We’ve been learning about the Globe theatre in London, inspired by a school project that Emily has been doing. As with most learning it is clear that many different subject areas are covered when learning about any single topic. Here English, history, drama, art, architecture etc. all come together.
The Globe, as seen in the photograph above, is a replica of an actual Elizabethan Theatre in which the English playwright William Shakespeare performed his plays in the 16th and 17th centuries. It stands just a few hundred yards from the site of the original Globe theatre and is actually the third incarnation of it.
The first and original Globe Theatre was built on the south bank of the river Thames by James Burbage in 1599, and was one of the first purpose built playhouses in London. Prior to this, plays would have been performed in halls, inns and houses.
The theatres were open to all audiences: from barons and earls to commoners and prostitutes. Two or three pennies would be paid for a seat in the boxes, and a penny for standing room in front of the stage (not unlike the ‘mosh pit’ in some modern concert venues!). The open roof exposed those standing to all weathers, rain or shine. They were known as ‘groundlings’ or ‘stinklings’ – a measure of their common, uneducated status! These crowds would throw rotten tomatoes at the actors if they didn’t come up to standards.
A flag flew above the theatre, its colour depicting whatever play was currently showing – black for tragedy, white for comedy and red for a historical play.
In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, a stage cannon ignited the outer thatched roof and the theatre was razed to the ground. In an amusing letter Sir Henry Wooton reported this event to a friend at the time:
“Now King Henry, making a masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabrick; wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not, by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with bottle ale.“
It was not long before the Globe was rebuilt, this time Shakespeare himself had a stake in the rebuild and many of his plays were performed here in subsequent years.
An approximation of the second Globe was produced on a British commemorative stamp: an image of Hercules carrying the world upon his shoulders was displayed on this playhouse.
Theatres at this time was still new and controversial. They were viewed with great suspicion by much of the population. There was fear of pickpockets and the spread of plague, and also that the plays might excite theatregoers to riot. Built on the ‘seedy’ side of town, where bull-baiting and bear-baiting were popular entertainments in the day. In the nearby ‘bear-gardens’, bears would be tied up whilst dogs were set loose on them for the entertainment of onlookers.
Fear of immorality and that young people would be led away from the church eventually led to the theatre’s destruction. In 1644 a puritan administration demolished the theatre to make room for tenements. The foundations lie beneath other listed buildings to this day.
Centuries later however, an American actor by the name of Sam Wanamaker had a dream to rebuild this ode to Elizabethan literature. Though he acted and directed in over fifty films he is most remembered for his steadfast dedication to this dream. He founded the Globe Trust, an organisation to raise money for the rebuilding of the Globe Theatre. Many doubted it was possible.
Although it was impossible to know the exact dimensions of the original theatre, the reconstruction was built using all available evidence and is as accurate as it was possible to be. Whilst it is built using 16th century techniques with lime-washed walls and a water-reed thatched roof, it is also protected from the fate of the first edition as it complies with all current health and safety regulations. It also has some modern staging apparatus.
Where the first Globe cost somewhere between £400 and £700 to build, the second was £1400, the current theatre, cost a whopping £7.5 million!… just a small difference then.
Wanamaker himself never got to see the fruition of his efforts as he died three and half years before its completion. There is plaque outside the building in his honour.
It was opened instead by his daughter Zoe Wanamaker, an actress well known and loved in the UK both on stage and screen – she has appeared in Shakespearean roles, and as the games mistress Madame Hooch in the first Harry Potter film. She was the first to speak on the stage in 1997 and is now honorary president of the theatre.
The theatre is now dedicated to the works of Shakespeare and that period of history. You can visit to see exhibitions, tours, readings and productions.
Though called ‘Globe’ the shape of the theatre is polygonal not circular and the name is said to be linked to the motto “all the world is a playground” by the Roman author Petronius and later Shakespeare’s famous line “all the world’s a stage” which may be derived from it.
The shape is not easy to replicate when you’re creating a model I can tell you… especially when you’re just trying to use whatever recycled bits and bobs you have around the house. Still, I think we made a fair effort… and I got to use our glue gun for time. (What a marvellous invention that is!)