“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 boarded-up storefronts, muralists offer words of hope

The murals on closed storefronts aim "to end ugly wall syndrome." (Courtesy of Beautify)

In Los Angeles, Melrose Avenue has a new mural that reads: “Cancel plans, not humanity.”

It’s an artwork by Corie Mattie, a street artist who kindly reminds us of our togetherness under quarantine. She and many other artists are putting murals up across the US as part of the Back to the Streets campaign, which aims to add some color to the streets – specifically on boarded up storefronts and abandoned streets that feel deserted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to bring some beauty to the streets while everything is boarded up – “to end ugly wall syndrome,” says project founder Evan Meyer. “It’s to get people to care about their communities, be part of the process.” 


Many of the murals are painted on plywood panels that cover the entryways to independent businesses that have shut down during the pandemic. The project aims to prevent a sense of decay, especially as some businesses start to open back up while their neighbours remain closed.

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places quickly, when places are abandoned and don’t feel like they have love or life,” says Meyer, who is also the CEO of Beautify, a company that connects artists with places to make murals. Among the murals made during the pandemic, one at a department store says “Togetherness,” while another says: “You can’t quarantine love.”

“We’re seeing messages like hope, positivity and community,” Meyer says. “More than ever, it’s a time for community.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

With artist-led projects in L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and others, the goal is to get 1,000 murals up across America. Murals are also being painted in small towns in Iowa, like Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and an earlier mural in New York City’s Rockaway Beach was created in 2014 with the same goal of bringing some life to neglected buildings that needed renovation after Hurricane Sandy

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places with broken windows, tagging and crime,” says Meyer. “A lot can happen if a place feels like it’s unwatched.” 

Los Angeles councilmember David Ryu endorsed the initiative in a recent blog post, saying it has helped boost morale on the streets of L.A. “When we brighten blighted walls, we improve neighborhoods,” he wrote. “It’s critical to have more business owners enlist their walls here to bring some much needed love and recognition to their establishment and their neighborhood.” 

The effort stems from a sister project called Beautify Earth, which has helped address a litter problem in Santa Monica’s commercial district. In addition to a cleanup force, the project has painted more than 100 murals on walls, dumpsters, utility boxes and garbage cans across the city.

On the Beautify website, artists can find business improvement districts, real estate developers, landlords and business owners who want to see something on their empty walls. Each artist who gets a commissioned wall through the Beautify website is paid 78% of the stipend, and Beautify takes a 22% administration fee. 

Meyer says he often explains to business owners that art can help their business.

“A lot of people have white empty wall space on their liquor stores, condos, park walls, even residential spaces,” says Meyer, adding that many are afraid to put something on their walls. “It’s not a liability, it’s an asset. Art protects walls, it is a graffiti abatement strategy.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

Beautify isn’t alone in its field. Among the other cities that have similar mural projects, ArtPlace America has supported over 200 art murals across the US. Wynwood Walls, a public art project in Miami spearheaded by local developer Tony Goldman, has helped create a popular public art hotspot with murals by artists Shepard Fairey and Ron English. 

Chicago’s city government, too, has publicly funded over 500 murals through its Percent-for-Art program, which pays artists to paint walls on municipal buildings. A grassroots street art project in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, has artists painting murals in violent and marginalised neighbourhoods. Similar crime prevention ventures have been initiated in Topeka, Kansas, in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Toronto, Canada, which has placed over 140 murals across the city over the past decade. 


Artist Ruben Rojas has painted murals saying "You Can't Quarantine Love" in several spots across Santa Monica, California. (Courtesy of Beautify)

One artist working with Beautify’s project is Ruben Rojas, who is overwhelmed by the response to his mural, “You Can’t Quarantine Love,” which has been painted in several spots across Santa Monica and beyond.

“Every day, I see the shares, photos of my murals, amazing captions and direct messages from folks that are truly heartwarming,” Rojas says. “I’ve seen this particular mural go around the world with ‘thank you’ messages from Johannesburg, Germany, and Italy. It really is humbling.”

Meyer says that kind of social media engagement shows how a mural can turn a plain old wall into a landmark. 

“Murals get seen,” he says. “People take photos and share them on social media. Nobody takes photos of your ugly white wall. Murals are the story of the local community.”

Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.