The Globe Theatre also known as the Shakespeare
Globe Theatre was not only one of most famous playhouses
of all time, but the play house where Shakespeare performed
many of his greatest plays. Built from
oak, deal, and stolen playhouse frames, the 3 storey,
3000 capacity Globe Theatre, co-owned by William Shakespeare
has become almost as famous as the playwright
History: Shakespeare needs a new playhouse to compete.
The 1598 decision to build the famous playhouse came
about as the answer to many of The Lord Chamberlains
Mens problems. With the end of a lease on
the Blackfriars Theatre in 1597, The Lord Chamberlains
Men (Shakespeare, J & R Burbage, G Byran, John
Hemminges, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope and Will
Sly) had no where else to readily perform their plays.
This acting troupe needed a new playhouse and fast
as their rivals, The Admirals Men already
had the the Rose Playhouse to perform their plays.
Clearly the Lord Chamberlains Men would need
a playhouse to compete, but there was one little problem;
a lack of money.
Paying for the Playhouse: Shareholders become the
Though James and Richard Burbage of The Lord Chamberlains
Men had money, there still wasnt enough. Instead
they came up with a novel idea; they would each own
25 % of the new playhouse whilst the rest of The Lord
Chamberlains men would each chip in the remaining
50%. This, the Chamberlains men did, Shakespeare
and the other four members of the acting troupe each
owning a 12.5 % share when Will Kemp another member
of the troupe, backed out.
Sure enough the playhouse was completed, opening in
1599. Not only could the circular playhouse hold up
to 3000 patrons but it turned out to be a good earner,
earning Shakespeare and his troupe both money from hiring
out the playhouse and from ticket sales for their own
Theft builds the Playhouse.
Construction of the famous playhouse, set near the
Thames in a place called Bankside in Southwark, began
in early 1599. Said to be built by Cuthbert Burbage,
brother of the famous Shakespearean actor Robert Burbage
and son of James Burbage.
Interestingly the famous playhouse was not the Burbage
sons first choice for a playhouse since they already
had one in "The Theatre", the first of its
kind in London and an inheritance from his father. Unfortunately
for Shakespeare and the rest of The Lord Chamberlains
Men, the lease of the land it was built on expired in
Theoretically this playhouse should have reverted
to the landlord Giles Allen as well. Instead Burbage
tore it down and then discretely removed several 12
inch oak beams, transporting them to Bankside where
they formed the structural frame for a 100 foot circular
polygon, the heart of the new playhouse's structure.
Location, location, location.
Though located near the river Thames, Shakespeares
playhouse was not in fact in central London but rather
an outlying district called Southwark. Southwark had
a "colorful" reputation of being not too different
from what we would call a "bad" district
today, certainly not the place to find respectable gentry.
Yet the famous playhouse by attracting commoners and
gentry alike, brought people of all classes together
in a region renowned for bear-baiting and other less
than respectable activities.
Nonetheless, elements of Englands strict class
divisions remained; commoners were in the courtyard
by comparison with Englands gentry and nobility
which were seated in the galleries or the balconies.
That playhouses could even exist at all was in part
due to its Southwark location; it was outside the jurisdiction
of a disapproving central London bureaucracy...
To announce the arrival of the new playhouse, the Lord
Chamberlains Men took the bold move of flying
a flag with Hercules carrying a Globe on his shoulders
to announce the imminent performance of Shakespeares
play Julius Caesar.
The Playhouse's motto and crest.
True to its name, above the main entrance was
inscribed the words "Totus mundus agit histrionem"
(the whole world is a playhouse), a phrase echoed in
As You Like It ("All the worlds
a stage"). A crest displaying Hercules bearing
the globe on his shoulders finished the effect...
Built to the engineering standards of 1599, the famous
playhouse was a large circular structure, three stories
high. A small straw hatched roof only partially covered
the circular structure, giving it an appearance very
much like a modern day football stadium where the center
In the center, pushed up against one interior side,
extended the 5 feet high main stage. At the back of
this stage facing the interior walls were two doors
and a main entrance consisting of a central curtain.
Behind this were changing rooms for the actors. To get
back on stage, they would emerge from the arras or the
two sidedoors at stage level. Above this stage was a
balcony, flanked by two further balconies serving as
On the third level was a small house like structure
supported by columns from the stage where announcements
were made and the playhouse's flag would often fly,
advertising plays currently being performed.
Again like a stadium, three rows of seating forming
circular bands wrapped around the interior. These galleries
at two pennies, cost more, but offered the comfort of
seating. Those in the central uncovered courtyard had
to stand through what could be a three hour performance,
rain or shine.
"All the Worlds a Stage".
Set in the middle of the playhouse, the playhouse's
44 wide by 26 foot long stage stood five foot off the
ground, low enough to command a good view to courtyard
watchers yet high enough to discourage the occasional
Two doors allowed actors backstage to enter, this being
closed in by a central arras or hanging curtain. Above
this was a balcony famously used in Romeo and Juliet
when Romeo hears Juliet cry "Romeo, Romeo wherefore
art thou Romeo". Similarly, the arras would
have been pulled away in The Tempest to reveal
the touchingly innocent scene of Miranda playing chess
with Ferdinand and was also used for Hamlets stabbing
of Polionius in Hamlet.
Balconies to be seen in...
The balcony above the stage was not the only balcony
in the playhouse. As mentioned, the central balcony
was flanked by two balconies for the wealthy to be seen
in just as celebrities today pick boxes and seats at
sports games were they are likely to be noticed by todays
media. Even vanity existed in the 1500s.
Cost of entry.
Open to all for the modest fee of just one-penny (roughly
10 % of a workers daily wage), you could stand
in the yard at the center of the playhouse. Without
an overhead roof, such a view was exposed, but with
the stage set at eye level some 5 feet off the ground,
you got the closest view in the house. For a little
more (roughly two pennies), you could pay to sit in
one of the playhouse's three circular galleries; the
gentry with time on their hands and comfort on the minds
frequently paying more for the comfort and status, the
gallery seats conferred.
Watching a play.
Unlike todays spectacles, a Shakespearean playhouse-goer
really had to use their imagination; there were no backdrops,
no lighting to speak of, horrific acoustics, and few
if any props. As such watching a play would involve
watching the actors exaggerating their movements for
patrons in the galleries and shouting their lines to
be heard by all.
Much of the illusion of a play had to occur in the
viewers own imagination, the only notable exceptions,
being the colorful use of costumes, heralds, banners,
the odd cannon, and the dramatic use of the balconys
and arras. Because there was no artificial lighting,
plays typically occurred in the early afternoon, lasting
from 2 pm until roughly 4 or 5 pm.
The first play we know of that was performed at Shakespeare's
famous playhouse was Julius Caesar in 1599 when a Swiss
tourist Thomas Platter recorded in his diary that on
September the 21st " we witnessed an excellent
performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius
Caesar " said to be performed by some 15 actors.
Other plays known to have been performed by Shakespeare
and rest of his acting troupe were Hamlet (1600-1601),
Twelfth Night Or What You Will (1601), Richard II (February
7th 1601) Troilus and Cressida (1601-1602), Alls
Well That Ends Well (circa 1602), Timon of Athens (c1604),
King Lear (1605), Macbeth (1606), Pericles, Prince of
Tyre (1607) possibly The Tempest in 1610, The Two Noble
Kinsmen in 1611, Shakespeares "lost"
play Cardenio in 1612 and Henry VIII in 1613.
Burnt to the ground and rebuilt again.
Tragedy struck the playhouse when amidst a performance
of Henry VIII on June the 29th, 1613, a cannon fired
during the play ignited the playhouse's thatched roof
burning the playhouse to the ground. Rebuilt just one
year later, the famous playhouse again opened its doors
for business but on the opposite side of the Thames
river in 1614, with the original's dangerous straw thatched
roof now wisely replaced with tiles.
End of an era.
In 1642 as Puritanical forces made their presence
felt in England, playhouses no longer were a place of
laughter but one of evil sin. Predictably then, all
of Englands playhouses were promptly closed down
to protect the good people of England. Just two years
later in 1644, where Hamlet was once performed, the
famous playhouse was taken down, its presence replaced
by housing instead. One of the greatest eras in playhouse
was at an end...
Though the original playhouse is no longer with us,
we can enjoy a very close approximation of it today
in Southwark, the very same place the original was built
However the 1996 approximation is just that; first
the replica's exits had to be enlarged to comply with
todays rather more stringent fire regulations
(few existed when the original burnt down!) and the
new replica despite being built of the very same oak
and deal timbers, is not in the same Maiden Lane (called
Park Street today) location of the original, but is
The attention to detail has been painstaking; even
the thatched roof made of Norfolk reeds has been faithfully
recreated. Today with plays being performed there,
only a little imagination is needed to recreate watching
a play in Shakespeares time...
Acting: Safe if you had the right connections...
Before the advent of Shakespearean and Elizabethan
playhouse, there were no true playhouses or acting troupes
Instead, traveling actors recreated religious plays
held at market squares, inns or make shift stages. These
actors traveled the country and were regarded as little
more than layabouts or vagabonds. So when playhouse
emerged in the late 1500s, acting was still considered
a pretty vulgar profession to practice.
There were enemies of actors especially officials who
could easily arrest actors for vagrancy. Only actors
enjoying noble protection were safe, The Lord Chamberlain's
Men were safe by virtue of first being sponsored by
The Lord Chamberlain of Elizabeth I and later by King
James patent and patronage of Shakespeares
Famous actors who performed at the Playhouse: Richard
Of The Lord Chamberlains Men (Later named The
Kings Men to honour King James I), perhaps the
acting troupes most famous actor was not William
Shakespeare who legend has it played King Hamlets
ghost, but was Richard Burbage.
Inheriting the smaller Blackfriars playhouse
from his father who built it, and the son of James Burbage
who initially ran the Lord Chamberlains Men, Richard
Burbage was considered the greatest Elizabethan actor
of them all, playing such challenging roles as Hamlet,
King Lear and Othello.
His influence on Shakespeare is not certain but many
have speculated that Shakespeare wrote the tragic figures
of Othello, King Lear and Hamlet with this subtle-performing
actor in mind.
Other Actors in The Lord Chamberlains Men.
Despite the fame accompanying Shakespeare and Richard
Burbages association with the acting troupe, many
others were famous in The Lord Chamberlains Men.
Will Kemp who was a comic actor in their troupe, originally
was one of the shareholders in the famous playhouse.
He is thought to have played amongst other characters,
that of Falstaff in the King Henry IV plays, certainly
Peter, a servant to Juliets nurse in Romeo and
Juliet and in all probability, Bottom, a weaver in A
Midsummer Nights dream.
Instead of staying with The Lord Chamberlains
men, he left the other actors in 1599 to pick up his
contribution to the new playhouse and instead Morris
danced his way from London to Norwich.
Unhappy with this, he then danced across the Alps to
take up acting at The Rose, one of the famous playhouse's
Arguably replacing Will Kemp in the more famous comic
roles of Shakespeares plays was Robert Armin.
Most famous for his role as the deceptively wise Fool
in King Lear, Robert Armin also distinguished
himself as the insightful clown Feste in Twelfth
Night and as Touchstone in As You Like It.
John Hemminges, known to us in history as one of the
actors (the other was Henry Condell) who compiled The
First Folio, from which all records of Shakespeares
plays are derived was with The Lord Chamberlains
Men from, 1594, later becoming its manager.
Augustine Phillips was known as a musician and jig
writer; a merry jig or dance always followed the conclusion
of a play.
Thomas Pope joined in 1594, becoming a co-owner of
the famous playhouse and playing comic roles like Will
Kemp before him, thought to include that of Falstaff
in the King Henry IV plays before passing away in 1604.
Will Sly joined The Lord Chamberlains men in
1594 along with Shakespeare at the same time. Along
with becoming a co-owner in 1605, he also became a co-owner
in the Blackfriars playhouse in 1608.
The plot to kill Queen Elizabeth.
Shakespeare and his famous playhouse, also distinguished
themselves in controversy. In 1601, Sir Gilly Meyrick
asked The Lord Chamberlains Men to perform Richard
II for two pounds. This was an old play and it was only
the money that convinced the actors to perform it.
However the reason Meyrick wanted the play performed
was because of its anti-monarchic message; King Richard
II, a rightful king is removed from power for being
a tyrant who breaks his own laws to be replaced by those
who understood his subjects better.
Meyrick was obviously hoping that a well-attended performance
the very day before the Essex rebellion began, would
generate public sympathy for those attempting to kill
The Essex rebellion failed, The Earl of Essex and most
of his supporters being killed. Shakespeare and the
rest of the Chamberlains Men were questioned for
their part in this conspiracy, only having to play before
the Queen as a consequence.
There is still some doubt as to whether Shakespeare
could really not have known what he was doing. Perhaps
Shakespeare may have been sympathetic to the conspirators?
Little is known with complete certainty.