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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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Playwrights Stage Theatre

Daily at two in the afternoon

Thomas Platter, a native of Basel, visited England in 1599. The following excerpt is from his diary, translated from the German.

On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof [the newly opened Globe] witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women. On another occasion not far from our inn, in the suburb at Bishopsgate, if I remember, also after lunch, I beheld a play in which they presented diverse nations and an Englishman struggling together for a maiden; he overcame them all except the German who won the girl in a tussle, and then sat down by her side, when he and his servant drank themselves tipsy, so that they were both fuddled and the servant proceeded to hurl his shoe at his master’s head, whereupon they both fell asleep; meanwhile the Englishman stole into the tent and absconded with the German’s prize, thus in his turn outwitting the German; in conclusion they danced very charmingly in the English and Irish fashion. Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators. The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats, which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment. The actors are most expensively and elaborately costumed; for it is the English usage for eminent lords or knights at their decease to bequeath and leave almost the best of their clothes to their serving men, which it is unseemly for the latter to wear, so that they offer them then for sale for a small sum to the actors.

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