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14 fascinating facts about Shakespeare's Globe
Stood on London’s vibrant South Bank, the Globe Theatre’s Elizabethan whitewashed walls and dark beams certainly make it stand out from the crowd. Home of Shakespeare’s greatest works, the drama of the Globe extends far beyond the stage. From its cloak-and-dagger construction to its modern-day reimagining - here are 14 interesting facts about the Globe Theatre.
1. It was built by actors
Joined by Shakespeare in 1594, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were a ‘playing company’ led by actor Richard Burbage.
Originally based out of a venue in Shoreditch, disaster struck when the troupe fell out of favour with Queen Elizabeth I. Not wanting any part of the drama, the company’s landlord Giles Alleyn chose to cancel the troupe’s lease and tear down the theatre that Burbage's father had built on the rented land.
The Chamberlain’s Men chose to build their own theatre at a new location across the Thames.
2. Its construction was considered a crime
The venue drama didn’t end with Burbage and his crew simply changing location, however. If Alleyn was unhappy with his ousted tenants before, he certainly hated them after what happened next.
The story goes, in the middle of the night, Burbage and other members of the crew secretly deconstructed the theatre, carrying as much as they could from the location in Shoreditch, across the Thames, and to the new site.
3. The name was inspired by Greek myth
Carrying a whole theatre across London in the dead of night would have been no easy feat. It’s no wonder then that they named the theatre ‘The Globe’ as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the ancient Greek myth of Hercules lifting the world on his back.
4. Shakespeare was one of the original investors
Of course, sheer strength and willpower alone wouldn’t help the Globe become an established theatre. The Chamberlain’s Men also needed money. Investors, like Shakespeare, were invited to fund the theatre in exchange for a percentage of ownership. For £10, the bard received a 12.5% share of the theatre.
5. It held a lot of people
At its height, the three-story building could host as many as 3,000 audience members. Much like a theatre today, each area of the theatre had its draws and drawbacks.
The area closest to the stage was the cheapest spot, with tickets costing only a penny. It was standing room only, and with so many patrons to fit in, it was tightly packed. In the summer, it gained a reputation for its foul odours thanks to a lack of toilets, discarded food left to rot, and the poor hygiene of its patrons.
Wealthier patrons could find themselves in the galleries at the edge of the theatre, with prices for each performance increasing the further away you got from the smells by the stage. The best seats in the house were on the top floor, furthest away from the stage.
6. No girls allowed
While women might have gotten away with acting in street plays and performances, it was considered indecent and dangerous for women to tread the boards at the theatre and was illegal until 1661. Female characters were instead played by young boys.
7. Colour coded flags
Not all of the Globe’s patrons had access to education, meaning that most of the audience was unable to read or write. This made advertising new plays difficult, so the theatre used a flag system that enabled people to see which type of show they would see. Black flags signified that the play that day was a tragedy, while white flags represented a comedy and red flags were for history.
8. There’s more than one Globe Theatre
While it might look the part, the Globe Theatre you can spot by the river today isn’t the original building. It is the third version of the playhouse to exist in London. Outside of England, there are more than 15 replicas all around the world.
9. The first Globe was burned down by Henry VIII
History buffs here might spot that this should be technically impossible. After all, Henry VIII died 20 years before Shakespeare was born. So how could he have burned down a theatre that Shakespeare helped build?
The truth is that during a performance of Shakespeare’s historical play Henry VIII, the Globe met its first demise. It just took a tiny spark from firing an onstage cannon to start a flame that spread fast through the timber and thatch structure. It took just two hours to burn to the ground. Thankfully, it only took a year to rebuild the theatre.
10. The second theatre was eventually outlawed
Following the First English Civil War, the Puritan Long Parliament prohibited drama and ordered all theatres in London shut their doors.
The Globe was turned into tenement buildings, but by the time the ban was lifted by King Charles II in 1660, the theatre had already been torn down.
11. The original site was discovered under a car park
The original remains of the Globe were discovered in 1989, hidden under a car park. Unfortunately, most of what remains is under the foundations of an unstable building, meaning that there’s not going to be an in-depth excavation of the site any time soon.
12. It’s not round
For centuries it was believed that the Globe Theatre was round, but the foundations discovered in 1989 revealed that the building was an icosagon - or a 20-sided polygon.
13. New Globe built in 1997
It took nearly 400 years for the Globe to make a return. Thanks to American actor and Director Sam Wanamaker, the iconic theatre was rebuilt just 200 meters away from the site of the original theatre.
The new Globe Theatre was designed to be as historically accurate as its previous counterparts and was built using the same techniques that would have been used in Tudor England. 1,000 green oak trees were felled from English forests to supply the necessary timber, and the iconic thatched roof took 6,000 bundles of reeds from Norfolk to complete.
14. The roof is illegal
The classic techniques and historical accuracy of the new theatre were nearly a reason for it not being built. Thanks to a law enacted following the Great Fire of London in 1666, no new buildings in London were allowed to be built using thatch for the roof.
Thankfully, an exception was made, making the Globe the only thatched roof built in London in over 350 years.
A brief history of The Globe Theatre
The Globe Theatre you see standing proudly on the South Bank of the River Thames might be a loving recreation of the Tudor theatre built 425 years ago, but behind the brightly white-washed modern walls that stand today lies centuries of mystery, drama and tragedy in equal measure. Here’s a very brief history of The Globe Theatre.
The Globe Theatre was first built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s company of actors and writers, known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. As well as the Bard himself, The Globe’s shareholders included lead actor Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert Burbage (both of whom owned 50% of the theatre’s shares between them), along with John Heminges, Thomas Pope, and Augustine Phillips.
Frustrated with increasing issues with theatre venues in the capital, the company took matters into their own hands and decided to build the Globe Theatre. The new structure gave them a dedicated space to showcase their talents.
Before we talk about the Globe Theatre, we must first talk about another theatre venue in London, The Theatre in Shoreditch. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had originally performed out of The Theatre as it had been owned by James Burbage, Richard and Cuthbert's father. However, while James owned the theatre, the land on which it had been built was only leased to him for 21 years. When that lease expired, there was some contention about who now owned it.
The landowner, Giles Allen, claimed that the theatre, despite being paid for and built by Burbage, defaulted to him once the lease on the land expired. The Burbages, however, felt very differently. And so, they hatched a plan.
On 28th December 1598, Giles was enjoying his Christmas celebrations with his family at his country estate. The 12 nights of Christmas were incredibly important to the Tudors and were reserved for fun, feasting and, most preciously, time off work. However, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had a very important job to do that late December evening. They were going to steal back Burbage’s theatre.
With the help of a carpenter, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, their friends and even their family all joined forces to deconstruct The Theatre and relocate it. The Theatre was taken apart bit by bit, and the timber was transported across London, where it was ferried over the Thames and onto the South Bank, where it was used to construct The Globe, a much bigger and better theatre.
The Globe: Act One
The location of The Globe wasn’t great, but it was the best that The Lord Chamberlain’s Men could do. Within spitting distance of the filthy, stinking waters of the Thames and on an area of marshland that had little to no drainage, The Globe opened its doors to new patrons in the summer of 1599.
The Globe’s Tragic End?
The Globe was a huge success and showed not only Shakespeare’s greatest works but also the works of other playwrights such as John Fletcher, Thomas Dekker, and Ben Johnson. Despite its reputation for occasionally flooding and its stinking pits, The Globe Theatre was a popular destination for audiences of all walks of life and proved to be a popular entertainment venue.
Disaster struck, however, when, in 1613, a spark from a firing cannon caught in the venue’s thatched roof, which quickly went up in flames. Miraculously, while the venue burned to the ground, no one was hurt. It seemed a fitting blaze of glory for a venue whose beginnings were clandestine.
The Globe: Act Two
It only took a year to rebuild the theatre, and the second iteration understandably had a new tiled roof. The new Globe Theatre continued to entertain until the outbreak of the first English Civil War when all theatre venues in London were forced to close their doors. It never reopened and, just a few short years later, had been pulled down and replaced with tenement housing.
The Globe: Act Three
Fast forward nearly 400 years to 1997, and a new Globe Theatre (now named Shakespeare’s Globe) was reconstructed just 230 metres from the original theatre’s site. Constructed by Sam Wanamaker, Shakespeare’s Globe was a true labour of love.
Initially scoping locations for the new theatre in 1949, Sam, the founder of the Shakespeare's Globe Trust, campaigned fiercely to painstakingly reconstruct a theatre as close and as accurately as possible. After decades of campaigning, Sam’s vision came to life and still welcomes theatregoers to the South Bank today.