Shakespeare's Globe Theatre is one of most famous theatre’s of all time
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Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

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Globe Theatre

The Globe Theatre also known as the Shakespeare Globe Theatre was not only one of most famous playhouse’s 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 himself.

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 Chamberlain’s Men’s problems. With the end of a lease on the Blackfriars Theatre in 1597, The Lord Chamberlain’s 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 Admiral’s Men already had the the Rose Playhouse to perform their plays.

Clearly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men would need a playhouse to compete, but there was one little problem; a lack of money.

Paying for the Playhouse: Shareholders become the key.

Though James and Richard Burbage of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had money, there still wasn’t enough. Instead they came up with a novel idea; they would each own 25 % of the new playhouse whilst the rest of The Lord Chamberlain’s men would each chip in the remaining 50%. This, the Chamberlain’s 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 performances there.

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 son’s 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 Chamberlain’s Men, the lease of the land it was built on expired in 1597.

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, Shakespeare’s 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 England’s strict class divisions remained; commoners were in the courtyard by comparison with England’s 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 Chamberlain’s Men took the bold move of flying a flag with Hercules carrying a Globe on his shoulders to announce the imminent performance of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar.

The Playhouse's motto and crest.

True to it’s 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 world’s a stage"). A crest displaying Hercules bearing the globe on his shoulders finished the effect...

General Appearance.

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 is uncovered.

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 playhouse boxes.

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 World’s 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 stage jumper.

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 Hamlet’s 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 today’s media. Even vanity existed in the 1500’s.

Cost of entry.

Open to all for the modest fee of just one-penny (roughly 10 % of a worker’s 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 today’s 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 viewer’s own imagination, the only notable exceptions, being the colorful use of costumes, heralds, banners, the odd cannon, and the dramatic use of the balcony’s 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.

Plays performed.

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), All’s 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, Shakespeare’s "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 England’s 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...

Today’s Replica.

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 in.

However the 1996 approximation is just that; first the replica's exits had to be enlarged to comply with today’s 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 nearby.

The attention to detail has been painstaking; even the thatched roof made of Norfolk reeds has been faithfully recreated. Today with play’s being performed there, only a little imagination is needed to recreate watching a play in Shakespeare’s 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 in England.

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 Shakespeare’s acting troupe.

Famous actors who performed at the Playhouse: Richard Burbage.

Of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Later named The King’s Men to honour King James I), perhaps the acting troupe’s most famous actor was not William Shakespeare who legend has it played King Hamlet’s ghost, but was Richard Burbage.

Inheriting the smaller Blackfriar’s playhouse from his father who built it, and the son of James Burbage who initially ran the Lord Chamberlain’s 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 Chamberlain’s Men.

Despite the fame accompanying Shakespeare and Richard Burbage’s association with the acting troupe, many others were famous in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

Will Kemp who was a comic actor in their troupe, originally was one of the shareholder’s 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 Juliet’s nurse in Romeo and Juliet and in all probability, Bottom, a weaver in A Midsummer Night’s dream.

Instead of staying with The Lord Chamberlain’s 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 competitors.

Arguably replacing Will Kemp in the more famous comic roles of Shakespeare’s 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 Shakespeare’s plays are derived was with The Lord Chamberlain’s 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 Chamberlain’s 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 Blackfriar’s 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 Chamberlain’s 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 Queen Elizabeth.

The Essex rebellion failed, The Earl of Essex and most of his supporters being killed. Shakespeare and the rest of the Chamberlain’s 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.

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