January 22, 2023
In all the times we’ve visited London, we had never visited the Globe Theatre; we remedied that oversight today.
We had booked a tour of the Globe now, instead of May 2023, when we’ll be back during the week of King Charles’ coronation, believing it should be less crowded. We’re again fortunate that although still rather cool, it’s a beautiful blue sky day in London. We walked over the Southwark bridge and then down the stairs to the river level to find the Globe Theatre entrance. The Globe as it is now is a reconstruction, as it burned down (more about that later) in 1613. We had a terrific guide from the Globe who helped us appreciate the times in which Shakespeare lived and worked.
In Shakespeare’s time, the Globe Theater, located approximately across the river Thames from where St Paul’s cathedral is located, was not part of London (~200,000 people), which the river separated. London was controlled by the Puritans, and there was no dancing, plays or other such frivolous activities. The Puritans disapproved of many things in Elizabethan society, and one of the things they hated most was the theater. Their chief complaint was that secular entertainments distracted people from worshipping God, though they also felt that the theater’s increasing popularity symbolized the moral iniquity of city life. For instance, they regarded the convention of boy actors playing women’s roles as immoral (women weren’t generally found either attending plays and certainly not performing in them), and some Puritan preachers even felt that the sinfulness of play-acting either contributed to, or else directly caused, London’s frequent outbreaks of plague.
Plays by playwrights like Shakespeare gave them perfect opportunities to contrast and make fun of the Puritans. Unsurprisingly, Elizabethan playwrights frequently made fun of Puritans (being the foil of playwrights like Shakespeare obviously didn’t endear him to the Puritans). Shakespeare’s most famous Puritan character is Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Shakespeare portrays Malvolio as a killjoy and a hypocrite with social ambitions. However, Shakespeare also shows sympathy for Malvolio’s point of view. Throughout the play, Malvolio stands in conflict with Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Shakespeare portrays these characters as drunken, selfish, and irresponsible. In this way, Shakespeare indicates his willingness to entertain the Puritan perspective while simultaneously criticizing that perspective’s extremism. It was the duality and irony of Puritans’ abhorrence of plays along with them crossing the river to be in attendance at his plays. There was a flagpole at the front of the theatre and when there was a flag raised, it was visible across the river so people knew there was a play to be performed.
The Globe Theater was built in 1599 under duress. Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had long been performing in a facility known as the Theater. In 1596, however, the lease on the Theater’s land expired. The owner of the building (not the land) was the father of one of the actors in Shakespeare’s company. When he died in 1597, the building became useless. The company resolved to sneak onto the land one night in December 1598, dismantle the building, and transport the materials to another site where they could erect a new facility: the Globe.
At the time, it wasn’t simple to cross the river (safely) from London over to the Globe (there were other theaters like the Rose and the Swan). There was one bridge, which apparently wasn’t particularly safe to cross. Many chose to come across in small boats piloted by a “Pennyman” , so called because he charged a penny as fare to cross the river. Crossing the river took you from Puritanical London to “anything goes land” across the river.
The Globe was reconstructed not exactly on the original site, but as we understand, a few hundred yards from it, based on excavations and drawings. It’s an open roof theatre with a thatched roof (probably the only one in the City). More than three centuries later, in 1970, there arose a plan to build a new Globe Theater. It would take nearly twenty more years before construction would begin. In 1989 the original foundations of the Globe were rediscovered, and after archaeologists examined the remains, their findings were incorporated into the reconstruction plan. The replica theater, now part of a building complex known as the International Shakespeare Globe Theater, opened in 1997.
The audience would be in attendance either in the area directly in front of the stage or seated. Where you sat was both a matter of money and social status. The common “man” (and it would likely have been entirely men) stood in the area in front of the stage on a surface of shell and mud (when it rained, because there’s no roof over that part of theatre). The cost to be a “groundling” was 1p, which (400 years ago) would have been 1/3 of a day’s wage. Since there were no restrooms, if you had to “go” during the 3-4 hour length of a play, you did so in place, making the experience even more memorable. In this very limited standing room space, they crowded as many as 1,000 people. Sitting higher up under the roof in the gallery with a covered roof cost more (maybe 3p), while “gentlemen” would have been seated to the extreme right and left, high up near the stage- because there was no more “audio” than the actors could speak – closer to the stage meant you could hear the play, not just see it. They paid. 6P. If you were truly powerful, you sat above the stage- you couldn’t see the play, but the purpose was for you to be seen. The gallery held as many as 2,000 people, making total capacity 3,000.
The stage, where literally, all the world exists in a play , meant that people could see and hear the roles played in life just as actors do in the theatre. Painted in the ceiling above the stage was Heaven, the stage was the world where people played out their lives. All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players’ (Seven Ages of Man, Act 2, Scene 7).
Shakespeare, as co-owner/manager of the theatre made a good living from his plays. When playgoers paid their entrance fee, the money would be put into a clay box, then taken to the office where it would broken open to be counted, hence the “box office”.
The original Globe did not have a long life. During a production of Henry VIII in 1613 a cannon was fired, and a stray spark ignited the wooden beams and the roof’s thatching. The Globe burned to the ground. All 3000 of the audience escaped. A second Globe Theater was built on the same site the following year. The second Globe remained in operation for nearly thirty more years, until 1642, when a Puritan ordinance shut down all active theaters in the city.
Shakespeare died 3 years after the Globe first burned, in 1616, but his plays and sonnets have endured for over 400 years. While little is known about the early years of the person we know as Shakespeare, the collection of what’s now known as the First Folio, published in 1623 gave us plays that would have otherwise been lost to history. There are only 235 known copies of the First Folio. The Globe Theatre has one of them on display.