I recently traveled across the bridge to Shakespeare’s Globe. It was very exciting for me to see such a famous theatre. I was lucky enough to attend a tour of the theatre and learn some interesting information about the original theatre and the one that stands currently. Here’s what I discovered. Enjoy!
Looking at websites, pamphlets, and travel guides, they all say that “Shakespeare’s Globe” is a must see London historical site. But this “Globe” is actually the third constructed theatre of this name. The original was created in 1599 and the latest version was finished, in comparison, fairly recently in 1997. With all this time between the constructions of the two Globes, there must be more differences between them than similarities. This begs the question, would Shakespeare even recognize the Globe as it stands today? Looking at specific details like location, construction, and theatre practices one can conclude that Shakespeare himself would not recognize the theatre we all lovingly call “Shakespeare’s Globe.”
The first “proper” British theatre was constructed in Shoreditch, London in 1576 and was owned by James Burbage who creatively named it ”The Theatre.” This led to a rise in the construction of buildings strictly devoted to housing theatrical performances (before this a play would be performed in an inn, a nobleman’s household, or sometimes an open yard.) William Shakespeare joined the resident troupe at the Theatre in the 1580s and the company thrived for years. Eventually, the lease of “The Theatre” ran out and the landlord, Gilles Allen tried to hike up the price of the lease to hinder the players from being able to cover the charge. Burbage’s sons decided then, instead of struggling with Allen, they would dismantle their theatre from Allen’s land and set it up at a new site on Bankside in Southwark. This new theatre was christened “The Globe” and with its new name, the theatre found a group of willing investors, not the least of them being one actor/writer named William Shakespeare.
The original Globe could hold several thousand people and was said to be, not just a theatre, but also a brothel and a gambling house. It was in the style of a huge amphitheatre and there is a record of what it looks like from the outside, though the inside is somewhat a mystery. Another theatre thought to be similar in design to the Globe, the “Swan Theatre,” can be used as a good guide to it’s inside structure. The Globe also had a tower with a flagpole looming over its surroundings. A flag was erected on the day of a performance and sometimes displayed a picture indicating what play would be shown. Colors symbolized the nature of the play; black meant tragedy, white meant comedy, and red meant history.
Nowadays, there is no flag depicting what play is taking place. Modern marketing techniques have kicked in and now there are brightly colored posters lining the walls outside the Globe to show onlookers what plays will be performed and when. Also, the new theatre by no means doubles for a brothel, and the biggest gamble to be had is whether the play being performed will be a success with the audience or a flop. The theatre is in the style of an amphitheatre and its exterior is probably identical to it’s original.
The American actor/producer Sam Wanamaker decided in 1970 to construct a new Globe theatre and plans went underway to discover what the original theatre actually looked like. In 1989, a small portion of the Globe itself was excavated. With this excavation it was discovered that the original theatre was a 20-sided building with a diameter of 100 feet. Green oak was cut and fashioned according to 16th-century practice and used in the construction. The roof was (and is) made of water reed thatch, based on samples found during the excavation. In this sense, one could see Shakespeare stumbling on the Globe and, from a distance, thinking his beloved theatre reincarnated. However, he would have to find it first, for his original Globe was constructed in a different place. The modern Globe does stand near to its forefather’s plot of land, but does it stand near enough that Shakespeare could find it?
An important point to note about theatre culture that would have been different in the Elizabethan era is that theatre performances were typically held in the afternoon instead of in the evenings. This is because there was no electricity and therefore theatres were lit up by natural sunlight beaming in from the “heavens.” One aspect of theatre culture that slightly differs between the two time periods is the atmosphere around the actual theatre itself. There were constantly people on the outskirts of the theatre bustling with energy. There were stalls and market-like stands selling refreshments and goods. A trumpet was sounded to announce people that the play was about to begin. Today there is definitely energy around the theatre. People walking by strain to get a view of the happy theatre-goers or the site-seers lining up for a tour. There is also a food stand or two within the gates of the property, reminiscent of a past life. While the circumstances may be different, the energy and excitement surrounding the theatre is one thing Shakespeare could not fail to recognize.
If, hypothetically, Shakespeare did travel through time to the modern-day Globe, and if he did manage to make his way inside the theatre, he would be met with a surprising sight. His eyes would be met with blank walls and unpainted wood beams making up the majority of the theatre. Paintings of Greek Gods and Goddesses meeting and fornicating with mortals decorate the noblemen’s boxes. The stage would either be the most surprising of all or the most familiar. The stage is based on a painting of the original “Swan” theatre and is the most ornate part of the Globe. No one knows how close, if at all, this structure is to the one in Shakespeare’s time.
If Shakespeare were to happen upon the new Globe during a performance, he would be shocked at the asking prices. Back in Elizabethan times, commoners would pay one penny to stand in the pit of the Globe. For every level “up” there was an added charge. For the extremely wealthy there were seats on the upper level of the stage itself looking out towards the audience. This would showcase their extremely high status and show off their rich adornments. Nowadays “the pit” and its purpose remain but the price is considerably more. Tickets to stand in the best “seats” in the house cost 5 pounds each. The most expensive seats are now the seats with the best view of the stage, not necessarily the highest seats and even nobles are not allowed to sit onstage during a performance. Also, there is now a much higher percentage of women audience members than there would have been in Shakespeare’s time. Back then only a select few women “of respectability” (meaning noble) would attend performances and even then they would arrive wearing masks. Now there is no need for masks as attending the theatre implies a certain level of culture and sophistication instead of the debauchery and sin it was attached to in Elizabethan times.
The productions themselves, even back in Elizabethan times, included many innovative techniques. The Globe was set up to accommodate special effects like working canons, smoke effects, and “flying” entrances using a series of rope rigging. The stage floor had trap doors allowing for additional surprises and entrances/exits. Musicians were also used to add extra entertainment. Special effects today, while perhaps smoother in implementation then in the Elizabethan era, are almost identical to those in Shakespeare’s time. Directors at the Globe like to embody the spirit of Shakespeare’s original performances. The sets are purposefully simplistic so that audiences can paint a picture with almost nothing but their minds and Shakespeare’s verse. Also, transitions are meant to be quick with one set up characters finishing a scene on one side of the stage and another troupe of characters entering from the other side of the stage. The stage in Shakespeare’s time couldn’t be so elaborate because of the extremely quick turnover of plays. Actors used the space they had to captivate the minds of the audience without all the distractions of modern-day special effects.
The Globe, like many typical Elizabethan theatres, had a hectic theatrical schedule. In a span of two weeks, the theatre could have a number of performances of up to 20 different plays. There was a constant demand for new material. As soon as a play had been written it was immediately produced. Printing followed productions so the actors did not have proper scripts. Actors generally received their lines as the play was in progress. Sometimes actor’s lines were whispered to them right as they were about to go on, and sometimes an actor just got a list of his lines and had no lines or cues of any other characters. These techniques, along with many other techniques, allowed for zero rehearsal time and a fast turnover of productions. Because of Elizabethan laws, females were not allowed to be actors. Women characters were played by young boys or sometimes (if females were supposed to be old or silly) by older men. These types of acting conditions are almost unheard of today. Shakespeare would be surprised to see women taking to the stage to play Juliet and how this leads to more physicality in the love between her and her Romeo. Also, actors are given their lines to them way in advance, both because the plays have already been written for hundreds of years, and because it helps them memorize their lines and use crafted acting techniques. Shakespeare would not see a whole lot of improvisation in his modernized Globe, unless by chance, a pigeon decided to land on-stage for a go at an acting career.
The original Globe was only in use until 1613 when a fire created by a cannon broke out on the thatched roof and destroyed the theatre. The Globe was rebuilt the following year in 1614, this time, with a tiled roof. Today’s Globe sports a thatched roof like the original. Unfortunately for Globe number two, in 1644 the second Globe was demolished by the Puritans (a religious faction that deplored such flippant behaviors as acting onstage for an audience). In 1648 all playhouses were pulled down and all players whipped and fined. Once Oliver Cromwell (the leader of the Puritans) died, the power of the Puritans started to decline. In 1660, King Charles restored the English monarchy and theatres opened again. As mentioned previously, the third version of the Globe wasn’t erected until much later in the 20th century.
Because of its youth, the new Globe was designed with the 21st century in mind. Additional exits have been added and more safety measures exist such as fire retardant materials etc. (to avoid occurrences similar to the canon fire of 1613). There is also the modern convenience of electricity to aid in nighttime performances. Fortunately for the modern man, there are also more conveniences to be discovered at the Globe. There is a gift shop holding Shakespeare memorabilia and people lining up for tours around the theatre. Groups and groups of people gather to hear the stories and historic details of the Globe and its famous wordsmith. Back in Shakespeare’s world, the theatre was looked at as a place of dishonor. People in the pits were raucous and if they didn’t like a performance or particular actor, they might throw rotten food at the stage. In our present age the theatre is regarded as a venue of high class and signifies intellectual prowess. Shakespeare would see excited, but otherwise tame crowds who laugh at comedies and cry at tragedies. Looking not only at the structure and aesthetic features of the theatres, but the theatre culture surrounding the two Globes, uncovers the blaring differences between the original and the copy. The new Globe copies the original in every possible way but must differ due to the evolution of modern culture. Even though Shakespeare may not recognize his Globe at first, he cannot deny the spirit engrained in both; eternal love for the performed word.
“History of the Globe / Shakespeare’s Globe.” History of the Globe / Shakespeare’s Globe. The Shakespeare Globe Trust.Web. 19 Feb. 2013. <http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/about-us/history-of-the-globe>.
“The History of the Globe Theater.” The Old Globe Theater History. Web. 19 Feb. 2013. <http://www.william-shakespeare.info/william-shakespeare-globe-theatre.htm>.