Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
Perhaps one of the most famous Theatres in the entirety of the United Kingdom, The Globe Theatre is best known as home to William Shakespeare’s playing company. Although the original Globe Theatre was lost to fire, today a modern version sits in pride of place on the south bank of the River Thames. A tourist attraction for visitors from across the globe (no pun intended!) Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is now a huge complex holding a reconstructed original outdoor theatre, a winter theatre, and a museum and education centre.
How to Get to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
The original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 and stood very near the location of the modern day version. The site of the original was not certainly known until 1989, when the foundations were discovered in a car park. However, the foundations lie underneath a listed building, so no excavations can take place. A plaque and information panel are in place near 67-70 Anchor Terrace on Park Street to commemorate this original location.
The theatre is located on the south bank of the River Thames. The nearest London Underground Station is London Bridge (Northern and Jubilee lines), but you could also access it by walking over the Millennium Bridge from St. Paul’s Cathedral. We recommend using this link for directions to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from anywhere in the London region.
The Globe was constructed in 1599 and the first production here was likely either Henry V or Julius Caesar although no firm record exists. The theatre was owned by a number of Shareholders – and Shakespeare himself was just one of this group. It is estimated that Shakespeare’s ownership in the Globe eventually diminished to just 7% throughout the course of his career. Although today we heavily associate The Globe with Shakespeare, many other playwrights had work performed at The Globe. The first recorded performance of a play at the Globe Theatre, in fact, was not a Shakespeare play at all but Every Man out of His Humour by Johnson, performed at the end of the year.
Although the exact dimensions of the original theatre are not known, the structure and design of the building has been researched heavily throughout the centuries and primary sources leave enough information that the construction of the Globe can be accurately estimated. The Globe was a three-story open-air amphitheatre with a diameter of around 100ft (30m) and could hold upwards of 3,000 spectators. Although imagined as a circular shape (a “wooden O” as referenced in Shakespeare’s Play Henry V) it is likely that the theatre was a polygon of around 20 sides.
The base of the stage held a yard where – for a single penny – spectators could buy a ticket to become a ‘groundling’ who would stand on the dirt floor throughout the performance. This yard was surrounded by three levels of stadium-style seats, costing more for wealthier patrons.
Above the stage was a filing known as the “heavens” which was painted like the sky with clouds and stars. The heavens contained a trap door with which actors could descend and ascend when required. A trap door built into the stage also allowed for movement of actors on and off the stage.
During a performance of Henry VIII on the 29th of June 1613 a fire sparked by the firing of a theatrical cannon lit the wooden beams and thatching of the theatre alight. Although the theatre was destroyed, nobody was injured in the fire (aside from a single man whose breeches were on fire, but the fire was put out with a bottle of ale).
In 1970, American actor and director Sam Wanamaker founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust and the International Shakespeare Globe Centre with the idea that a faithful recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe should be built near its’ original position, on the banks of the river. No easy task, Wanamaker fought detractors who believed a faithful reconstruction would not be possible, those who insisted that the new building would be a fire hazard, and those who said the recreation would not be a viable tourist attraction.
Wanamaker persevered however and (with minor exceptions such as external stare cases and fire sprinklers) a faithful reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was eventually designed and built, using exactly the same materials as the original. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was then opened to the public in 1997 – 4 years after Wanamaker died.
Performances here are staged to duplicate the original environment of the Globe. This means there are no spotlights, and where possible plays are staged in the daylight. There are also no microphones or speakers of any sort. All music accompaniment is performed live and the close proximity of the actors to the spectators makes performances appear more accessible and intimate. Although the outlay is the same, seating capacity in the modern Globe is 857 with 700 more standing – giving it around half the capacity of the original Theatre.
Built of English Oak like the original, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was constructed with absolutely no structural steel. The thatched roof of the new Globe was a subject of much debate as roof thatching had been outlawed after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Wanamaker fought long and hard to utilise the thatch and this is the first – and only – permitted thatched roof in London since 1666!
Today Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre stands around 230m (750ft) from the original Globe site. The design of the theatre is the same as the original with a stage surrounded by a circular yard (where ‘groundlings’ can still view performances!) and three tiers of raked seating. Because the theatre is circular there is no roof over the centre of the structure so plays are only staged during the summer.
Originally, women were not allowed on stage and during Shakespeare’s lifetime it would have been only men who performed his work. Occasionally the Globe harkens back to this era, putting on entire performances where all roles are played by men. However, both genders are on stage regularly throughout the seasons.
In addition to the recreated Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe’s Trust now also houses the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – a 17th century style indoor theatre. Although not an exact reconstruction of an original building, the Same Wanamaker Playhouse loosely resembles the illd nearby Blackfriars Theatre which had been built in 1566. Much like Shakespeare’s Globe, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was built using period-accurate materials and building styles, and similarly as well, the Playhouse uses beeswax candles to light the stage rather than modern day lighting fixtures. The Playhouse houses around 340 seats and hosts productions throughout the winter and spring months.
Shakespeare’s Globe now houses Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a museum and exhibition space, a gift shop, and a pub/restaurant. This means visitors can attend performances, view the museum, take a guided tour, or simply pop in for a drink and a bite to eat!
Prices: As above, tickets for exhibitions, tours, and performances vary so please do check the website.
Nearest Underground Station: Southwark or Blackfriars
Address: Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1 9DT