“To be, or not to be -” (lost and found in Helsingør, Denmark)

I’ve come to Denmark to visit a friend – and the castle of Kronborg in the town of Helsingør overlooking the Øresund just north of Copenhagen. These are strategic waters, long contested by Danes and Swedes. For centuries, Danish Kings at Kronborg imposed a sound
toll on ships passing southwards through the narrow Øresund into the Baltic Sea.

It’s a charming but highly unlikely scenario to imagine William Shakespeare alighting here and spotting – perchance –  the figure of a Danish prince stalking the fortifications, struggling with princely destiny and his father’s ghost.

To be – or not to be?

Kronborg in Helsingør is the castle called Elsinore in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. But Hamlet is not based on any real historical figure. And Shakespeare’s knowledge of this place was a second-hand patchwork, likely cobbled together from accounts given by players returning from time spent at Frederick II’s magnificent Kronborg court.

Hamlet, then, is not to be. Only imagined. Just “nobler in the mind.” Instead, the castle’s chief concession to gloomy princedom is a statue of Holger Danske, another mythical figure from Danish lore, brooding long-bearded in the castle casemates until called upon to rise and defend Denmark in an hour of need.

We step out from Kronborg’s massive fortifications onto  Helsingør’s small docklands for lunch at the kulturværftet. At the end of a pier, bright spring sunlight flashes off a third figure from the realms of fancy: the sculpture of Han (Danish for him), also known as The Merman, the allusive brother of the Hans-Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. He’s a pensive boy in stainless steel, poised on the water’s edge to reflect on loneliness and longing – and whatever else (including themselves) passers-by detect in his gleaming surfaces.

Caught within this force field of national whimsy, the small red and white town of Helsingør goes about its small town maritime business. Anglers stand on rocks and catch garfish. A steady stream of boats moves in and out of the harbour. We sit, quayside, and tuck into a hearty Scandinavian salad.

At three o’clock, Kronborg’s canons shatter the stillness with a royal 27-gun-salute over the Øresund. A small band strikes up a medley of tunes. Snatches of what sounds remarkably like and indeed turns out to be Abba’s Dancing Queen

(Ooh, see that girl
Watch that scene)

dribble over the water. Shortly afterwards, the royal Danish yacht sails into Helsingør’s small harbour. It’s not big, not by oligarch standards. A two-master with a clipper bow and distinctive ochre funnel
and upper deck, it barely holds it own in the shadow of the huge ferries passing between Denmark and Sweden.

Flags are hoisted and flutter enthusiastically, sailors in white line the prow and a small prosaic figure in dark blue steps through a burnished door, exchanges some words with the crew and makes her way down the gangplank to a line of waiting dignitaries and children. Queen Margarethe. Not quite a dancing queen, but pretty sprightly, her arrival here as she transitions from winter to summer residence is done with little fuss and even less security. Just a handful of policemen and a small crowd of happy Danes waving smart phones.

Driving back to Copenhagen along the coastal road we pass close to the Øregard Gymnasium, where my friend once worked as a teacher to a couple of real Danish princes: Frederick and Joachim.

It’s a fitting end to the day’s unreliable fictions. Instead of the story I expected to find somewhere in Helsingør (“to be, or not to be”) this is the one – well rehearsed and practiced –  that I’ve become, slightly unwillingly, party to: the common sense narrative of the Danish monarchy. The prince is dead. Long live the queen!


Eve Lucas


  • Miriam says:

    A delightful piece, Eva! No wonder those Danes are so happy.

    • Eve Lucas says:

      Indeed: I asked my friend about their ranking. She seemed to think it was self evident.

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