Shakespeare's Globe Theater

Shakespeare, one of the foremost of the Great Elizabethan playwrights and also a notable Actor, was a member of an Acting Troupe called the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Later, under James II, they rechristened themselves as the King's Men. Most of Shakespeare's famous plays were written for this troupe, of which he was one of the Chief Shareholders, and the combination was extremely successful.

During Shakespeare's time, the principal theaters in London were The Rose, The Swan, The Hope, The Theater, and Blackfriars. Some of these theaters were open-aired while others were roofed. The Lord Chamberlain's Men originally performed at the venue known simply as the Theater, which had been built in 1576 on the outskirts of London by the famous actor-turned-entrepreneur, James Burbage. His two sons, Cuthbert and Richard Burbage, also had financial interests in Shakespeare's troupe; the former was a wily businessman like his father and the latter was the most famous Shakespearean actor of the Elizabethan Age. While the Theater building and all its props were owned by Cuthbert, the eldest son, the land on which the building stood was leased, and when this lease ended the owner, for various reasons, was not willing to renew it. This rather left the Acting Troupe in a quandary as their other option, the Theater at Blackfriars, that was also owned by the Burbages, was closed to them by a successful petition by the local people to the City Council - they considered a theater in their midst as a disruptive and offensive influence; as the Elizabethan plays were usually performed during the day between 2 and 7, they lured the audience away from work, and the play themes too were considered immoral and irreligious. Shakespeare and company decided that the only way for them to practice their profession without any hitch was to build and own a theater of their own. Accordingly, they scouted for a new land on which to build their new theater and decided to divide the finances in two - 50 percent of the land lease and ownership of the theater and other assets was to be owned by Cuthbert and Richard Burbage, and the other 50 percent interest was divided between five other members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men - Shakespeare, Will Kempe (the clown), John Heminge, Augustine Phillips, and Thomas Pope. This was a quite novel idea in those times, and extremely shrewd too - with financial investments in the Troupe, the members were likely to work harder for its success, which is exactly what happened.

In the meantime though, they were short of cash for erecting a new building, and found a way around that problem by dismantling the old Theater building and carrying it piece by piece for four days across the frozen Thames river to the new site on Bankside in the Southwark District of London. This caused a right fine controversy as they had moved the building without notifying or seeking permission from the Land-Owner. The latter, outraged, sued the Troupe, but, as luck would have it, the latter won the case. They were able to begin performing at the newly rebuilt theater in 1599.

The Theater was named 'The Globe' as an acknowledgment of the theatrical motto 'Totus mundus agit histrionem' (the whole world is a stage), and was represented with a logo of Atlas holding up the earth. There is no precise information about the exact construction of the theater, but as the timbers from the older building had been used it could not have been vastly different in structure. Earlier, based on the Visscher engraving, the Globe Theater had been assumed to have been an octagonal building, but from Hollar's engraving as well as archaeological evidence it has been found that it was actually a 20-sided building. From afar it looked circular. The circumference of the building was 100 feet. It stood three stories (or 30 feet) high, with three levels of seating arrangements in the galleries. The audience capacity was for 3000 people, 1000 of these standing. The audience entered the theater either by two external stairs at the back of the galleries or via two narrow passages under the galleries that opened into the yard around the stage. There was a 'tiring' house at the back of the stage where the props and other essentials were kept. The stage, a five feet high platform that extended from the 'tiring' house to the middle of the yard, was 49 feet wide and 28 feet deep. It was covered to safeguard the players and especially their expensive costumes from sudden rain. There was no such provision for the standing audience in the yard. The entry fee for these folks was one penny, two pence if they wanted to watch from the first (lowest) gallery, three pence if they wanted the cushioned comfort of the Gentlemen's Room. The Lord's Room, the publicly visible balcony at the back of the stage, required six pence.

The logo flag was flown above the Globe to announce the performance of a play, and the play would commence with the blowing of a trumpet from the turret. The plays were bereft of the kind of elaborate stage scenery, props, and special effects that we are accustomed to seeing in present times. In the Elizabethan Age, there was no stage scenery apart from perhaps a back-draped background for tragedies, and the props consisted of a few easily movable pieces of furniture like a throne, a bed, a table, chairs and stools, etc. Special effects were achieved by lit torches to denote night-time, firing of cannon blanks during battle sequences, making knocking sounds and other noises offstage to represent ghosts or storms, making use of various costumes to suggest the required scene, and so on.

Since the first day of its opening the Globe proved to be a resounding success, and all of its members eventually became very rich. Apart from Shakespeare and Richard Burbage, some of the well-known Elizabethan Actors were Edward Alleyn, Nathan Field, Henry Condell, John Lowin, William Rowley, Richard Tarlton, Joseph Taylor, Christopher Beeston, Robert Armin. Shakespeare's plays - Richard III, Henry VI, Henry VIII, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello, As You Like It, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens - drew huge crowds to the Globe. This popularity did not escape Royal attention and King James II became the new patron of the Troupe. In his honor, they changed their name and now began calling themselves the King's Men.

On 29 June 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, a cannon blank fired in the course of the play set fire to the thatched roof of the theater and the Globe was razed to the ground. It was completely rebuilt the following year, and this time the roof was tiled not thatched as before. Around this time, Shakespeare, who had withdrawn from the activities of the troupe and was now living in Stratford-on-Avon, died at the age of fifty two. Performances at the reconstructed Globe continued until 1642 when the Puritans came into power in England and shut down all forms of public entertainments as evil and immoral. The Globe was demolished by Cromwell's fanatical Roundheads, and a housing building was built upon the leveled site.

Over the next centuries, several unsuccessful attempts were made to resuurect the Globe. In 1970, the late Sam Wanamaker established the Shakespeare Globe Playhouse Trust to undertake the rebuilding of the Globe Theater, and construction work was started in 1987 on a 0.4 hectare land on Bankside, 200 yards from the original site. In the absence of detailed knowledge of the original archtecture, a lot of intensive research was required. Some information was gleaned from the few extant seventeenth century drawings and from contemporary writings as well as the stage directions given by Shakespeare in his plays. In 1989 the Rose Theater was discovered by archaeologists and shortly afterwards the remains of the Globe were found. Only 10% of the site has been excavated and further excavation is prevented by the fact that there is a listed heritage building, the Anchor Terrace, standing on top of the site. Still it was a major discovery and gave further important information about the Globe structure.

The new Globe was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday, 12 June 1997. Its opening season ran from 29 May to 21 September 1997. Elizabethan plays are now performed there every summer.
By Sonal Panse
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