William Shakespeare’s Globe Theater

By Elise Warner

A crowd of twentieth century “groundlings” stands in the open yard of the new Globe Theatre in Bankside, London. We’ve paid five pounds approximately $8.50 to see a performance of The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V.) In the early 1600s, at the first Globe Theatre Shakespeare’s “Wooden O,” groundlings (commoners) paid one English penny. Two pennies entitled a patron to a seat on a bench in the gallery; protected from sun and rain by a thatched roof made of water reed. Three pennies bought a cushioned seat close to the stage where one could see and be seen and the most prestigious seats of all at six pennies were the Lord’s rooms behind and above the stage.

The groundlings, also known as “stinkards” – they rarely washed themselves or their clothes – stood in a yard covered with a mixture of hazelnut shells, cinders, ash, sand and silt. Here they ate and drank, fought, cheered, hissed and sometimes critiqued an offending actor by throwing an orange. The orange was and is a useful piece of fruit; its scent protects the nose from stench and it can be eaten when a groundling feels a pang of hunger. Today, most of us shower, deodorize, sip from bottles of spring water and enjoy an ice cream, but cheers for the British and hisses for the French are still heard during performances of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth. We forget the help given to Americans by the French during our revolution and enthusiastically join the English; we’re swept away by loyalty to King Harry, played by Mark Rylance, who doubles as the artistic director of the new Globe.

Born April 23, 1564, on Henley Street, in Stratford-upon-Avon, a two-day ride from the deathly plague that swept through London, William Shakespeare was the oldest son and first surviving child of Mary Arden and John Shakespeare. Two sisters had been born before him; one died at birth, the other at four months of age. The town’s bell could be heard ringing by July, mourning the children struck down by the deadly epidemic, but Shakespeare survived.

His father worked as a yeoman farmer, a craftsman, a glover, a merchant, a constable and one of the borough’s two chamberlains in charge of property and finances. His mother was the youngest and most favored of eight daughters of a farmer, who named her executor of his will and left her his most valuable property. Most scholars believe that both parents could read and do sums.

Educated at the local grammar school, young Will Shakespeare would be transported by the traveling players who performed “pastymes,” or plays in Stratford-upon-Avon. The townspeople were entertained by dramas and spectacles presented in markets, the Bridge Street innyards and the Gild Hall. The first plays, Elizabethan audiences attended, were performed in inns and courtyards. There was no gas lighting, limelight, electricity, incandescent lamps or computer controlled light-boards. No artificial light of any kind. Performances took place outdoors during daylight hours allowing eye contact between the actor and the observer. The players presented medieval and religious plays as well as new works. Stratford also had amateur mummers and a Lord of Misrule, the master of revels, from Christmas to 12th Night. During John Shakespeare’s tenure as bailiff, two companies, The Queen’s men and the Earl of Worcester’s men played Stratford’s Gild Hall.

Accounts of Shakespeare’s life between 1583 and 1588, the year he arrived in London, are rather hazy. As John Shakespeare’s oldest son, William should have been apprenticed to his father’s business but John’s fortunes were in decline during this period and Will, according to some, was apprenticed to a butcher. Then there is the oft-repeated scuttlebutt that claims Shakespeare left Stratford under a cloud after he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local Justice of the Peace. Lucy is portrayed as Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Other chronicles have Shakespeare spending some time as a schoolmaster. The strongest possibility is a traveling theatre company passing through Stratford and inviting Shakespeare to join the troupe. As a dramatist or “scriviner” and minor actor, he would be of great use to the players.

To avoid the restrictions imposed by authorities, theatres were built outside the walls of London. In 1576, James Burbage, an actor/manager, built a playhouse on a leased site in Finesbury Fields, Shoreditch. He called it, “The Theatre.” Over the next 60 years, seventeen other playhouses were built around the city. Across the River Thames, in Southwark, easily reached by boat or bridge, the theatres were close to bull and bear baiting rings, prisons, cockpits and brothels. When flags were raised and trumpets blasted the air announcing a performance, workers were lured away from jobs, one of the many reasons London’s Lord Mayors disapproved of plays. It was believed that plays encouraged lust, sacrilege and sloth.

Shakespeare’s London was a city of contrasts. London Bridge, the Tower of London, tall buildings, royal palaces and rows of shops competed with streets littered with the rotting corpses of animals and body wastes tossed indiscriminately into alleys. The sights, the sounds, the energy of the city must have nourished his talents; he began working as an actor and playwright with several companies including: The Queen’s Men, Pembroke’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men. The troupes often disbanded, then regrouped. Shakespeare joined James Burbage and his sons, Richard and Cuthbert, offering his talents as a dramatist and actor.

The Lord Mayors tried and failed to get the plays banned but the companies were protected by the Royals Privy Council and appeared by Royal Command. Shakespeare was a charter member of a new theatre company under the patronage of Lord Hunsdon, Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth and an officer of the Privy Council, in charge of Her Majesty’s entertainment. Known as the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men”, they performed at The Theatre. Needing money, the Burbages, who owned half the lease, offered shares in The Theatre to five leading actors. Shakespeare accepted and received a share of one eighth.

Perhaps his success led to a critique published, in 1592, by actor, dramatist Robert Greene, in Greene’s “Groatsworth of Wit,” one of the earliest known references to Shakespeare. Greene, one of a group of dramatists known as wits, who had earned degrees at Oxford and Cambridge, attacked the Bard as “An Upstart Crow.” Greene was soon proved wrong, half of Shakespeare’s plays were published during his lifetime and by the time he entered his early thirties, he was established as a man of property.

Over 10,000 deaths were reported one year later – in 1593 plague once again closed London’s theatres but by 1594, the Lord Mayor succeeded in reaching an agreement with the Lord Chamberlain. All companies, except for the Lord Chamberlain’s called The Chamberlain’s Men who performed at The Theatre, and The Lord Admiral’s at the Rose, were banned. Christopher Marlowe’s plays were performed at the Rose, Shakespeare’s at The Theatre.

In 1597, the Burbages’ landlord, Giles Allen, a Puritan who disapproved of theatre, refused to renew their lease at the site in Finesbury. The company tried to build a theatre in a hall at the Blackfriars near St. Paul’s Cathedral but were stopped by a petition circulated by residents of that upscale district. The petition sited “A general inconvenience to all the inhabitants. All manner of vagrant and lewde persons that will come thither and worke all manner of mischeefs.” A 16th century version of “There goes the neighborhood.” His plan for an indoor theatre thwarted, James Burbage died three months later leaving his two sons, Cuthbert and Richard, to carry on. The company rented a playhouse, the “Curtain”, for two years, but 1597 and 98 brought a reversal in their fortunes and the company was forced to sell the playbooks of Richard III, Richard II, Henry IV and Love’s Labor’s Lost.

In 1598, the Burbages took a thirty-one year lease on a plot of land on Bankside. Then, late at night, during a heavy snowfall, the air frigid with cold and ice a thin layer on the River Thames, the Burbages transported timber, and whatever else could be salvaged, from The Theatre across London Bridge to Southwark on the south bank and the first Globe theatre was built. Henry the Fifth and As You Like It were performed that year and a Swiss visitor, Thomas Platter, noted a performance at the Globe on September 21, “in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the first Emperor Julius Caesar.”

In Shakespeare’s day, plays were written for particular companies,  becoming their exclusive property. The playwrights then known as poets – received a flat fee and possibly a portion of the second day’s receipts unless, like Shakespeare, the poet owned a share. Shakespeare probably agreed to write two plays a year for the company. Richard Burbage, the leading tragedian, gained from his working friendship with Shakespeare; originating the title roles in Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Macbeth and becoming the foremost actor of his time. Their arrangement was unusual and highly successful; the Globe became “the glory of the Banke.”

The Globe had a central “discovery place.” Double doors, covered with finely embroidered hangings, a curtain or both enabled the actor to reach the upper level for balcony scenes. Above that was a room with machinery for special effects; cannons were fired, angels or ghosts descended and a trap door in the floor led to hell. Wooden stage posts, painted to look like marble, supported a canopy that represented heaven, filled with clouds, stars, moons and the sun. The canopy did double duty: it protected the actors and their costumes from the sun.

Elizabeth I enjoyed Masques a dramatic entertainment based on mythological or allegorical themes and plays at Christmas. She appointed A Master of Revels, who acted as a producer/director and guardian of morals, in addition to providing extra costumes and a hall to be used for the performance. When Elizabeth died, in 1603, James VI of Scotland who became James I of England succeeded her. James loved the arts, particularly theatre and the Chamberlain’s Men. He demanded they come under his patronage and granted a royal patent. Their name changed to the King’s Men. Shakespeare’s company played the Globe in winter and summer until 1608 when the company began to play winters indoors at the Blackfriars theatre. When plague caused the closing of theatres, James provided the troupe with engagements, playing for royalty, outside London until the danger had passed.

One of four plays presented at the Globe during the theatre’s 1997 inaugural season, Henry the Fifth was written for the original theatre in 1599. Costumes have been recreated from surviving inventories and research conducted in museums all over the world and the production cast with young men portraying women’s roles as they did in the original “Wooden O.”

As the doors open, we are transported back to the 16th century. Spectators, engrossed in conversation, are barely aware of the faint throb of a drum; music from the Elizabethan period underscores the play just as it did in Shakespeare’s day. The beat becomes deliberate as the Musicians of the Globe appear; playing a trumpet, cornet, sackbut, and percussion. The sound becomes intense as the Players fill the stage. A stave pounds the floor. Excitement crescendos until every onlooker melds with this “band of brothers” willing to fight and die for King Harry and England.

The Globe is described by Shakespeare in the play’s prologue; the chorus asks the audience to picture the vasty fields of France, two mighty monarchies, horses “Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;”…”Can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt?”

Fire destroyed the Globe fourteen years later. During a performance of Henry VIII, a piece of wadding fired from one of the stage cannons, landed on the thatched roof, smoldered, smoked ignored by a group of spectators totally involved in the performance and finally burst into flame. The Globe burned to the ground in less than an hour but the audience of three thousand managed to escape through the two exits. One patron’s pants caught fire but a quick thinking friend extinguished the flames with a bottle of ale. The second Globe, built on the foundations of the first, was rebuilt immediately, this time it sported a tiled roof and it was thought to be “the fairest that ever was in England”.

Shakespeare retired to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1613 and died in 1616; he bequeathed a ring to Richard Burbage as a token of friendship. The Globe prospered until the Civil War of 1642 when the Puritans closed all theatres. By 1644, the theatre had been torn down; its foundations entombed by tenements.

Sam Wanamaker, a young American stage and motion picture actor and director, searched for the site of the old Globe when he arrived in London in 1949. All he found was a blackened, bronze plaque on the wall of a brewery. He founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust and the rest of his life was dedicated to rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe as a living memorial to the greatest playwright of all time. His dream was realized; today’s enthusiastic audience enjoys the same excitement and pleasure that Elizabethan patrons participated in so many centuries ago.

The Globe is the centerpiece of the Shakespearean Globe Centre; it now has two more exits; fireboards are between the walls and under the thatched roof. A close look at the thatch, treated with a chemical fire retardant will disclose nozzles of a sprinkler system. Composed of water reed and lime, the thatched roof of the Globe is the first to be seen in London since 1666.

In addition to the theatre, the Centre also houses an autumn education programme with staged readings, a lecture series and an exhibition on the London where Shakespeare lived and worked. The Inigo Jones Theatre, seating 300 patrons, named for and using the designs of Inigo Jones, the architect and Shakespeares contemporary, was completed in 2002 and performances of Jacobean plays are presented during the winter season. Jones, influenced by the Italian theatre, in turn influenced stage design, introducing the proscenium arch still the most popular form of theatre design today.

The 400th anniversary of the old Globe’s opening was celebrated in September of 1999. William Shakespeare is the most widely read author in English speaking countries; his work is revered all over the world. Ben Jonson proved prophetic when he wrote of his friend, “Thou art a monument, without a tomb, and art alive still, while thy book doth live.”

Elise Warner’s articles have appeared in the Travel Section of The Washington Post and magazines such as Historic Traveler, Kaleidoscope, Pennsylvania, Yesterday’s, 50 and Forward and  The Autograph Collector’s. Small Time, her play, received a staged reading as part of Theatre Quinevere’s New Playwrights series.

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