Monday, April 6, 2015

Shakespeare goes to Scandinavia

by Warren King

When one looks at Shakespeare’s surviving plays one sees that they are set in a wide range of, mainly European, countries. Shakespeare was always on the lookout for a good story and in many cases, apart from the history and Roman plays, those good stories were set in places like France, Spain, Italy and other European countries.

But Shakespeare was carefully selective and he didn’t just set a play in a place because the original story originated there and leave it at that: he matched his themes and ideas to Elizabethan audiences’ expectations about different countries. He also used foreign settings to explore contemporary English themes, but distancing the action from England to avoid trouble with the censors.

Romeo and Juliet, for example, is set in the summer heat of Verona in Italy. As soon as the audience saw that they would be thinking about the violence and feuds that they associated with Italy. They would be thinking about passion, love, and quick tempers, aggravated by hot days. And they were not disappointed because those are the central elements of the play.

Measure for Measure is set in Renaissance Vienna. Austria was a Catholic country and Shakespeare chose it partly because he wanted Isabella to be locked away in a nunnery, an institution that had been abolished in England by Henry VIII. In the play the brothels of Vienna are being torn down because of the spread of fornication and also because venereal disease is out of control. That would have struck a chord with the London audience as in the same year that the play appeared, 1604, King James ordered the tenements and London suburban houses to be demolished to try and prevent the plague from spreading.

And so, Shakespeare always thought carefully about how to tighten his dramas’ unity by making the geographical setting central to their meaning.
Only one of Shakespeare’s plays – Hamlet - is set in a Scandinavian country but it is probably his most famous, and some would say greatest, play. It is certainly his most performed play worldwide.

The original story comes from Denmark but although it has some similarities with Shakespeare’s story, that is only in the basic outline. It is the legend of Amleth, included in the Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes), an historical work by the 12th century Danish author Saxo Grammaticus. But Shakespeare got it from a play, lost now, by one of his contemporaries, thought to be his friend, Thomas Kyd. Scholars have dubbed the lost play The Ur-Hamlet.

Hamlet was written at the turn of the century - between1599 and 1601, and the whole feel of it is that of protestant England. If that is what Shakespeare wanted then he could not have chosen any of his usual European settings, which were Catholic. Hamlet is a contemporary protestant student, attending the university in Martin Luther’s city, Wittenberg in Germany. He doesn’t immediately accept the ghost’s story of purgatory, as a Catholic would. Protestants rejected the concept of purgatory.

It is clearly England, but one could not set a play with a villainous king at its centre in England. Apart from the Protestantism many of the other features of the play are English. For example, the travelling players dropping by from time to time were typical of English country life.
The English audience also felt an affinity with the Scandinavian countries, particularly Denmark. They would have been aware of the common history and the actions and policies of King Cnute, who was a Dane.

Always aware of the atmosphere his settings created, Shakespeare would have regarded the Danish setting as suitable for a play in which his tragic protagonist would claim that he felt imprisoned, because the frozen countryside of Denmark was an isolated place geographically.
So in Hamlet, Shakespeare once again shows perfect judgment in his choice and treatment of a setting for a play.

Guest blogger Warren King has been teaching Shakespeare for over 40 years, and is the author of the NoSweatShakespeare website

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