeare at the Middle Temple 4. Haddon Hall and the Catholic Network 5. Ephesus and The Comedy of Errors 6. Shakespeare’s Venice 7. Hampton Court Palace and Whitehall 8. Windsor and The Merry Wives 9. Richard III’s England 10. Falstaff’s Tavern 11. Johnson’s London 12. Ben Johnson at Althorp: Memoir of a Royal Visit