Notes on the Globe Theatre

by Jim Farrar (1986)

Historical Background

Though it was actually constructed in 1599, the Globe Theatre's origin dates back to 1574, when a joiner named James Burbage received a license from the crown to construct a theater in London, at Shoreditch. Land was leased from a man named Giles Allen, a twenty one year agreement signed, and, two years later, Burbage built the first theater in Great Britain.

In 1577 the Theatre, as it was simply called, produced its first play, thus marking the beginning of what would become an active and important period in theater history.

A theatrical renaissance of sorts followed. More theaters, like the Curtain in 1577, were constructed and, also, great theatrical companies, such as the Queen's Men in 1583, were formed along with them.

These new theaters provided an arena in which vibrant young playwrights such as John Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, and most notably, Christopher Marlowe, could develop and produce the type of drama, written with stylistic panache, that Shakespeare and Ben Jonson would carry to an even greater artistic height several years later.

By 1594 Shakespeare was well established on the London theater scene. His plays were popular and he was a high-ranking member of a newly refounded and highly respected theatrical company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

In 1598, the plan to construct the Globe Theatre was formalized. James Burbage had died in 1597, leaving the two theaters that he'd owned and operated--the Theatre and the Blackfriar's Theatre--to his sons Cuthbert and Richard. Disputes with the landlord at the first, and local opposition at the latter, made it such that, if the Burbages were to remain impresarios, then another theater would have to be constructed elsewhere.

Maintaining a fifty percent interest in the endeavor, the Burbages made commercial partners of Shakespeare, John Hemmings, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope and Will Kemp, all members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and by common opinion the leading theatrical figures of the time.

A site was procured on Bankside near the Rose Theatre, which had been founded by Philip Henslowe, a moneylender from Southwark and James Burbage's chief rival among London theater owners.

To build the Globe, the Theatre at Shoreditch was razed and materials from the old Theatre were used to construct the new theater at Bankside.

Such an act was not greeted with overt warmth at Shoreditch. The original lease, however, had been very explicit. The elder Burbage had seen to it that the terms of the agreement would permit him to remove any material that had been used to erect the building on the site, which meant that the younger Burbages were well within their rights when they and their carpenters arrived at Shoreditch to tear the old Theatre down.

The Globe, in turn, was destroyed itself by fire in 1613, during a performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII on the 29th of June. By all accounts, the play was being given a rousing performance at the time of the accident. The King's entry to Cardinal Wolsey's entertainment had been marked by a peal of ordnance. Unfortunately, nobody noticed that one of the paper stoppers being used as dummy shot had started a fire in the thatched roof directly above the upper galleries. The fire spread and, in less than an hour, the building had been ruined. No lives were lost, however, and, more important (though it may seem callous to say so), the actors thought well enough to grab Shakespeare's scripts as they fled the building, scripts which otherwise would have been lost to us.

The theater was reconstructed in 1614 and remained in use until 1644, when it was again demolished, this time by design.

Physical Features of the Globe

Since no direct evidence of what the Globe actually looked like remains, any diagram or model of the theater is conjectural. Most scholars agree, however, that the Globe was probably shaped like a polygon on the outside, which enclosed a circular arena on the inside, with three tiers of roofed galleries vertically aligned on top of each other around an open interior.

The most famous reconstruction of the Globe seems to be that of C. Walter Hodges, which appears in his book The Globe Restored. Hodges's drawing shows a theater with a circular interior and a stage some forty feet wide rising four or five feet above the pit, the floor-level and unroofed area in the center of the theater. Above the stage is a roof supported by pillars. This roof is known as the "Heavens" and, accordingly, the ceiling is painted with stars and other astronomical figures. Below the stage, accessible by trap door, is an area called "Hell." Doors on either side of the rear wall open into the dressing areas and, in the center, there's an inner playing area, to be used for scenes requiring, for example, a character to overhear the conversation on the main stage or to be used as an enclosure, perhaps, distinctly separate from the larger playing area. Directly above this inner stage is a gallery, which is used, as need arises, as part of the play or to house musicians.

Design of the Globe dictated that the scenery be simple. Imagination--and the words of the dramatist--were the major props in Elizabethan drama. There was no artificial lighting whatsoever in the theater, which meant that plays had to be performed by daylight. Accounts vary, but most sources estimate the size of the audience at Globe performances to be close to two thousand people, which, when compared to today's smaller theaters, seems quite large. The overall effect must have been akin to that of a carnival and, indeed, all evidence points to such a conclusion. The Globe, in fact, was a microcosm of sorts, a microcosm of which the audience was an integral part. Heaven and hell were represented within its confines and those in attendance represented the bulk of humanity caught in between. It was no accident, and it's especially apropos (if we are to believe tradition), that the front of the Globe bore this marker: Totus mundus agit histrionem--"everybody is an actor."

Works Cited

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 5th ed. Oxford: Osford Univ. Press, 1985.

Fido, Martin. Shakespeare. Maplewood, NJ: Hammond Inc., 1978.

Grun, Bernard. The Timetables of History New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

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