Today is the 400th Anniversary of the Destruction of the Globe Theatre

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Four hundred years ago today, the Globe Theatre burned to the ground.

If you studied Shakespeare in high school, you surely studied the Globe Theatre.  Here’s what you might remember about it:

The Globe is the theatre most associated with William Shakespeare, and many of his plays were first performed there. The theatre, which is explicitly referred to in Henry V as “This wooden O,”was a public building, built of wood on the south bank of the Thames River.  It was a circular, or perhaps polygonal structure, three stories high, whose roof was open to the sky.  A flag flew at the top of a flagpole to announce to the public that there would be a performance that day. The theatre was often closed due to outbreaks of the plague.

The reconstructed Globe Theatre

Inside was a stage that jutted out into the audience, closing the distance between the actors and the spectators.  “Groundlings” spent a penny to watch the show from the floor in front of the stage.  The stage itself had a trapdoor in its center, to allow for characters to descend into hell or for ghosts to arrive as if from nowhere.  There was a gallery above, sometimes used by musicians, but often employed by Shakespeare to create a vertical element to the action, as he did in the famous “balcony scene” of Romeo and Juliet.

There was not much in the way of scenery, and the actors, who were all male, had to set the scene with only their words and gestures.  For instance, in As You Like It, Shakespeare creates the illusion of the forest of Arden simply by having a character state, “Well, this is the forest of Arden.”  However, the theatre was ornately decorated, hosted religious and military processions, and were often filled with music.
Ony June 29, 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII (which shouldn’t be counted as a canonical Shakespeare work, but don’t get me started on that), a stage cannon misfired, igniting the thatch inside the Globe.  The building burned down quickly, but all of the patrons were able to escape.

That’s the information that one would expect to learn in high school English, but there are more facts about the Globe that you might find interesting.  Here are some of them:

  • The best seats in the house were actually on the stage itself.  Very wealthy and important patrons, including Elizabeth I, would sit on stools on the stage next to the actors, often getting in the way of the action.
  • Actors sometimes used real guns with real bullets as props in the plays.  In 1587, an actor aimed a pistol at another actor and fired.  The bullet missed the actor, as planned, but accidentally killed a spectator.
  • The Globe was built on the southern banks of the Thames because it was out of jurisdictions of the city of London.  Certain “immoral” activities were allowed south of the river, including theatrical productions, prostitution, cock-fighting, and bear-baiting.  Bear bating was a sport in which a chained bear was mauled to death by dogs in front of a cheering audience.  Shakespeare borrowed a tame bear for A Winter’s Tale, and had it chase a character off the stage.
In 1997, Shakespeare’s Globe reopened in London. Since there are no plans or even detailed pictures of what Shakespeare’s theatre looked like, architects designed a building that best approximates what once stood on the southern banks of the Thames.  Architects also used the remains of The Rose, a contemporary theatre, to inform their work.  The new Globe was built using 17th century materials and techniques, and is the first London building allowed to have a thatched roof since they were outlawed following the great fire of 1666.  But this Globe has something that the original

building could have used on June 29, 1613–a sprinkler system.

Renee at the reconstructed Globe, 2003.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Robert. “Shakespeare and His Theatre: A Perfect Match.” Elements of LiteratureThird Course. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2005. 778-780.  Print

Deary, Terry.  Top Ten Shakespeare Stories.  New York: Scholastic Inc, 1998. 54-65.

“The Renaissance Theatre.” Elements of Literature, Sixth Course. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2008. 426-432. Print


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