This article gives an indepth view of The Globe Theatre. If you’re after some quick, interesting facts on The Globe Theatre click here!
Drama at Shakespeare’s time – and at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – was characterised by a tug of war between a disapproving puritanical attitude to theatre by the city councillors on the one hand, and royal approval on the other. The city fathers resented royal patronage and regarded it as interference in their affairs. This battle went on until finally, in 1642 and 1644, all the theatres were destroyed under order of Parliament. We have therefore had great difficulty in gaining a good picture of what Elizabeathan theatres were really like. We don’t even know exactly where the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre stood, although we can get quite close, and indeed, there is a splendid reconstruction of it, which is now one of London’s most popular theatres and biggest tourist attractions.
One of the most valuable sources of our knowledge about the actual architecture of the theatre is a drawing done by a Dutchman, Arend van Buchell, who did the drawing from a sketch made by his friend, Johannes de Witt, who attended a play at the Swan Theatre. Buchell said of it: ‘the largest and most remarkable of the theatres in London is the Swan, which is able to accommodate three thousand spectators.‘ This is his drawing:
The Globe Theatre opened in 1599 with a production of As You Like It , and continued with works by Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, and others. In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII , a cannon went off to mark the entrance of the king, and a stray spark set the thatch roof aflame. In one hour, the theatre was destroyed. Reconstruction of the Globe began immediately, and it was finished by June 1614. Performances continued until 1642, when the Puritans, who found theatre vulgar and intolerable, shut all theatres down. Two years later the Globe was levelled to make way for tenement dwellings.
Plays were big business for those who owned them: Shakespeare was only one man who became rich from his involvement as a shareholder in the most popular theatre. The plays produced by the Globe were very high in quality and the theatre was always full. The competition among the theatres created a huge demand for new material and is the single most important factor in the flowering of drama that is now known as the ‘golden age’ of English drama. Apart from Shakespeare’s, scores of the plays of that period are regularly performed today. This great demand is reflected in Shakespeare’s vast output. If you look at a timeline of Shakespeare’s life you will see how fast he worked. He wrote up to four plays in some years and averaged 1.5 plays a year during his working life.
A day out at the Globe Theatre was a real treat. The grounds around the theatre would have been bustling, with plenty of entertainment. Even people not attending performances would flock to the Globe for the market stalls and the holiday-like atmosphere. There were many complaints about apprentices missing work to go to the theatre.
The groundlings paid a penny to stand in the pit of the Globe Theatre. The others sat in the galleries. The very grand could watch the play from a chair set on the side of the stage itself. Theatre performances were held in the afternoon, because they needed the daylight. The turnover of plays was unimaginable to the modern mind. The theatres could often present eleven performances of ten different plays in two weeks. The actors generally got their lines only as the play was in progress – very different from the well-rehearsed performances that we expect these days. There would be someone backstage whispering the lines and the actors would then repeat them. Women were not allowed to appear on the stage so the female roles were played by men and boys.
Shakespeare was not only a shareholder in the Globe and a prominent writer; he also acted in some of the plays. We don’t know exactly how many roles he played himself, although we do have some documented information.
Shakespeare had begun his career on the stage by 1592. It is probable that he played the title role in Edward I by Edward Peele in 1593. Regarding the major roles in his own plays, he was probably directing because he gave way to the other actors and played small, peripheral parts, including Adam in As You Like It ; Duncan in Macbeth ; King Henry in Henry IV ; and the ghost in Hamlet . Shakespeare’s first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, refers to a role by Shakespeare as ‘the Ghost in his own Hamlet’ and says that he was at ‘the top of his performance’.