“All the world’s a playhouse”: A brief history of the Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe, rebuilt for the 21st century. Image: Getty.

A flag with Hercules carrying the globe on his back flew above the crowds. The main entrance bore a crest with Totus mundus agit histrionem inscribed on it “All the world’s a playhouse”. The performance was about to begin, and seeing as London’s master of drama, William Shakespeare, penned the plot, it was destined to be a hit. No one cared the theatre had just opened. Elizabethans from all ranks – at least, except Puritans – loved the theatre and this new one was not going to be any different.

The year was 1599 and Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, had just become home to the capital’s newest stage: the Globe. Like other theatres at the time, it resembled the Coliseum in Rome, only on a much smaller scale. Its circular courtyard was surrounded by three tiers of seating and topped with an open thatched roof.

The south side of London was a popular place for theatres in Elizabethan England, because it was outside the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor. In the 20 years leading up to the Globe’s opening, and until its doors were officially shut in 1642, the government condemned plays and players, referring to actors as “sturdy beggars” and “masterless men”.

In 1597, the Lord Mayor appealed to the privy council in hopes of prohibiting plays once and for all (performances had been severely restricted in 1574). He argued that the theatre corrupted the youth, attracted “whoremongers” and “contrivers of treason”, drew men away from their daily jobs – and perhaps most seriously, was a breeding ground for plague outbreaks. For these reasons, it was best for theatres to operate beyond the government’s control.

This idea of setting up a stage outside city limits was not a new one. In fact, James Burbage — the father of renowned actor Richard Burbage and lawyer Cuthbert Burbage — built London’s first theatre in 1576 in Shoreditch, just outside the Lord Mayor’s reach.

The Theatre, as it was named, became a permanent place for his troupe to perform. He and his fellow actors no longer needed to travel to their audiences; playgoers could go see them now. It was an unprecedented concept: a designated place where actors could command an audience’s full attention, charge for entry (if even a penny), and store costumes and props.


The Theatre flourished for twenty years despite relentless attacks by the authorities and numerous financial setbacks. Meanwhile, London’s appetite for drama continued to grow. Shakespeare arrived around 1588 (the exact date is unknown), other playhouses like The Curtain and The Rose boomed.

When the Burbage brothers found out the landowner was going to tear down their father’s theatre, they knew they had to do something. So Richard and Cuthbert, with help from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare included) and many volunteers, took the playhouse apart and floated its wooden pieces across the Thames. The timber was going to be used to build the most spectacular theatre London had ever seen.

Bankside, the place to where they transported all those materials, was not the optimal place to begin construction. Located next to the river, it was a marshy area prone to flooding. But once Peter Street, the craftsman in charge, established a solid foundation and strong drainage system, the theatre was well on its way to completion.

After five months’ work, at the end of May 1599, the Globe was ready for its debut. Its 20-sided structure could hold up to 3,000 patrons. Two massive pillars shot up from the stage, providing support for a painted ceiling called “the heavens”. The area in front of the stage was reserved for “groundlings”, who paid a penny at the door, while three levels of galleries enclosed the courtyard. With Shakespeare steering the storyline and Richard Burbage delivering the drama, the scene was set. To quote a (21st century) guide to Shakespeare’s London: “[N]owhere is English to be expressed with more vigor and variety than on the stage.”

The Globe quickly became the “glory of Bankside” and even after it burned down during a performance of Henry VIII in 1613, it was rebuilt in the same spot and more magnificently than before. From Hamlet to Macbeth, Cleopatra to Cordelia, the theatre marked the beginning of England’s most acclaimed art form: the drama.

In 1642, Puritans shut down every theatre in London to make room for housing. Two years later, the Globe was demolished. Over three centuries passed until American actor, Sam Wanamaker, began the third reconstruction of the Globe. As true to its original design as historians and builders could make it, the theatre reopened in 1997. Its thatched roof still opens to the sky above and King Hamlet’s ghost still rises from below.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.