HAMLET – Denmark
No use telling the world that Hamlet is not autobiographical as approximately 200,000 people beat a path to Kronberg Castle in Denmark every year. Shakespeare set the fictitious story in Elsinore Castle and it is presumed that this was Kronborg Castle which has existed since 1420 and is considered to be one of Europe’s finest Renaissance castles.
Elsinore (Kronberg Castle) – WikiCommons
Despite being burned to the ground twice, Kronberg has continued to maintain its vital position at the head of the Øresund Sound. Ships passing into the Baltic Sea used to pay tolls at the Castle and Helsingør (the Danish translation of Elsinore) was once one of the most important towns in Europe.
Shakespeare’s evocative imagery, the dramatic story, and the play’s worldwide popularity means that thousands of people visit Kronborg Castle every year. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, the dingy catacombs and graceful towers have become synonymous with the doomed Prince Hamlet. Guided tours are offered in June, July and August, but the best time to visit, if possible, is during the annual Shakespeare festival in August.
From Copenhagen the journey takes less than 45 minutes or the “Hamlet” ferry takes passengers from Helsingborg, Sweden through the narrow strait.
MERCHANT OF VENICE – Venice
Italy was one of Shakespeare’s favourite locations in which to set his plays. Venice, which provided the setting for the story of Antonio, Bassanio and Portia in The Merchant of Venice, is still one of Italy’s glories, its beauty still breath-taking when approached from the sea, and its treasures among the greatest in Italy.
The ghettos may have gone, but this famous port city is still exceptionally atmospheric. It’s hard not to have flashbacks to scenes from the 1973 Nicholas Roeg film Don’t Look Now if you are strolling around Venice as dusk falls.
Take a gondola to Palazzo Ducale and explore the former wine bars, cafes and churches, visit some of the art galleries, relax on a boat ride to the outer islands and when the sight-seeing has exhausted you, take the canal trip down to Padua. But, for some quiet time to think about the play, you will have to visit in winter – the only time the tourists don’t visit in their thousands. With four or five giant cruise ships docking most days, Venice is in danger of losing all character and the world of Portia and Shylock may become a thing of the past. It’s impossible to see Venice properly during the day, for that you have to wait until the cruise visitors have returned to their ships when you are no longer forced to dawdle behind them as they crowd the streets in groups with their cameras on sticks held high, desperate to get the photograph that may serve as an aide memoire when they return to their cocooned cruiser.
If I can paraphrase, it must be Venice, there’s a gondola in my photograph.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE – Vienna
One doesn’t associate Austria with Shakespeare yet for some reason he set one of his plays in Vienna, a Vienna that is not recognisable today but that has some similarities with the Vienna that existed immediately after the Second World War when it was a city divided between the four powers, Britain, France, Russia and USA.
Concert Hall in Vienna – Mari Nicholson
Measure for Measure is set in a Vienna whose streets and taverns are teeming with criminals, prostitutes and pimps, not one we would recognise today. This problem play offers us the purity of the city that was Austria’s cultural crown jewel, long hailed for its art, architecture and intellectuals as a city that has to balance purity with la vie bohème; the old with the new. Often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, its text has often been altered to suit the mores and morals of the period in which it was performed.
Most of the action takes place in the Duke’s palace, in the city prison and in the streets of Vienna. The play’s main themes include justice, “mortality and mercy in Vienna,” and the dichotomy between corruption and purity: “some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”
Today’s Vienna is more about Strauss than sin, Mozart rather than mayhem.
There is little to remind you of Measure for Measure but Vienna boasts Shakespeare Garden, a space dedicated to the flora and fauna in his works, a pleasant place to spend a little time. Then maybe light a candle at the gothic St Stephen’s Cathedral and enjoy the quintessential coffee and cake at Hotel Sacher where you will have to join a queue for perhaps 20 minutes in order to get a seat and a piece of that cake – Sacher torte – but it’s worth it.
Have a traditional night out at the Viennese Opera before heading to a trendy bar in Freihaus or to a restaurant for the perfect Weiner Schnitzel. Shakespeare would have loved it I bet.