Shakespeare’s Globe TheatreBy Elyse Popplewell in Study
24th of May 2017
The Globe Theatre is one of the most well known icons of theatre in modern times!
A little bit about Shakespeare’s London…
In Shakespeare’s time, London was by far the most populated city in England. Most of the people living in London were migrants from other parts of England, like Shakespeare! London was the great industrial centre of England. Being in a troupe of players with a noble patron was essential to acting within legal bounds in England at the time. There were mixed opinions regarding theatre at the time: Was it irreligious? Did it distract people from work? Are the theatre yards a petri dish for rowdiness? Was it wonderful entertainment?
The area south of the Thames River and west of London Bridge was the main entertainment district. Bankside is the name of the district. Bankside had brothels, inns, animal baiting arenas, theatres, and gaming houses, leased and licensed by the Bishop of Winchester. So you can imagine, the theatre was situated in a fairly lively area for London in the 1600s.
The wealthy audience members of the Globe could take the wherry (water taxi) across the Thames, but most people would need to walk across London Bridge in order to get to Bankside. Although it is now free to travel across, London Bridge used to be the only bridge crossing this section of the Thames and it was privatised. The bridge was quite lively in itself, with shops on both sides.
There were two significant theatres that preceded Shakespeare’s Globe. The first theatre Bankside housed was called The Rose, built in 1587. Two of Shakespeare’s plays were performed here: Henry IV Part One, and Titus Andronicus. A new theatre, The Swan, was built in 1595, and then Shakespeare’s Globe was built in 1599.
The OG Globe Theatre:
This theatre was unique because it was owned by, and built for, actors. The predecessor of the Globe, The Rose, was built by a businessman. This meant that the decisions regarding the Globe were all made by the actors and the playwrights. The Globe was divided into shares – Shakespeare paid £10 for a 10% share. For fourteen years, the Globe was a great success. Many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed for the very first time in the original Globe Theatre, like Hamlet, Kind Lear, and Othello. A fellow playwright to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, described the Globe as “The glory of the bank.”
There were no female actresses in the original performances. Female parts were played by adolescent boys who maintained feminine voices.
The OG audience:
Audience members of the Globe Theatre varied in wealth greatly. The Globe was a hot pit for ideas, discussion, socialising, entertainment, and politics. There are two sections for the audience: the yard and the stalls.
The yard is the standing area next to the stage. This is hardly dissimilar to the mosh pit at a rock concert. The audience members here paid £1 for entry to the yard and stood like packed sardines in front of the stage. To give you some olfactory imagery: everyone was smelly and likely drunk. Water for washing wasn’t easy to come by, and usually baths were taken by commoners once per year (if that). Queen Elizabeth I was seen as one of the cleanest bodies in the land – and it’s said that she showered just four times per year. On top of a concoction of a year’s worth of body odour, many commoners had few items of clothing, meaning that they likely wore the same clothes to work and then to the theatre. Are you ready for more imagery? People were often drunk. Put simply: water wasn’t clean and beer is tasty. So in front of the stage, is a pit of smelly and likely drunk people paying £1 for a bath in someone else’s sweat in the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s greatest works.
The stalls were different. The positions in the stalls that sit adjacent to the stage wouldn’t be considered prime real estate in a theatre production today – you see the action from side on! In Shakespeare’s time, these seats were an opportunity to hear the play rather than just see it. Also, the people in these spots framed the stage, so they likely would show off their wealth to the people below with marvellous hats and padded clothing to prove their wealth and full stomach.
About 90% of the population at this time was illiterate. In some cases, even the literate population hadn’t touched some of Shakespeare’s works yet as they weren’t published in print in his life time. The theatre, therefore, had great importance as a forum for political discussion and education. Queue: Shakespeare twisting history at times.
Up in flames
On the 29th of June in 1613, there was a new play by Shakespeare being performed: All Is True (sometimes titled: Henry VIII). The first two performances of the play had been wonderful successes. The audience was warned in the prologue that if they wanted a play full of laughter and conflict, they should instead brace themselves for something more serious.
The fourth scene of the play has the following stage directions:
“Drum and Trumpet, Chambers discharged.”
The chambers it refers to were small cannons that would fire blanks. The wadding in the chamber that was intended to squeeze down the gunpowder, caught fire and landed on the thatched roof of the gallery. The Globe only had two doors, and the theatre held up to 3000 people. Fortunately, nobody died and it is alleged that only one man’s trousers set on fire, to which he responded by pouring his beer on his pants to successfully save himself. Also, many of the costumes and play scripts were saved as well. It was one of the biggest news stories in London at the time.
Globe Theatre 2.0
The King’s Men chose to rebuild the Globe for about £1,400, and it opened in June 1614. The company performed at the Globe between May and October. They also played at the Blackfriar’s theatre (much smaller, but more profitable as tickets were more expensive) for the rest of the year. The second Globe Theatre had a larger roof than the first, and this time it was tiled instead of thatched. Next to the Theatre was a shop where beer, food, and tobacco were sold to theatregoers.
As government changed hands, the Puritans closed down all theatres in 1642 and it was destroyed in 1644 for housing. Tragic.
Globe Theatre 3.0
Sam Wanamaker was an American actor and director who arrived in England in 1949. He was amazed to realise the only commemoration of Shakespeare’s life and work in London was a bronze plaque on a brewery wall. From 1969 until his death, Wanamaker worked to make a Globe Theatre that would serve as a functioning theatre, an exhibition, and education centre. A committee of academics, architects and historians were pulled together in order to recreate the Globe Theatre that Shakespeare once played in. There were council disputes about gaining control of the land. The current Globe Theatre sits a few hundred metres away from the original site.
True to the original style of the Globe, the framework is made with timber and oak pegs. There was much debate about the size of the stage, the arrangement of the bays in the stalls, and the decoration, but it is believed that the current version of the Globe is the most accurate reconstruction. The modern theatre has 6 fire exits, although just 2 was suffice in order to provide safety in the original fire. The new Globe theatre even has a thatched roof like the original! There was a huge fire in London in 1666 that destroyed about four fifths of the city – so the Globe had to apply for special exemptions from laws that prohibited thatched rooves.
The Globe Theatre now:
The cheapest tickets for the yard cost only £5 now. The theatre aims to remain accessible and enjoyed by many. The theatre performs every year from Shakespeare’s birthday in April until October. Although most of the performances are Shakespeare’s own, plays written by other playwrights are performed too. The theatre now holds 1,500 people – about half of the original Globe’s capacity.
Shakespeare’s Globe now has a YouTube channel. If you’re interested in prop creation, behind the scenes, or snippets of the performances, see more at here!