This Wooden O



These snippets form a little potted history of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.


The first purpose-built theatre in early modern London, the Theatre, was built in 1576 under the direction of James Burbage. It’s location, in Shoreditch, about a mile from the city, is telling, since it was constructed outside the jurisdiction of the city fathers, who made repeated efforts to close plays and persecute players. In their view, plays corrupted youth, attracted criminals, spread disease and promoted idleness. They regarded players as little better than wandering beggers. It was at the Theatre that Shakespeare first staged Romeo and Juliet in 1594. In 1597, the lease held by Shakespeare’s company on the Theatre ran out, and after legal wrangles with the landlord over the land on which it stood, the company relocated to Bankside and erected the Globe in 1598. The story goes that the company, determined to have the last word, secretly dismantled the Theatre, timber by timber, and rowed it across the Thames to the new site on Bankside.

By 1598, the Globe was not the first theatre operating in Southwark. Henslowe’s the Rose had been opened in 1587, and the Swan, famously described by Johannes de Witt (his sketch can be seen at the top right-hand corner of this blog) was staging plays in 1596.

The Globe was described at the time as ‘a house newly built with a garden attached… in the occupation of William Shakespeare and others.’ The public playhouses were often polygonal or round buildings, built on a timber frame, with thatched or tile roofing over the galleries. The yard, or standing area was reached via a series of entrances, and the seated galleries by a series of staircases. Plays were performed at two in the afternoon, announced by a trumpet from the theatre’s roof, which also sported a flag at high mast when a performance was taking place. Handbills detailing which plays were due to be staged were also printed and circulated.

Entry to the Globe’s yard, which was standing room only, cost a penny. For a more comfortable experience a visitor could pay an extra penny to sit in the galleries, and a further penny rented a cushion for the duration. Refreshments were available, including ale, apples, wine, pies, oranges, and, for threepence, a pipeful of tobacco.


The stage, or platform, extended out into the yard, effectively surrounding the players on three sides, making for an intimate theatrical experience. It was not uncommon for members of the public to sit on the stage itself, and the Lords’ Rooms, which flanked the stage, were the best seats in the house. Behind the stage was the tiring house, where the actors changed and waited between appearances, and above it an open balcony which extended the performance space. Over both stage and balcony was a canopied roof supported by pillars, protecting the players from the elements. Known as ‘the heavens’ this was brightly painted and often decorated with stars. The stage also had a trap door and mechanical devices for lowering props and players up and down.

Philip Henslower, proprietor of the Rose, made an inventory of his theatrical props in 1598. They included a tree of golden apples, the city of Rome, Hell’s mouth, a rainbow, lion and bear skins, coffins, tombs, and ‘a robe for to go invisible’. However, it was the costumes which were the most prized possessions. A black velvet cloak, with embroidered sleeves of silver and gold, was listed with a value of £20.10s 6d. This is roughly a third of what it cost Shakespeare to buy a house in Stratford. The costumes, donated by the aristocracy during the reign of James I, were as colourful as the theatres themselves, and colour was used to denote vocation; so a player assuming the role of a doctor would wear a scarlet robe, lawyers wore black, merchants wore blue, and friars would be dressed in gray gowns.

Sound effects would be simple but effective; cannons and bells were used, as well as trumpets. Thunder was simulated using a sheet of metal, and plays often called for mist, lightning, flaming torches, and in one case, fireworks. Blood occured frequently on the Globe’s stage; animal entrails were used for gory scenes, and a sponge soaked in sheep’s blood could be tucked beneath the armpit and squeezed at the right moment to produce the realistic effect of being stabbed to death.

Theatres on Bankside could accommodate up to 3,000 people per play. Audiences were comprised of virtually every sector of society, and only Puritans abstained for fear of corruption.

The Globe operated with great success from 1599 to 1613, when, during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, a canon shot set fire to the thatched roof and the theatre burned to the ground. Plays by Shakespeare performed at the Globe included:  Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest.


Sources: Andrew Gurr; Frank Kermode

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One comment

  • January 26, 2010 - 1:33 pm | Permalink

    The prelude to threading your needle has produced yet another fascinating Fragment.

    “that which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet”

    Was Shakespeare, as I read somewhere, having a dig at the Rose’s smelly drains, or is this just a fanciful story?

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