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Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

What’s the best 3D movie:

A Play!

Ever since plays moved to the screen, back when they were black and white with text dialogue, movie makers have been trying to recreate that feeling of being in the middle of the action, of the immediacy of the people on stage.  But no matter what they add (sound, color, 3D effects with glasses), I doubt they will ever be able to recreate the feeling of closeness and investment that you get from attending a play, which is why they’re still amazingly popular today.  So in honor of the longevity and popularity of plays (in particular Shakespeare’s), let’s take a look at one of the most famous stages in history: the Globe Theater.

The Globe Theatre was built in six months in 1599 by William Shakespeare’s company, run by Richard Burbage—Shakespeare had a small stake in the theatre.   It was a three story, open-air amphitheater that could hold up to 3,000 people.  There was standing room area at the front where the poor could watch the play for a penny.  There were three tiers of seats; the fee increased by one penny as the tiers rose.  Those who sat of the fourth tier were paying four pennies, and they were the richest audience members.  They would have to stand up during the whole play.  During bad weather, the plays were put on elsewhere, often at other theatres with roofs.

Then a tragedy occurred on June 29, 1613; London’s Globe Theatre burned down.  Of course, in the time of thatched roofs, wooden building and torches and other open flame lighting, buildings burned down all the time.   The fire started during a performance of Henry VIII, probably when the cannon on stage misfired, (that’s what you call a realistic performance). The sparks caught the thatch on fire and spread rapidly to the wooden beams.  It was lucky that the only reported injury was a man whose pants were on fire; he was able to put them out with a bottle of ale.

In 1614, the Globe theatre was rebuilt by Burbage and Shakespeare, and this theatre was running until 1642, when it was shut down by the Puritans.  All theaters were.  The Puritans outlawed gambling, bawdy plays, prostitution and many more fun activities.  That was one reason, perhaps the main one, which was Cromwell’s downfall.  Charles II reinstated all of the vices, but The Globe was never rebuilt.

In 1949, actor Sam Wanamaker went to see the sight of the original Globe Theatre.  He was very disappointed that there was no memorial to Shakespeare.   In 1970, he formed the Shakespeare Globe Trust, which constructed a replica of the Globe Theatre near the site of the first one.  The theatre opened in 1997; the first play was Henry V.  The theatre still stands today, thanks to much better fire retardant materials!  They did top the roof with thatch though.  It just wouldn’t be right otherwise.

In the 1990, the new Globe Theater was built, some distance away from the site of the first one.  While they were excavating, they found the pit area of the theatre lined with hazelnut shells, the detritus of years of the poor standing room only eating food and dropping the shells.  This did cushion the feet of those standing to watch the plays.

Interesting facts about the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre:

  1. During Shakespeare’s day, theatre companies advertised what plays they were putting on with flags: white for comedy, red for history and black for tragedy.
  2. The city of London did not allow theatres to be built in the city proper.  All theatres were built along the South Bank, where most of them still are today.
  3. The Globe was built to look like the Colosseum in Rome, but on a smaller scale.
  4. The Globe was closed several times because of outbreaks of the plague or the Black Death.

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