Globe Theater

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Globe Theater

The First and Second Globe Theaters

The Globe was built for in 1599 when the Chamberlain's Men could not renew their lease for their old theater in the north of London.  Like many of London's more puritan minded citizens, their landlord Giles Allen considered playacting to the same as prostitution and other vile crimes and didn't want to have the company to continue to operate on his property.  Simply known as "The Theatre", their company's old structure, was slyly taken down lock, stock and thatch when Giles Allen was out of town and moved across the Thames to a new sight in the section of Southwark.  The new site also had the benefit of being in a territory that was beyond the control of London's city government.  The areas known as "liberties" were sections that originally housed religious structures that were independent of mayor's office.  The Globe opened in late 1599 to such plays as Julius Caesar and HamletAs You Like It may also have been on the first season's roster as some scholars think the famous line from Jaques "All the World's a Stage" is a jab at their old landlord.  As he tried to stop their theatrical endeavors, the more the company showed that they could perform anywhere.


The Globe theater as it was rendered in a surveyor's engraving in 1647.

The Globe was a roughly cylindrical—probably polygonal—three-storey timber building, unroofed over the stage in the centre. A rough description can be found in the opening prologue of Henry V as the chorus describes their unworthy scaffold as “This wooden O”.  Each floor contained open galleries with seats. The galleries extended around much of the circle, and the stage was built out into the center from the remaining part of the building. In the building behind the stage were dressing rooms—the 'tiring house'—perhaps galleries for musicians, and apparatus for scenery and props. Above the thatched roof rose a tower, or 'penthouse', from which flags were flown and trumpets sounded to announce a production. An 18th-century account asserted that on its facade the Globe sported a painted sign depicting Hercules supporting the planet Earth (one of his legendary tasks was to stand in for Atlas). If this was so—and scholars generally believe it was—this sign may be alluded to in Hamlet, where the Children’s Companies, in a satirical passage on the War of the Theaters, are said to have triumphed over both the players and 'Hercules and his load too' (2.2.358).   

This war was a bitter feud between playwrights and companies they were associated with around 1600 when Hamlet was written.  Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s once protégé and now friend and fierce rival, was one of the main generals in this volley of verbal and written attacks on playwrights.  He considered his art to be the true way to do theater, based on the guidebook set by the Greek philosopher Artistole, his Poetics.  Jonson wrote for companies of boy actors that were considered the crème of polite society and a major source of competition for Shakespeare’s company.  Jonson would take satiric jabs at his fellow playwrights by lampooning their scripts, individual lines or the men themselves in each new play he wrote.  In kind the playwrights responded back, but the war of words and putdowns only lasted a few years.  Through their careers, Jonson always made his opinion known about his fellow writers, Shakespeare seemed mildly amused to indifferent. 

Period drawing of the Swan theater, similar in structure to the Globe.  This is the only drawing of the interior on an open air theater surviving from Shakespeare's time.

On June 29, 1613, the Globe's thatched roof was set on fire by a cannon fired during a performance of Henry VIII, as called for in the stage direction at 1.4.49, and the building burned to the ground. It was open again within a year, rebuilt to much the same plan, but this time the roof was tiled. In 1644, two years after the theatres of England were closed by the revolutionary government, the Globe was torn down and tenements built on the lot.  The appearance of the Globe can only roughly be determined, from several drawings of its exterior (in large-scale city scenes), from the specifications in the builder's contract for the Fortune Theatre (which was modeled on the Globe), and by extrapolating from the only sketch of the interior of an Elizabethan playhouse, the Swan Theatre.


The New Globe Theater

In the 1950's American actor Sam Wannamaker went looking for Shakespeare's Globe on the south side of London only to find a dirty plaque marking the spot where the building stood.  After several unsuccessful years of lobbying the British government to rebuild the theater, Wannamaker decided to do it himself.  Completed in 1997, Shakespeare's Globe theater is a close approximation of the famous theater, which stand 200 yards closer to the river than the original.  The grounds of the original being paritally under an apartment complex.  Since exact dimensions of the original structure had to be guessed, the theater has been slightly modified since its opening.  Most modifications come from on going archeological digs at the Rose Theatre located a few blocks away.  The theater holds the interesting distinction of being the first building in London in nearly 400 years to apply for a permit to build a roof with thatch.  Not even the second Globe had that, they rebuilt with a tile roof.  Today the theater sits a capacity of 1000 people, almost half of what the original held and holds both daytime and nighttime showings.

An exterior shot of the New Globe.

A performance at the Globe, shot from an upper gallery seat.


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