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.