Last Updated on May 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
Elsinore is a thirteenth-century Danish castle that is the site of the main action of the play. Elsinore is a real city in modern Denmark, where it is known as Helsingor in Danish. The official modern name of the castle is Kronborg. However, William Shakespeare was not interested in creating the historical Elsinore (a place he almost certainly never visited) but in creating a castle suitable for a play with themes dealing with treachery and revenge, a play in which it seems almost impossible for the revenging hero to know exactly what is true and what is not.
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Significantly, all but two scenes of the play are set within the castle or on its battlements, and all the characters seem to live in the castle, at least temporarily. These include King Claudius and his wife, Hamlet’s mother, as well as the aged courtier Polonius and his daughter Ophelia. Prince Hamlet, like his counterpart, Laertes, was evidently away, living at his university town, until called home for his father’s funeral. Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s school friends, seem to be long-term guests at the castle. Even the acting company that stages The Mousetrap is lodged there. The exception is the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras, who lives in his own country except when he is waging war on his neighbors.
From its opening, the play’s action involves spying, an activity well suited to the labyrinthine layout of an ancient building in which one room opens into another and passageways twist unpredictably, leading from royal audience rooms to chapels to private rooms or “closets.” In such a setting, audiences see Hamlet decide to adopt his disguise of an “antic disposition” in order to test the veracity of the ghost. In this setting Polonius asks a spy to observe his son’s behavior in Paris, Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia, Claudius asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet, and Polonius is killed while spying on Hamlet and Gertrude. The fact that Claudius cannot find where Hamlet has hidden Polonius’s body—near the stairs to the “lobby”—suggests that the castle’s structure is as complicated as the play’s.
The task of the spy is always the same, to learn the truth, a problem central to Hamlet’s theme wherein truth is evasive and every answer seems to lead to more questions. The ghost’s truth-telling, Claudius’s guilt, Gertrude’s complicity, Hamlet’s unstable state of mind, and his apparent delaying are all subjects for questions in the course of the play, and the answers they bring forth are as confusing as the setting in which they are asked.
Hamlet is an unusually interior play. Aside from its scenes on battlements, only two scenes seem to take place outdoors. One of those takes place on the Danish coast as Hamlet watches Fortinbras’s army march to make war on Poland. There Hamlet compares Fortinbras’s energetic action to his own proclivity for delaying action. Significantly, the other of the exterior scenes is set in a graveyard. There Hamlet seems to arrive at an answer which frees him to act out his revenge. As he watches preparations for Ophelia’s funeral, he concludes that even the greatest lives end in the grave, and soon after that he tells Horatio that he recognizes his own fatal destiny and is ready to sweep into his revenge.
The battlements are defensive structures around Elsinore’s walls that are the location of some of the play’s most gripping early action, as when the ghost of the dead king appears first to the watchmen and later to Hamlet. It is appropriate that the king, who appears in his armor, should want to walk on the structure that symbolizes his military power, the position from which he once defended Elsinore, since he is about to ask his son to undertake another sort of castle defense in avenging his death.
Wittenberg is the location of the German university which Hamlet has attended. Wittenberg is closely associated with Martin Luther, whose studies there precipitated the Protestant Reformation in 1517. The university was still strongly associated with Protestantism in 1603, although Shakespeare never indicates that Hamlet is involved in any religious study. Wittenberg stands in strong contrast to Paris, where Polonius’s son Laertes has been studying and where Polonius suspects he may be overly involved in the city’s temptations to loose living.
Denmark is the general setting of the play. Shakespeare adopted the Danish setting along with the action of the play (which has its roots in thirteenth century Danish folklore) from a source almost contemporary to him; many scholars believe he used a version of the story written around 1589 by the English playwright Thomas Kyd. Shakespeare made no attempt to recreate early medieval Denmark; instead he set the action in a sort of timeless past. However, he included action and references that evoke the early modern period of 1600, when Denmark was an important naval power that competed with England and when both Paris and Wittenberg were significant educational centers. Hamlet’s references to the Danish court’s reputation for drunkenness must have amused Shakespeare’s audiences. Ironically, Shakespeare makes Claudius portray England as a state so eager to stay in the favor of powerful Denmark that its king will surely commit any political executions Claudius requests, including the execution of Hamlet.