Friday, 22 April 2016


April 23rd this year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, Britain’s most famous playwright.  To mark the occasion, I thought we’d take a little tour of the castles used in the 1990 production of Hamlet starring Mel Gibson and directed by Franco Zeffirelli, one of many films based on the stories by the man affectionately known as “The Bard of Avon”. 

The story of Hamlet is set in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the main focus is on the fictional town of Elsinore, Denmark, although Shakespeare himself never actually went to Denmark as far as we know.  The castle of Elsinore referred to in the play, which is the home of Hamlet and his family, is probably Kronborg Castle in what is today known as Helsingør, a port on the east coast of Denmark facing Sweden.  For the purposes of the 1990 film, Elsinore Castle was represented by Dover Castle.  According to an article which came out around the time of filming, Mel Gibson said he had never been colder than when filming at Dover Castle. 

The castle has had a long, eventful history.  The site started off as an Iron Age hill fort, and one of the oldest elements still on display is the remarkably well-preserved Roman lighthouse.  When William the Conqueror burst onto the scene after his victory at Hastings, he turned the site into a Norman earthwork and timber-stockaded castle.  The castle we see today was started off as a medieval fortress by Henry II, and comprises a keep 83 feet high with walls of a thickness befitting the castle designed to defend the gateway to the realm.  Royal visitors to the castle have included Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.  Of course, the other feature for which Dover is famous is the towering White Cliffs surrounding the town.  One of these is called Shakespeare Cliff, so named because it was mentioned in King Lear, which was partly set around Dover.  Another castle in Kent which made an appearance in the film is Rochester Castle.  

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Dover Castle. Photo by Jake Keup, via Wikimedia Commons

Zooming northwards to Scotland, there were two Scottish castles used in the film.  Both internal and external scenes of Elsinore Castle in the film were shot at Blackness Castle, set on the shores of the Firth of Forth between Falkirk and Edinburgh.  The scene featuring Ophelia's first appearance in the film was shot in the large hall in the Stern tower. The entrance to the tower, the courtyard next to it and the battlements also feature.  The castle was built in the 1440s by the Earl of Caithness, and in 1453 it was seized by King James II and it acted as a state prison for over 250 years.  Further fortifications were added in the 16th century.

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Blackness Castle. Photo by James Denham, via Wikimedia Commons

Set on top of an impregnable rock separated from the mainland by a ravine, Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven is one of the most impressive sights on Scotland’s east coast.  The makers of Hamlet evidently agreed, as there are many shots of the castle from a distance – once again standing in as Elsinore Castle.  Towards the end of the film the base of the cliffs on which the castle stands were used for the cemetery scenes.  The present day ruins date from the 14th century, though it is thought that the castle’s origins lie in the arrival of St Ninian in the 5th century, when he chose the site for one of a chain of churches.  In spite of its seemingly inaccessible position, the castle can still be visited today via a path leading up to a tunnel entrance, but the access path is steep, so not suitable for everyone.  
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Dunnottar Castle. Photo by Carlos Menendez San Juan, via Wikimedia Commons

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