Kronborg´s theatre history

Kronborg´s theatre history


Beautifully situated on the waterfront and on the northernmost point of Zealand lies our historical town of Elsinore, which we with certainty know that it has since 1231, when the market town of Elsinore is mentioned for the first time in King Valdemar’s Land Register. The prosperity and development of the town are closely linked to the Sound Dues that were introduced in 1429 by King Eric of Pomerania. The dues were levied on every ship that sailed through the Sound and were to be paid to the king. The Sound Dues were the reason many foreigners settled in the town, and conditions were favourable in this lively and at times rather open-minded town. Much suggests that Elsinore was quicker to take up new trends than other towns, which is also reflected in its well-preserved building culture. The forcible means behind this tax was the newly built castle Krogen, which, after being rebuilt much later in 1574-75, took on a new appearance and name as Kronborg Castle, as we still know it today. In a short course of time, the young William Shakespeare’s fame rocketed due to his worldly, entertaining and historical dramas.


The man behind the rebuilding of Kronborg was King Frederik II (reign 1559-1588). He was an industrious entrepreneur and a visionary thinker, who was inspired by Martin Luther’s reformation ideology, which focused on freeing the individual’s relation to God and breaking away from the Catholic Church and its system of indulgences. These ground-breaking ideas were of profound importance to the court of Frederik II as well as the town’s position in the world.


When Kronborg Castle was inaugurated in the summer of 1585, the guests of the court were entertained by three English actors: William Kemp, Thomas Pope and George Bryan. After having served at the Danish court in Elsinore, the three young men returned to London. In theatre circles there, they met the enterprising and budding dramatist William Shakespeare. During the next two decades, they together established a successful travelling company of actors called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and performed numerous plays. By 1599 they even had their own theatre built in London, the spectacular Shakespeare’s Globe.


An author is always on the lookout for a good story, and one day Shakespeare got hold of François de Belleforest’s tragic story of Amleth from 1572, and this led him further back in time to Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, the first book of Danish history, from the 13th century. In 1514, it was translated into French and English by a Dane in Paris, Kristiern Pedersen from Elsinore. Here, Shakespeare read about the Danish Viking Prince Amled, who killed his uncle to avenge the murder of his father. It is the perfect tragedy, and Shakespeare recreates and updates with inspiration from Luther’s reformation ideology about the responsible individual who alone must be accountable for his actions. Amled becomes Hamlet. The Viking prince becomes a Renaissance prince. Ammelhede becomes Kronborg Castle. And the factual references to Frederik II’s court and way of life are incorporated with the help of his three actor friends, who visited the castle in 1585. In 1601, the drama about the irresolute Danish Prince Hamlet has its world premiere at Shakespeare’s Globe with Richard Burbage in the title role.


Shakespeare’s seminal king play about the transitional character of Hamlet is a universal story about the birth of the first modern man who reflects over his own existence in the world, as the Middle Ages turn into the Renaissance. This story begins at the university in Martin Luther’s town of Wittenberg in the late 1500s. The Danish king’s son, Hamlet, is a student here, and soon he is completely fascinated by thoughts that are critical of the church and that will lead to the liberation of the individual and a new world order whose focus is on the responsible modern man who takes the lead in life while having respect for his fellow man and community. This is an educational journey on which Prince Hamlet learns to reflect on the words, “To be or not to be. That is the question,” before springing into action.


More than 200 years later, in the early 1800s, Hamlet and Shakespeare get a huge revival. In Denmark, this period is termed “the great theatre madness”, as private theatre companies spring up like mushrooms in the three largest cities in Denmark: Copenhagen, Odense and Elsinore. There are three theatre companies in Elsinore: The Drama Company, which builds its own theatre, called Elsinore Theatre, in Groskenstræde in 1816, Enigheden (Unity) in Bjergegade and the officers’ theatre company at Kronborg Castle called Thalia, which was led by the commandant of the fortress, Lieutenant-General Hans Ulrich von Scheel.

The theatre, located in the square Canon Tower at Kronborg Castle, was rather makeshift and intimate being only 7.5×9 meters, giving it an atmosphere of its own and making it easier to illuminate with tallow candles than the larger theatres. It could accommodate 70-80 audience members at performances that were put on once a week. It was always on a Wednesday, since that was the fixed day off at the Royal Danish Theatre, which complained to King Frederik VI that Thalia stole their audience. This absurd complaint was considered a great compliment by the officers at Kronborg Castle.

Thalia’s repertory was often German and Danish tragedies, plays about heroes and chivalry by Kotzebue, Iffland and Schiller, and this was very different from the two other Elsinore-based theatre companies, where vaudeville and comedies were paramount.

HAMLET IN DENMARK IN 1792, 1813 AND 1816

That the world’s most famous play takes place in Denmark with a Danish prince as the main character has obviously given the play a special place in Danish theatre history. The first known performance in Denmark most likely took place at Odense Theatre in 1792, when the play was performed in a German translation. The first performance in Danish took place at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen in 1813. The translator was the actor Peter T. Foersom, who also played the title role. Three years later, in 1816 and to mark the 200th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the theatre company Thalia performed Hamlet for the first time at Kronborg Castle with a prologue by Adam Oehlenschlæger and with Nicolai Peter Nielsen, a lieutenant in the artillery, as the main character.


This is the beginning of the Shakespeare theatre tradition, which once and for all brings Hamlet home to his castle in Elsinore and from then on attracts a long line of famous Shakespeare actors from all over the world. In 1837, the first international theatre company from Covent Garden lead by the actor Charles William Macreday visits Kronborg Castle for a performance in English. Later that same year, Hall’s theatre company performs Hamlet in Danish at Elsinore Theatre. Then in 1916, to mark the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Royal Danish Theatre puts on Hamlet between the ramparts at Kronborg Castle, starring Nicolai Neiiendam and Bodil Ipsen as Hamlet and Ophelia.

From 1937 to 1954, the National Open-Air Theatre was established, and for nearly 20 years, only interrupted by World War II, an impressive string of the greatest actors performed at Kronborg Castle, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Gustaf Gründgens, Sir John Gielgud, Fay Compton, Michael Redgrave, Richard Burton etc. Later, under the leadership of other promotors, several other prominent names were added such as Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Donald Sutherland, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh. In the last two decades, two institutions, Hamlet Summer (2000-2007) and HamletScenen (since 2008) have contributed to the list with renowned Shakespeare actors like Simon Russel Beale, Jens Albinus, David Dencik, Thure Lindhardt, Jude Law, Lars Eidinger, Cyron Melville, Casper Crump and others.

HamletScenen at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore is Denmark’s Shakespeare Theatre, which manages and further develops a unique Shakespeare tradition at Kronborg Castle dating back to the English instrumentalists at the court of King Frederik II from 1559-1588, the Military Theatre Company Thalia in the Canon Tower by the Crown Regiment from 1811-1829 under King Frederik VI, the National Open-Air Theatre 1937-1954, and Hamlet Summer 2000-2007.


HamletScenen was established in 2008 by Elsinore Municipality and the Ministry of Culture, and it has a professional board of directors and management. The theatre is located in the old infirmary and in the old barracks in Kronværksbyen at Kronborg Castle, which in the period 1425-1993 served as Elsinore’s garrison.

HamletScenen has a wide range of theatre-related activities during the year focusing on new productions and guest performances. In addition, the theatre runs a three-year talent school program, Hamlet Studio, in collaboration with Elsinore’s upper-secondary schools. The theatre has a large international network due to the Shakespeare Festival every summer, and it has attracted great international theatre companies, performers and other professionals to Kronborg Castle. Since 2000, the castle has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it is first and foremost famous as Hamlet’s Castle on account of the world’s oldest Shakespeare theatre tradition at the castle since 1816.