I “might not beteem the winds of heaven visit her face too roughly” (Hamlet 1.2.141). Great Aunt Juliana quotes from Hamlet to express her enduring devotion for her sister, Countess Mathilde, who was engaged to be married, but died instead. In Camilla Collett’s novella “Kongsgaard” (“A Royal Estate”) from 1847, the legend of this young countess from a Danish noble family and the Norwegian commoner she loves ends tragically when they are forbidden to marry. The deceitful actions of her brother, which lead to the lovers’ deaths, echo acts of treachery by members of the royal family of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Moreover, their duplicitous deeds cause the fall of both of these noble houses of Denmark. By drawing parallels between the lives and fates of the women “Kongsgaard” with the lives and deaths of Ophelia and Gertrude in Hamlet, Collett shows that the all-too-commonplace theme of ill-fated love found in romantic novels written for young women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century can portray personal tragedies worthy of a Shakespeare play. Collett shows, in addition, how families and cultures that do not encourage women to make independent judgments can bring on their own downfall.
“Kongsgaard” is not a retelling of Hamlet; rather Collett bases it on a legend about a family named Von Krogh told in the region of Norway where she grew up. Shakespeare, too, bases his work of fiction on historic legends told about Amleth, Prince of Denmark, as recorded around 1185 by Saxo Grammaticus in Gesta Danorum, or The History of the Danes. As Collett develops her plot, fiction fills out the structure of the legend and several direct references to Hamlet appear in her narrative. She refers to Shakespeare to show how the fates of women romanticized in the sentimental and conduct novels read by young women of her own time, were as tragic as those of Ophelia and Gertrude in Hamlet. By making this correlation, Collett is warning her female readers that if they pattern their own behavior on the false virtues in these romantic tales, they are in danger of sharing the fates of the women in these two narratives.
When reading “Kongsgaard” through the lens of Hamlet, these intertwined topics are worth close comparison: what male relatives and lovers expect from women, why abstract concepts of female virtue influence and control women’s behavior, how deceptive acts can lead to personal tragedy and the fall of dynasties, and in what way the representation of Denmark’s loss of autonomy in Hamlet foreshadows Denmark’s loss of Norway in the early nineteenth-century. Greater questions related to honor, virtue, loyalty, duplicity, suicide, murder and sin inform the actions of individuals in these works. In the end, these elements merge in “Kongsgaard” to call attention to Camilla Collett’s underlying thesis that female self-sacrifice should not be romanticized; rather it must be exposed and eradicated.
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