Shakespeare played a decisive role in creating a Middle Ages for the generations that came after him. In the introduction to Shakespeare and the Middle Ages, Curtis Perry and John Watkins note that “almost any book written on the Hundred Years War or the Wars of the Roses begins by explaining just how Shakespeare got it wrong. He conflated characters, condensed chronologies, cleaned up some careers, and sullied others” (Perry and Watkins 1). The two tetralogies comprise the body of work that is commonly studied for medievalisms, and in these plays Shakespeare’s interpretation of the past demonstrates nation building, ‘Englishness,’ and a concern about the nature of power (Perry and Watkins 16). A different kind of engagement with the medieval past is occurring in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, though it is no less concerned with nations and the nature of power. Set in a contemporary Danish court, the play draws on the medieval Scandinavian tradition of Amleth which is encapsulated in Books 3 and 4 of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum. What is interesting is that Hamlet, removed from its medieval setting, steps away from a representation of the past, but the text it is drawn from conversely bears remarkable similarities to the tetralogies in its treatment of the past; the Gesta Danorum is the recording and creation of a national past for Denmark, as Shakespeare’s plays do for England. The difference, in part, is that the tetralogies look back to a recent medieval past from an early modern perspective, and the Gesta Danorum is looking to an ancient and early medieval past from the High Middle Ages. While Hamlet represents an entirely different kind of antiquarianism, thinking about it as an expression of medievalism influences the way that we read the text. In part it has caused a search for a ‘historical’ Hamlet, a task that Alexander Welsh has identified as very frustrating since “Shakespeare is among those artists chiefly responsible for our (high) standards of verisimilitude,” and the so-called historical Hamlet is hard, if not impossible to pin down (Welsh 4). Shakespeare adapts the medieval narrative for dramatic purposes and for an Elizabethan audience. Determining what about Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a product of medieval Scandinavia and what is a product of the English Renaissance is not a fruitful way to look at the narratives, because it ignores the textual tradition that separated the two writers, and even suggests that we can pinpoint an exact transmission history between the two, which we cannot. However, the juxtaposition of the two texts suggests an interpretation of both. English scholarly interpretation of the Saxo Grammaticus narrative has been rooted in textual histories of Hamlet, and placing the Gesta Danorum beside Shakespeare’s text throws further light on the political and national aspect of Shakespeare’s medievalism. Juxtaposing the two texts, and film adaptations of the two texts, highlights the political nature of the personal and familial tragedy in Hamlet and places Hamlet amongst Shakespeare’s more obviously medieval plays.
Saxo Grammaticus wrote the Gesta Danorum over many years. Arguments have been made for the order in which the books were written, but the completion of the work probably occurred between 1208 and 1218 (Davidson 1). In the Preface Saxo states that he is writing this work for a patron and for national identity: “cum cetere naciones rerum suarum titulis gloriari, uoluptatemque ex maiorum recordacione percipere soleant, Danorum maximus pontifex Absalon patriam nostrum, cuius illustrande maxima semper” because other nations are in the habit of vaunting the fame of their achievements, and joy in recollecting their ancestors, Absalon, Archbishop of Denmark, had always been fired with a passionate zeal to glorify our fatherland (1). Saxo does construct this narrative for a purpose, though he has been criticized for not possessing the artfulness of some of his contemporaries such as Snorri Sturluson. The first books about the distant and largely mythic past represent an ideology of kingship (Davidson 6). In the Preface he gives credit to his sources for tales about the past, including Danish oral tradition and the “Tylensium industria” diligence of the men of Iceland who “official continue sobrietatis exerveant, omniaque uite momenta ad excolendam alienorum operum noticiam conferre soleant” pursue a steady routine of temperance and devote all their time to improving our knowledge of others’ deeds (3). The combination of art and history reminds us of Shakespeare’s treatment of events such as the War of the Roses.
It is not possible to confirm Saxo’s source, but there is enough evidence to suggest the Amleth tale is rooted in longstanding Scandinavian traditions. William Hansen, studying the Amleth narrative in Saxo Grammaticus, has identified five medieval Danish chronicles that give a very truncated version of the life of Amleth (The Annals of Ryd, The Annals of Slesvig, The Runic Chronicle, The History of the Danes in Danish and The Legend Chronicle), which suggests a wide knowledge in Denmark (Hansen 147-9). Sources in Iceland also suggest there was a longstanding tradition there. The Ambales Saga, recorded after the Middle Ages, tells a romantic version of the same story as found in the Saxo (Hansen 38). There is also, dating from about two centuries before the Gesta Danorum, a reference by an Icelandic poet to ‘Amloði’s meal,’ referring to sand (Hansen 5). This mirrors the event in the Gesta Danorum where, in his feigned madness, Amleth refers to the sand on the shore as flour that “eadem albicantibus maris procellis permolita esse” had been ground by the foaming billows when it was stormy (89). Hansen demonstrates that there may be a link between this story and Scandinavian words for fool: “as a common noun amlóði is current in Icelandic in the sense of ‘an imbecile, weak person,’ and it survives in Norwegian dialect as amlod ‘a fool’” (Hansen 6). And it is not just a Scandinavian tradition, but a folkloric one, with The Hero as Fool motif informing many stories that are passed down through to the modern tradition (Hansen 36).
Saxo writes in Latin because works of national history tended to be written in Latin, including Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica Anglorum and Paul the Deacon’s Historia Langobardorum, which Saxo mentions in his Preface (Hansen 40). Yet, the Gesta Danorum is not a work of history according to our modern conception of what history is. Books X-XVI have debatable historical value, but Books I-IX refer to northern traditional tales of the past, containing too many supernatural and unsubstantiated stories to be accepted by modern audiences (Davidson 2). Like the many ghosts found in Shakespeare, including in Hamlet, the dragon fight in Book II and other elements tells us we are dealing with a different kind of story, not unrelated to history, but not as obviously grounded in ‘verisimilitude.’
Hilda Ellis Davidson, in her introduction to Peter Fisher’s translation of the first nine books of Saxo Grammaticus, shows how English scholarship of the text has centered around the Amleth story (Davidson 2). Hansen’s work, while about the Amleth tale, is called Saxo Grammaticus and Life of Hamlet, even though Hamlet and Amleth are not etymologically related (Hansen 6). Therefore, while it is clear that Shakespeare, or at least the sources for Shakespeare’s Hamlet chose that English name based on its resemblance to Amleth, there is no reason to suppose the Amleth of Saxo Grammaticus should be Anglicized for modern readers as Hamlet, unless it is to the purpose to remind your Shakespearean readers why they are researching Saxo Grammaticus in the first place. The first translation of Saxo into English by O. Elton in 1894 Davidson attributes to the popularity of Shakespeare’s play. Historicity and the textual tradition have been the mainstay of English scholarship on the Gesta Danorum because of the popularity of Hamlet. Philip Edwards, in his introduction to the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition, does not overestimate Hamlet’s importance when he states “it is probably safe to say that in the world’s literature no single work has been so extensively written about as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” (Edwards 32).
Considering Shakespeare’s treatment of the Middle Ages in other texts, Perry and Watkins state that “even if we know that Shakespeare gave the wrong answers, he asked the right questions, or at least asked the questions that still shape our sense of what mattered during the Middle Ages” (Perry and Watkins 3). If we apply that to Hamlet, what questions does Hamlet ask of the medieval narrative, even if it is inheriting the tradition through various intervening texts? How else, besides in whether or not it conforms to our idea of history, does the juxtaposing of the two texts influence our understanding of the Amleth tradition in the Gesta Danorum? By looking at Gesta Danorum Amleth through a Hamlet lens, we see the text in two parts, the part of the narrative that coincides with the events in Hamlet, and the events which extend past the Hamlet narrative. The juxtaposition says that what is important about the medieval tale is that the dynastic jockeying for position, the travelling that occurs between England and Denmark and Scotland and the death in open battle are less remarkable ways to come to political prominence in the medieval northern tradition, than to pretend to be a fool to safeguard your life, and to take the throne by trickery as opposed to by force. This is why this text should be remembered.
The juxtaposition also says that audiences should pay attention to the character of Amleth and his motivations. Gesta Danorum’s Amleth is a crafty Germanic king, whose every move is calculated to get him more political power in the context of Germanic kingship. Because he possesses the basic qualities necessary for a good king, including noble birth, intelligence, martial power and ambition, Saxo Grammaticus does not speak ill of him, even though this king is a minor king of Jutland, and not descended, or contributing descendants to, the main Zealand line that Saxo is keenly interested in. There are no political reasons why Saxo needs to keep Amleth a spotless king. Saxo as narrator condemns Fengi, Amleth’s uncle, for incest and fratricide, saying “quisquis enim uni se flagicio dederit, in aliud mox procliuior ruit” whoever commits himself to one crime soon finds himself sliding downhill towards the next (87). In Saxo’s depiction of kingship, it is not ambition or murder that are problems so much as violating bonds of kinship, and secrecy or lying. Everyone knows Fengi killed the king, but he lies about his reasons. There are no condemnations of Amleth for killing his uncle, but there is the inclusion of a long speech after the act so that Amleth can justify his actions to his followers, and in that speech there is no lying. Seeing these events through the lens of Hamlet, we question Amleth’s motivations more than the text leads us to. Why Saxo does not condemn the secrecy and kin killing of Amleth, though he condemns Fengi, are explained only by the fact that the language used establishes Fengi as bad, so that all bad done to him and his retainers is justified by his status as an unworthy Germanic king.
The events in Gesta Danorum and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark are specifically similar enough to posit there is a direct relation between the texts, but different enough and separated enough by time for the relation to be unknown. It is the Gesta Danorum specifically, and less the rest of the medieval Scandinavian tradition of Amleth, that starts the textual journey to becoming Hamlet, though other sources cannot definitively be ruled out. The relevance of this is summed up by Hansen: “I do not, however, take up the old problem of the origin of Hamlet story, not because the question is uninteresting, but because it appears to be unanswerable” (Hansen xii). Scholars, interested in the historicity of either text, have done some work in tracing the Amleth tradition. A text of Gesta Danorum was printed in Paris in 1514 and a copy of the Amleth story was told by François de Belleforest in the fifth volume of Histoires tragiques in 1570 (Hansen 66). This is supposedly a transitional text, though Davidson, not unbiased as an editor of Saxo Grammaticus, sides with Yngve Olsson, stating that Shakespeare uses a simple Latin version of the text as his source material (Davidson 67). An earlier Hamlet, no longer extant, was acted in 1589, and it is believed to have been the work of Thomas Kyd, though Edwards indicates that that also is uncertain (Edwards 3). The textual tradition of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark itself is complicated, as there is not one definitive text for how Hamlet was acted on the stage in Shakespeare’s day (Edwards 8). The suggestion as well that Shakespeare could have been with the acting troupe that went to Elsinore in 1586 complicates even further the possible textual transmission, though less so for tracing what has come from the medieval tales, and more so for determining what Shakespeare himself added to the play (Srigley 178). The textual history is tangled.
Instead of trying to sort out the exact medieval influences on Shakespeare’s work, it is more fruitful to see how the medieval tale, and the Gesta Danorum in particular, directs our understanding of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Hansen, in marking the transitions between the two texts, argues that Shakespeare’s play takes the emphasis off of action and puts it on character. For instance, Hansen argues that in Saxo the reason for delaying the revenge is a matter of action, or external reasons; he has no opportunity to get at the king or the king’s supporters. In Shakespeare the delay is a matter of character (Hansen 75). The tale has also been moved from Jutland to Elsinore, in Zealand. In Saxo they are fighting over a local kingship, though the rules of how kings behave are no less pertinent to the reader. In Hamlet they are fighting, on a small scale, for the throne of Denmark, and it is so precisely Denmark, and so imprecisely Denmark, that the point can be applied to all kings, and all nations. According to Edwards, the most important changes from the medieval tale to the Elizabethan play are “1. The murder becomes secret; 2. A ghost tells Hamlet of the murder and urges revenge; 3. Laertes and young Fortinbras are introduced; 4. Ophelia’s role is extended and elevated; 5. The players and their play are introduced; 6. Hamlet dies as he kills the king” (Edwards 2). The general change of time, from a tale of the past to a tale of the imprecise present, contrasts the universality of the emotional components of the play with the added local colour that indicates Denmark specifically. When the two texts are juxtaposed, the reader is drawn to what it means to be king and the importance of family ties to kingship. The national and political aspects of the play are highlighted, because every action in the original medieval tale is an expression of kingship, and that is what Hamlet and Amleth share.
The retention of Denmark is a significant tribute to the original medieval text, because the story could have been set elsewhere to match the change in epoch. By keeping the play in Denmark the setting serves as a place both familiar and foreign to the audience. Gunnar Sjörgen, who postulated a geography of the play that shows the borders between Denmark, Norway and Poland are confused, shows that Elsinore is meant to resonate with an English audience since it was one of two ports English ships would have been familiar with (Sjörgen 69). Other places where an historical Denmark asserts itself is in the reference to the intemperate drinking, which Michael Srigley argues was a well-known aspect of the Danish court of Christian IV (Srigley 168). It is mentioned several times, as characteristic of the Danes, often by Hamlet, who states “though I am native here/ And to the manner born, it is a custom/ More honoured in the breach than the observance (1.4.13-16). Wittenberg was well-known school where there were many Danish students, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are aristocratic Danish names (Srigley 168). However, while the references to a specific Denmark enrich the setting of the play, no references deny the universality of the Elsinore of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. If some names are distinctly Danish, others are Greek (Laertes, Ophelia), Latin or Neo-Latin (Claudius, Cornelius, Marcellus, Polonius), or Italian (Horatio, Barnardo) (Hansen 85).” Edwards remarks that “Fortinbras, with its Frenchness (‘Strong-arm’), is an odd name for a Norwegian king and his son” (Edwards70). Polonius’s reference to Danskers in Act 2, Scene 1 line 7 represents the confusion, because while it is clearly meant to be Danes, Sjörgen shows the word actually meant people from Danzig (Gdansk) in Poland, and that there is a strange geography at play here (Sjörgen 69). Of course, Shakespeare may be representing a legitimate understanding of continental geography that did not correspond with reality, but regardless, the placement of Norway and Poland on the borders of Denmark tighten the action of the play, make the setting more claustrophobic, which has been noted during stagings of the play, so that it is not necessarily a mistake (Duffy 141). This is Denmark, but it is not just Denmark. Denmark is a stand in for a state that is familiar, but not too familiar. In Act 2 Scene 2 when Hamlet exclaims “Denmark’s a prison,” Rosenkrantz replies “Then is the world one” (2.2.233-4).
This is significantly different from the Gesta Danorum, since Saxo’s purpose is to create a specifically national history, one that sets Denmark apart from other countries, though worthy of a similar historical treatment. But it is similar to the way that the other historical plays create a nation. Perry, commenting on Benedict Anderson, demonstrates the early modern fascination with the ‘imagined community’ of England (Perry 173). The idea of an imagined nation does not have to be limited to depictions of one’s own nation. Hamlet, like the tetralogies, is concerned with nation and statehood, organized around a central kingship. The medieval narrative has been brought closer to audiences by updating the Danish references, but maintains distance from home and relation to the original tale by retaining Denmark as a location. Most importantly, it retains the theme of kingship from Gesta Danorum, although it is no longer Germanic kingship, but the age of absolute central rule (Perry 175). Analyzing Elizabethan plays that engage with the Middle Ages, Perry states that “for though these plays stage certain kinds of cultural heterogeneity … Helgerson is clearly correct to argue that they are ultimately plays about the consolidation of royal power conceived of as central to a brand of national identity” (Perry 174). Hamlet is engaging with the Middle Ages, though in a way that puts history on the backburner.
Drinking at funerals, fostering and sworn brotherhood, part of the social and political structure of the kingdom in Gesta Danorum, have different places in the social and political structure in Hamlet, though they have not entirely disappeared (Hansen 83). It would be impossible to say whether we are seeing adaptation by Shakespeare, or insertion of a social structure that is coincidentally similar in the two texts. However, the importance of the social and political structure to Amleth’s motivations draws attention to the importance of the political structure to Hamlet’s motivations. An elective monarchy is an aspect of Germanic kingship, old-fashioned even by Saxo Grammaticus’s time. The Gesta Danorum balances an antiquarian idea of what Germanic kingship was in a mythic heroic age, and what kingship looked like at the beginning of the thirteenth century. In the Gesta Danorum it is common for brothers to take over kingship, as royal blood and kingly qualities is more important than primogeniture, but nor is primogeniture unimportant. Edwards argues that for Elizabethan audiences this was very antiquated, and that they had a “deep emotional commitment to primogeniture and the right of a son to inherit … for the audience, the system is a legalism which runs counter to their instinctive sense of rightness” (Edwards 42). The people who elect kings are called the “rabble”:
The rabble call him lord,
And as the world were now but to begin,
Antiquity forgot, custom not known,
The ratifiers and props of every word,
They cry ‘Choose we! Laertes shall be king.’
Caps, hands and tongues applaud it to the clouds,
‘Laertes shall be king, Laertes king!’ (4.5.102-108)
This is not an ancient Germanic election, but simply a country that cannot honour those who are the kings by right of primogeniture. This affects Hamlet, who is the offended party. His loss of a father is also the loss of a promised office, which should not have been the case.
When the system falls apart, and royalty cannot be maintained, the state falls apart. An interesting similarity between Gesta Danorum and Hamlet is the conflation between the person of the king and the political body that makes up the nation. Gesta Danorum means History of the Danes, but it is a history of exclusively Danish kings. A history of the people is a history of the kings, and this is true of the other Latin national histories that Saxo references. It is interesting, then, to see the way the king stands in for the country. Rosencrantz, talking about the office of the king, says that “Never alone/ Did the king sigh, but with a general groan” (3.3.22-23). Laertes, when convincing Ophelia not to pursue Hamlet, says that he may have lost interest because
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The sanctity and health of this whole state,
And therefore must his choice be circumscribed
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head. (1.3.19-24)
The king must act for the country. In the play, not only are they responsible for the state, but they stand in for it. Claudius and King Hamlet are both referred to as Denmark, the King of Norway is called Norway and it is the same for England; when Claudius sends a message to the King of England for Hamlet to be killed, he says “Do it England,/ For like the hectic in my blood he rages,/ And thou must cure me” (4.3.61-3). Therefore, there is added significance to Marcellus’s line that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.5.90) and to Hamlet’s statement that “Denmark’s a prison” (2.2.233) because in both cases it shows how there is something wrong in the state, and also in the mental capacity of he who embodies the state.
In the Gesta Danorum Amleth’s madness is a political act. Amleth uses it to save himself from the same fate as his father: “eoque calliditatis genere non solum ingenium texit, uerum eciam salute defendit” this piece of artfulness, besides concealing his true wisdom, safeguarded his life (88). This is what made the tale distinct from the other tales of kingship in this large body of work, and why it gets passed down to us. But the nature of Hamlet’s madness is different. If the act of madness is also for self-preservation, it is of a different kind, since there is no indication that Claudius was going to kill him, nor that acting mad would keep Claudius from doing so. Welsh argues that the madness “owes something to the northern saga material,” since it is the root of the story (Welsh 9). In Saxo Grammaticus the madness is a way for Amleth to remain connected to his world, and to ensure his proper inheritance. The ‘antic disposition’ marks Hamlet’s alienation from his world, and brings on Claudius’s suspicion that something is wrong (Edwards 46). Claudius’s guilt is revealed through feigned (or maybe real) madness, which allows for political action on Hamlet’s part, but Fengi’s guilt is known and madness is a stalling technique. Madness in both texts is a way of enacting family and dynastic politics, though the madness in the two texts has opposite effects.
Hamlet’s character is more complex than Amleth, as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is arguably more (psychologically) complex than Gesta Danorum, but both texts end their narratives by commenting on how royal a personage the protagonist could have been if fate had been even kinder. Gesta Danorum ends the tale of Amleth by talking about his death in battle: “such was Amleth’s departure. If fate had tended him as kindly as nature, he would have shone as brightly as the gods and his courage would have allowed him to surpass the labours of Hercules.” (101) Fortinbras, who arrives just in time to pick up the political pieces, commands
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal; and for his passage,
The soldier’s music and the rite of war
Speak loudly for him. (5.2.374-379)
The two texts talk about the character of the royal personage, because, besides a narrative, both texts share an interest in expressing an ideology of kingship. Looking at Hamlet, Prince of Denmark through the lens of the Gesta Danorum, what Shakespeare highlights from the medieval tradition is the ways that kings shaped their state and how the character of a king is important to his ability to rule. In Saxo Grammaticus, the killings and madness are aspects of statehood, and that is not lost in the Elizabethan play, though the personal and familial tragedy is an added dimension.
The presence of Saxo Grammaticus’s work influences our understanding of Hamlet by placing it in a tradition of medieval Scandinavian narratives about the court of Jutland and about the nature of kings, even though the medieval has been removed from the text. But arguably, the presence of Hamlet has had a much greater impact on the understanding of Gesta Danorum in the English-speaking world. Take, for instance, two low budget film interpretations of the two texts. Hamlet (2000), directed by Michael Almereyda, is set in New York City in the year 2000. Robert Hapgood argues that Almereyda is well versed in Hamlet interpretations, but radically fractures the text to create his film. What this adaptation shares with other film adaptations of Hamlet is a sense of the claustrophobia of Elsinore, or the indoor nature of most of the scenes. Even the scenes with the Ghost take place in small apartments or in basements and elevators of skyscrapers. Outdoor shots are framed by skyscrapers, though most of the action occurs indoors. Robert Duffy argues that “locale remains considerably less important here than in most other Shakespearean plays.” (Duffy 141) In many stage and film productions the emphasis is on the personal/family tragedy (Hapgood 75). Almereyda’s interpretation is not without political implications, with Denmark being instead the Denmark corporation, and Fortinbras representing a rival interest looking for a corporate takeover, but the emphasis is on the personal and family tragedy. Hamlet’s place and time are out of joint, so although the time and the place of the setting of Hamlet provide something for the audience, it is not as integral to the play as, say, the psychological state of the characters. Denmark does not carry with it a stigma of being particularly good or particularly anything, so nothing is lost by changing the setting. What is important is the idea of statehood. Almereyda’s film, then, is as much medievalism as Shakespeare’s play, in that this is the continuation of an ongoing adaptation of a medieval narrative that has not yet lost its inherently political message. But audiences do not think of it as medieval.
Compare this to how we think of adaptations of the Gesta Danorum, which cannot be thought of without reference to the later Shakespearean tradition. Royal Deceit (1994), directed by Gabriel Axel, is an adaptation of the Amleth story of Saxo Grammaticus starring Gabriel Byrne and Christian Bale. Unlike Almereyda’s Hamlet, the openness of the outdoors marks this film, which is introduced by a few minutes of panorama shots of Scandinavian wilderness. Much of the film is, in narrative, very close to what occurs in the Gesta Danorum, making it seem like what has been compromised in the plot for film audiences has been done so unwillingly. The film is an obvious interpretation of both a medieval text and medieval history in its setting. Audiences are meant to recognize the medieval. However, the narrative of Hamlet, separate from the Gesta Danorum, has been laid over the text, as an indication of, perhaps, why this film was made. The narrator mentions, though the audience does not see, that Amleth’s father Orvendil came to Amleth as a ghost, which does not happen in the Gesta Danorum. The action of the film also ends at the point when Amleth is revenged on his uncle, suggesting that the Shakespeare narrative governs the start and end point of this interpretation of Saxo. Perhaps most tellingly, the narrator says that “it was his son Amleth who will be remembered.” We do not have to think of Saxo Grammaticus when we read or watch Shakespeare, but we must think of Shakespeare when we read or watch Saxo Grammaticus.
Neither texts are acceptable history to modern historians, but neither are either removed entirely from history. Both texts together make us think of history, because Saxo Grammaticus comes up when we are trying to locate sources for Shakespeare, and so lends historical weight to Shakespeare’s narrative. Hamlet is not considered a historical text in the same way that the tetralogies are, though all are works of fiction, but it has coloured the popular interpretation of any historical Amleth that may have lived, as well as real locations in Denmark. Saxo Grammaticus says “there is a plain in Jutland famous as [Amleth’s] burial place and named after him” (101). Hansen states that there was either a medieval tradition associating Ammelhede with Amleth, or that a succession of eytmologists have made the association (Hansen 145). However, it is at Elsinore, in Zealand, not Jutland, where this tale, and at times a supposed ‘historical’ personage, have been commemorated. Starting in the eighteenth century, tourists came to Elsinore, modern Danish Helsingør, because of its association with the play. Hansen jokes that “some tourists were inevitably disappointed to discover in Elsinore a castle that was too recent for Hamlet’s time, but others cheerfully began to remake Elsinore to fit their expectations” (Hansen 90). According to Hansen, it was in the nineteenth century that businessmen tried to profit from Elsinore as the ‘actual’ burial place of the ‘actual’ Hamlet (Hansen 90). Though it is no longer necessarily associated with a ‘historical’ Hamlet, the first sentence on Denmark’s tourism website about Helsingør states “in Helsingør lies Kronborg Castle, made famous as Elsinore in Shakespeare’s Hamlet” (Denmark.dk). Shakespeare’s mark lies over our interpretation of Danish medieval history, as well as Danish landscape.
As Davidson says, it is “no longer in fashion” to identify literary characters with historical figures (Davidson 68). And yet, our interpretations are influenced by the interpretations of older historians and literary critics who did find it fashionable. As Perry and Watkins point out
if every medieval biographer and historian knows that Shakespeare got it wrong, they still talk about him as if his fictions not only prompted their investigations but somehow continue to authorize them in the minds of the reading public (Perry and Watkins 1).
This is not a medievalist text like Henry V or Richard III, in that it adapts a medieval historical event for dramatic purposes. Perhaps it is more medieval, because it is an adaptation of a medieval tale, inheriting the medieval themes from the original telling, even when the medieval history is removed, whereas the tetralogies are more original constructions. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and Gesta Danorum, discuss the relationship between king and state and conclude that the king is the state, and vice versa. Amleth must root out what is rotten in the state of Denmark as much as Hamlet must, though for both that means different things. Shakespeare roots Amleth in our mind as Hamlet as surely as he roots the characters of the medieval English kings into the introductions of history books.
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