William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the great English playwright, is known throughout the world for his comedies, tragedies, histories and sonnets. His works are quoted throughout the Oxford English Dictionary and he invented over 1700 words, changing nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, adding prefixes and suffixes, many of which are still in common use today. Despite this fame, the man himself remains a mystery. Very little is known about his upbringing, his personality or his day-to-day life; even his authorship is often brought into question. Yet, his name remains strongly associated with England, particularly in Stratford, his place of birth, and London, the location of his famous theatre, The Globe.
Just as the playwright persists to be an enigma, very little is known about the Globe theatre built on the Bankside in London. However, a team of dedicated actors, architects and historians have built a replica based on every tiny detail they could unearth. Situated south of the River Thames, to the west of London Bridge, the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe is open to visitors for plays, tours and exhibitions.
Due to the lack of information about William Shakespeare, it is difficult to determine when he first came to London. The majority of his life has been pieced together from official records, the first being his baptism on 26th April 1564. At the time, it was common for babies to be baptised within days after their birth, therefore, historians have dedicated 23rd April as his birthday, which is incidentally the day of his death 52 years later.
There are no records made during Shakespeare’s childhood but it can be presumed he went to the local grammar school in Stratford due to his exceptional writing skills and knowledge of Latin. His name reappeared in 1582 when he married Anne Hathaway (1556-1623), which was quickly followed by the birth of his eldest daughter Susanna (1583-1649). A couple of years later, records reveal the birth of twins Hamnet (1585-96) and Judith (1585-1662).
Between the birth of his children and the next time Shakespeare appears in records dated 1592, it is unclear what he did or where he lived. Historians rule out the possibility of university because only unmarried men were allowed to attend. The earliest record of Shakespeare’s career refers to him as an actor and two years later he is made a partner of the acting troop Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later The King’s Men, 1603).
At the time of Shakespeare’s birth, there were no theatres in England. Plays were performed on the streets or in taverns around the city, however, this was often disapproved of by city authorities. The city of London was not as large as it is today, only spanning the area north of the Thames, therefore, it was safer for actors to stay on the southern side out of reach from the Mayor and Council. The first theatre to appear on Bankside was The Rose in 1587, shortly followed by The Swan in 1595. Neither of these theatres exists today but written records of the buildings helped reconstruct the Globe, whose original construction took place in 1599.
A detailed record of the Globe has been found in a diary written by a Swiss traveller, Thomas Platter (1574-1628) after his visit during the Globe’s first year. He describes the thatched-roofed playhouse, open to the elements in the centre, the stage, the galleries and his experience during a performance of Julius Caesar (1599). Many people could stand on the ground in the yard in front of the stage and pay “only one penny”. To have a seat, the audience was charged two pennies and “if he desires to sit on a cushion, in the most comfortable place of all … then he gives yet another penny.”
Platter’s description of the Globe reveals that the stage was covered by a roof but the yard was open, and there were three tiers of seats around the outside of the building, however, it was not enough information for the team of architects to reconstruct the historic building.
Although not a lot is known about the physical size and appearance of the Globe, the theatre appeared in many records and accounts, most famously for its demise in 1613. On 29th June, the Globe was putting on its third performance of Shakespeare’s new play All Is True (now known as Henry VIII), telling the story of the christening of the late Queen Elizabeth. Being the most patriotic of playwrights, Shakespeare went over the top, creating a powerful sound to announce the arrival of the king at Hampton Court Palace.
“Drum and Trumpet, Chambers discharged.”
Chambers were the small cannons used to create the thunderous noise, stuffed with wadding and gunpowder instead of cannon balls. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the wadding caught alight during the discharge and landed on the thatched-roof of the theatre. By the time the fire was noticed, it was spreading too quickly to be dealt with. Although there were only two fire exits, the entire audience and acting group – an estimated 3000 people – managed to escape unharmed. The Globe, however, burnt to the ground.
The current Globe Theatre was not the first reconstruction of the open-air playhouse. In 1614, the King’s Men decided to rebuild the famous theatre despite it costing twice as much as the original. During the winter months, the players performed at an indoor theatre, the Blackfriars (of which even less information is known), however, they preferred the atmosphere of the Globe during the summer. The new building looked similar to its predecessor, however, the roof was made from tiles in order to reduce the risk of a repeat of the fire of 1613. Despite this change, the playhouse was described as “the fairest that ever was in England.” (John Chamberlain, 1614)
The second Globe Theatre lasted until 1642 when it was shut down by the Long Parliament who ordered a closure of all the London theatres. Over time, new buildings appeared on and around the site and bombs during the Second World War destroyed any lasting evidence of the Globe’s existence. The modern reconstruction, completed in 1997, sits closer to the river, approximately 230 metres from the original site.
By the end of World War Two, the only commemoration of Shakespeare’s life and work in London was a bronze plaque on a brewery wall. Sam Wanamaker (1919-93), an American actor-director, was horrified at the lack of recognition: “He needs, and we need, something more substantial than that.” Having begun his career at the Globe theatre in Cleveland, Ohio (1936), Wanamaker was an avid fan of the great bard and determinedly began a campaign to create a reconstruction of the London Globe theatre. He also aimed for the building to be used for education and research, exhibitions and house an additional indoor theatre.
Mistakenly believing it would only take a few years, Wanamaker did not live to see the opening of the new Globe theatre, however, he dedicated the majority of his life to the project. The reason for the lengthy construction was partly due to the lack of information about the original theatre. The Globe team consulted scholars, actors and directors in order to produce the most accurate representation of the Tudor theatre as they could.
By borrowing details from other theatres in the area at the time Shakespeare was around, the team managed to assemble a round-like, open-air theatre surrounded by a three-tiered gallery. The roof of the gallery and stage is thatched like the original, making it the only thatched-roof in the City of London. Special permission was granted for this feature and the building has more fire exits than its predecessor – nor do they use cannons!
The Globe is open to visitors daily between 23rd April and 14th October for tours around the playhouse. Half-hour tours are given by expert guides who have an extraordinary knowledge of the auditorium and the original built in the year 1599. After beginning outside the theatre, tour parties are taken inside to experience the Tudor-style interior. The galleries are full of wooden benches that face the 44.5ft by 25.25ft stage and look down on an empty yard, which during a play is full of standing spectators. The stage itself is 5ft high and has three entrances on the back wall or frons scenae.
Although it is impossible to know exactly how the interior was decorated, there are accounts of its beauty, implying that it was painted in some way. The stage roof rests on wooden pillars that have been painted to resemble marble – a feature that the Swan theatre once had. The Heavens (stage ceiling) is painted a deep blue with a sunburst concealing the trap door that is used for special effects. Surrounding this are representations of the signs of the zodiac.
“We’ll hear a play”
– Hamlet II ii
As luck may have it, rehearsals for upcoming Shakespeare plays may disrupt the tours, however, on some of these occasions, as long as they are quiet, tour parties may enter the theatre and watch the actors practising. This helps put the theatre in context, seeing it as a working playhouse rather than a monument or museum. Alternatively, visitors can book to watch a play and get the full Tudor theatre experience.
In addition to the tour, an exhibition is housed underneath the Globe itself, full of information about Shakespeare’s life and works. Beginning with a history of London, maps and drawings reveal the skyline of the city at the beginning of the 1600s and the gradual appearance of theatres. Described are the daily lives of the common people, the nobility and those that frequented the Globe theatre. There is also insight into Shakespeare’s life as an actor and playwright, or at least as much that can be pieced together.
Further into the exhibition, the focus changes to the productions themselves. On display is a variety of clothing that has been used in plays and films in the recent decades. Although these are fairly new costumes, they have been made in the style that Shakespeare and his colleagues would have worn on stage. Some of the outfits are particularly detailed and decorated, which was a new style of dress that appeared in Tudor times.
Today, the globe is fitted with electricity allowing for easier and safer methods of putting on productions. Whilst the costumes and language may be the same, the theatre has moved on in other ways, for instance, musical instruments. The exhibition includes a variety of instruments that are no longer in use today. Most of these are reconstructions, the originals, those that have survived, being kept safely in other museums. A digital screen allows visitors to “play” the instruments in order to understand how they would sound in comparison to their modern counterparts.
To fully appreciate Shakespeare’s Globe, it is important to do both the tour and the exhibition. Whilst the tour guides are very knowledgeable and the building itself impressive, the exhibition fills in the gaps and expands upon the history of the original Globe theatre and its actors.
There is the option to explore even further with a Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Tour that takes place on selected dates between May and September. Wanamaker, the brains behind the reconstruction of the Globe, died in 1993 at the age of 74 but his memory and the recognition of his hard work lives on in the name of the indoor theatre. The tour reveals the story of its creation and how productions are directed to work in a candlelit indoor playhouse.
A third tour, the Shakespeare’s Southwark Tour, occurs at various times during the summer and takes visitors on a walk around the original locations of places of Elizabethan entertainment, including the site of the first Globe and the Rose Theatre. For dates of this tour and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Tour, check and book online.
Shakespeare’s Globe is a fantastic venue in the heart of the city providing entertainment and information for all. Not only does it reconnect contemporary society with the famous English bard, it provides a history of architecture, fashion, language and music. Suitable for adults and children, a trip to the Globe is a fun day out (as long as the weather is nice!) with various activities going on at different times. As the Sunday Telegraph states, it is “the capital at its very best.”
“A great while ago the world begun,
With hey ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.”
– Twelfth Night V i
Tickets for the Globe Theatre Tour and Exhibition can be purchased on the day or online. Due to high demand, it is safer to book in advance to avoid disappointment. Tickets are £17 for adults and £10 for children, which includes both the tour and all-day access to the exhibition.