Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Shakespeare and The Globe are perhaps Southwark’s greatest claim to fame. It takes the breath away to think that Shakespeare talked, walked and worked in this little part of the universe. The Globe was undoubtedly the jewel of Bankside theatres, the most stable, the most well administered and the home to the most famous plays that have endured to the present day
The Theatre in Shoreditch was the first purpose built playhouse in London. James Burbage, who designed and built The Theatre, was a joiner turned actor/theatre manager. In 1572 it had become necessary for theatrical troupes to have the protection of the nobility as these troupes now fell within the terms of the Vagrants Act. James Burbage’s troupe became retainers of royal favourite the Earl of Leicester and subsequently received the royal patent. They became known as the Earl of Leicester’s Men and were to become the most renowned and stable of the theatre companies.
James Burbage died in 1597 and his sons Cuthbert and Richard took over the running of the theatre company. The lease on The Theatre had expired and although negotiations with the landlord were underway, after two years there was still no sign of resolution. Cuthbert and Richard Burbage found a site just to the south of Maiden Lane (today the site is on Park Street close to Southwark Bridge Road to the East) and dismantled the timbers from The Theatre, transported them across the river and re-erected the theatre on this site. The newly rebuilt theatre was called The Globe. There was a 31 year lease on the property and the company’s original shares were divided amongst the Burbage brothers who owned 50% and 5 members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, including William Shakespeare. Briefly and gloriously the Globe was the foremost theatre and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men the foremost acting company of the day. 16 of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed at the Globe, from As you Like it to Pericles, with Richard Burbage cast as the lead in the tragedies. The original Globe was destroyed by fire in 1613 when a cannon set off during a production of Henry VIII set fire to the thatched roof.
A second Globe Theatre was built on the same site and opened in 1614. The second building was more robust and this time had a tiled roof with a sign or a flag of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders. James I, who was an enthusiastic patron and supporter of the arts, had come to the throne in 1603. The company now came under his patronage and were renamed The King’s Men and Jacobean theatre flourished at The Globe where plays written by Massinger, Middleton and Webster were performed alongside those written by Shakespeare. The Company now had a second theatre in Blackfriars and this theatre attracted the more fashionable audience whilst The Globe attracted the general public, a raucous and noisy crowd. It and was said to be able to accommodate an audience of over 3,000.
Edmond Malone described the Globe Theatre as follows:
"The Globe theatre was situated on the southern side of the River Thames; was an hexagonal building, partly open to the weather, partly covered with reeds. It was a public theatre, and of considerable size; and they always acted by daylight. On the roof of the Globe, and the other public theatres, a pole was erected. to which a flag was affixed. These flags were probably displayed only during the hours of exhibition; and it should seem from a passage in one of the old comedies that they were taken down during Lent, in which season no plays were represented.
"The Globe, though hexagonal at the outside, was probably a rotunda within, and perhaps had its name from its circular form. It might, however, have been denominated only from its sign; which was a figure of Hercules supporting the Globe. This theatre was burnt down in 1613; but it was rebuilt in the following year, and decorated with more ornament than had been originally bestowed upon it.
"The exhibitions at the Globe seem to have been calculated chiefly for the lower class of people; those at Blackfriars, for a more select and judicious audience. ...one of these theatres was a winter, and the other a summer house. As the Globe was partly exposed to the weather, and they acted there usually by daylight, it was probably the summer theatre. The exhibitions here seem to have been more frequent than at Blackfriars at least till the year 1604 or 1605, when the Bankside appears to have become less frequented than it formerly had been.
.".. in the middle of the Globe, and I suppose of the other public theatres, in the time of Shakespeare, there was an open yard or area, where the common people stood to see the exhibition; from which circumstance they are called by our author groundlings, and by Ben Johnson, 'are the understanding gentlemen of the ground.'"
James I died in 1629. Without his protection the theatre companies became vulnerable to the Puritans who sought to close the play-houses permanently for reasons that were probably a combination of public order, moral corruption and public health. The Court of Charles I were enthusiastic supporters of the theatre and Puritan attacks were rebuffed until 1642 when Cromwell and the Puritans came to power. In 1642 it was decreed “whereas public sports do not well agree with public calamities … public stage-plays shall cease and be foreborne.” The Golden Age of Bankside playhouses was over and the Globe was demolished in 1644. The Commonwealth was short-lived and the monarchy restored in 1660. Play-going and theatre returned when Charles II became king but not to Bankside, instead it returned to the up-and-coming and newly fashionable area of Covent Garden.
Shakespeare's Globe opened in 1997, the result of the vision and tireless hard work of American actor, producer and director, Sam Wanamaker. It was built a few hundred yards from the original site and where possible construction techniques used in the construction of the original Globe Theatres have been used. As the theatre freely admits though, it can be no more than a "best guess" in recreating the originals.