Because the Elizabethan theater used little or no scenery, the sense
of place in a Shakespeare play changes as the characters enter and leave
the stage. Where it is important, Shakespeare always indicates the time
and place of the scene through a line of dialogue (as in the first scene,
"'Tis now struck twelve.") or through a formal device like the
fanfares that announce the entrance of the king and his court. The fact
that the story takes place in Denmark in the twelfth century mattered
very little to Shakespeare and his audience; the tradition of reproducing
a historical period with realistic accuracy on the stage did not come
into being till nearly two hundred years later. Elizabethan costumes were
as lavish and expensive as could be, but they were the costumes of Shakespeare's
own time, whether the play was set in ancient Rome or medieval England.
The image of Denmark is mainly communicated to the audience by Shakespeare's
using the cliche that the Danes were heavy drinkers, which is one reason
he so strongly emphasizes Hamlet's dislike for Claudius' drinking habits.
The world was just beginning to be mapped at this time, and a London audience
probably had only the vaguest notion where Denmark was located: Shakespeare
himself was so uninformed he confused Dansk, the Danish word for Denmark,
with the Baltic seaport of Gdansk or Danzig, at that time a free city-state,
which is how he came to the mistaken idea that Denmark shared a common
border with Poland. All this proves that Shakespeare's plays are set "in
the mind's eye," in an imaginary world of their own, which is yours
to conceive as you choose, within the limits of the play.
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