Views of Wittenberg and Elsinore in Civitates Orbis Terrarum


These beautifully hand-coloured views show key locations in Hamlet – one bird’s-eye view of the German university city of Wittenberg, and two of the Danish port of Elsinore (Helschenor or Helsingør). They are part of an opulent atlas of the world’s cities, the Civitates orbis terrarum, first published in six parts between 1572 and 1617, and printed in this early 17th-century edition (c. 1600–23).

This ambitious collection of 546 engraved views of cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and Mexico was edited by the German Georg Braun and largely engraved by Frans Hogenberg. They relied heavily on first-hand drawings and engravings produced by over 100 other artists such as the Flemish Joris Hoefnagel.

Wittenberg and the Reformation

Braun’s small view of ‘Wittenburga’ appears at the top-left of the page, alongside other German cities (Volume 1, Part 1, pp. 27–28). The city, dominated by the church, is labelled in Latin ‘Universali litterarum studio celebre’ – a famous centre of scholarship. It was notorious in Shakespeare’s day as the birthplace of the Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther (1483–1546), a professor of theology, nailed his famous 'Ninety-Five Theses' on the door of the University church. He was protesting against the Catholic sale of indulgences (licences that were said to grant sinners freedom from God’s punishment in exchange for money). Instead, Luther argued that faith alone could justify people in God’s eyes. His views were defended and condemned at the Diet of Worms, a meeting with Emperor Charles V. Luther’s actions marked the start of the Protestant movement for reform of the Catholic Church that became known as the Reformation.

Hamlet, Doctor Faustus and Wittenberg

There are four striking references to Wittenberg in Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet and Horatio are all ‘fellow-students’ there, but Claudius and Gertrude persuade the Prince to ‘stay’ in Elsinore rather than ‘going back to school in Wittenberg’ (1.2.113). The Diet of Worms is punningly referred to when Hamlet claims that ‘your worm is your only emperor for diet’ (4.3.21). Critics have debated ways in which Hamlet reflects religious controversy by combining the Catholic idea of a ghost in Purgatory with Protestant references to Wittenberg.

Christopher Marlowe’s tragic hero, Doctor Faustus, is also a talented scholar of divinity at the University of Wittenberg before he sells his soul to the Devil. In this respect, Marlowe followed his source, the English Faustbook (1592).

Hamlet and Elsinore

The seaport of Elsinore, mentioned several times in the first two acts of Hamlet (1.2.174; 2.2.270), is strategically placed on the north east coast of the island of Zealand, Denmark. The magnificent Kronborg Castle, which forms the setting of the play, is clearly shown in the box at the bottom left of Braun’s full-page view (Volume 2, Part 2, pp. 26–27), and again labelled in the half-page view, towards the right of the page (Volume 3, Part 1, pp. 33–34). Yet the ‘cliff’ described by Horatio (1.4.70) is revealed to be imaginary, since the coast is in fact low-lying.

Hamlet was first performed in Kronborg Castle in 1816 to mark the 200th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, with a cast of soldiers stationed at the Castle garrison.

Full title:
Civitates orbis terrarum
c. 1600–23?, Cologne
Map / View / Engraving / Illustration / Image
Georg Braun, Frans Hogenberg, Joris Hoefnagel
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Maps C.29.e.1.

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