Saturday, September 12, 2009

Elsinore Shakespeare was here claim

Eileen  & Hanne at Elsinore

Eileen and self - did the Ghost walk here?
To Elsinore to see Hamlet’s castle with Eileen and our Danish friend Hanne. The castle was built in about 1420 by a King Erik to enforce the payment of tolls on shipping passing through the sound into and out of the Baltic.  At first the toll was levied at a flat rate for every vessel, plus curious rules such as 6 barrels of salt from any ship carrying salt.  Captains complained about this, and especially if their vessels were small.  So in about 1566 a graduated toll was introduced, a percentage of the cargo’s value.
The value as determined by whom?  By the ship’s captain. And what incentivised the captain to estimate the cargo’s value correctly?  Easy. The king reserved to himself the right of pre-emption, to buy the entire cargo at the price the captain placed upon it.  This scheme was the brainchild of one Peder Oxe, an official of some sort.
The principle of a toll seems to have been more or less accepted at the time, and the Danish kings sugared the pill by suppressing piracy. 
All this comes from the guidebook to Elsinore Castle, which explores at some length the suggestion that Shakespeare must have visited Elsinore, since his references are so accurate. Considering that it would presumably be in the tourist department’s interest to find in favour of this proposition, the guidebook treats it with admirable even-handedness.  As an example of something Shakespeare got wrong, there is “yon high eastward hill”*.  In point of fact, no such hill is to be seen from Elsinore; though curiously there is an extant engraving dated about 1588 that does, erroneously, show a little nearby hill. So did Shakespeare see this erroneous engraving, the guidebook wonders? 
That raises an interesting question about how Shakespeare worked. Did he research like a modern historical novelist would be expected to do? I'm more inclined to believe that yon high eastward hill fitted neatly into the iambic pentameter he was penning at the time. I would say the chance of Shakespeare having visited Elsinore is slim, and of him caring whether there was an eastward hill, slimmer.
A couple more points from the guidebook. Elsinore was well known in Shakespeare’s London, notorious even, due to the tolls, and Denmark being at the time a considerable European power. And the other is that members of Shakespeare’s company at the Globe are known to have played at Elsinore in 1585, as their names are listed in an account book, with wages paid to them.
* Act I, Sc 1, 167