The Return of London’s Globe
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN BRITAIN
THE Globe, the theater that was the home of William Shakespeare’s plays, has been reconstructed near its former site at Southwark, on the south bank of London’s River Thames. Based on the 1599 original, this O-shaped, 20-sided building is a top tourist attraction.
Before the advent of London’s theaters, a popular form of entertainment was bearbaiting or bullbaiting. Dogs, egged on by shouting onlookers, tormented an animal chained to a stake. This took place in circular arenas with tiered seating, precursors of the theater. The animals were tethered in the central area, which later accommodated the theater stage.
Then plays became popular, and new theaters sprang up around London. Thousands attended them daily. The lord mayors tried to ban the plays on the grounds that they were profane and ungodly. Employers complained that they took workmen away from their jobs, since plays started at two o’clock in the afternoon. But support came from Queen Elizabeth I, a patron of the theater. Her Privy Council protected them to ensure that experienced actors were available to entertain her. Shakespeare’s company was selected for royal court performances more often than any other.
Henry V was written by Shakespeare the year the original Globe opened. It was therefore a logical choice for the first season of this new Shakespeare theater.
Inside the New Globe
Before we enter for the three-hour play, we glance up at the clouds and hope it will not rain, as umbrellas are prohibited and the center is open to the sky. The stage protrudes into a 100-foot-wide [30 m] circle, around which are three tiers of seating, accommodating about 1,000 people. But we are among the groundlings, the 500 who pay to stand and watch the play in the center area. The original theater held 3,000, crammed in tight. But modern safety standards prohibit that.
The roof above the ring of the seating area is chemically treated to resist fire. Fire board and a sprinkler system give added protection. The original Globe was destroyed in 1613 when a spark from a stage cannon ignited its roof.
Groundlings are permitted to move around and even rest their arms on the edge of the stage. Four hundred years ago, unruly crowds ate and drank throughout performances, and fights often broke out among them. Sharply critical, they interrupted at will, hissing or clapping. They were “glewed together in crowdes,” as a writer of that time described them, dubbing them “stinkards.”
The modern Globe’s basic framework is made of oak. Some six thousand tapered oak pegs hold the mortised joints together. Oak was readily available after a hurricane uprooted thousands of trees in October 1987. The most difficult piece to locate was the 44-foot-long [13 m] beam that forms the front of the stage canopy. After much searching, a suitable tree, over 70 feet [20 m] high, was found some 100 miles [150 km] west of London.
Marble pillars support the canopy, or so it seems. But no, they too are made of wood, just like those of the first Globe, which, as one admirer put it, were “painted in such excellent imitation of marble that it is able to deceive even the most cunning.”
By now the seats are filled. Some groundlings crowd around the stage while others lean against the timber walls of the arena. The hubbub subsides as music fills the air. In a gallery above the stage, six musicians in medieval dress play instruments of Shakespeare’s time: trumpets, cornets, and percussion instruments.
As the music reaches a crescendo, actors appear and vigorously thump their staffs upon the stage to the beat of the music. Groundlings join in, stamping their feet. Dramatically the banging ceases. A lone actor and a brief prologue set the scene. Expectation is high. Suddenly, two red-robed characters burst onto the stage—the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Ely. The play begins, and in the course of the performance, the church’s duplicity and intrigue with England’s King Henry V will eventually culminate in the defeat of France on the blood-stained fields of Agincourt.
Soon the royal throne is erected, and we find King Henry conversing with three of his courtiers. As court officials take the stage, we continue to admire the authenticity of their medieval costumes. Yet there is something strange about the cast that we cannot fathom. We check our program. Yes, of course, all the players are men! Women had no part in Elizabethan drama. As social historian G. M. Trevelyan puts it, boys were “strictly trained from childhood to take the women’s parts with dignity, gaiety and skill.” They have done so today.
The applause is over, and we move out. We turn to take a last look at the Globe, its golden thatch, like its oaken timbers, mellowing into subtle shades of gray. It has been a unique experience to be taken back some 400 years.
Afterward, we wander through the Shakespeare’s Globe Exhibition. The name Shakespeare confronts us at every turn. As we contemplate the displays, we ponder the question, Who really was the playwright William Shakespeare? The enigma of William Shakespeare will be the subject of an article in a forthcoming issue of Awake!
[Picture on page 25]
Drawing of the original Globe
From the book The Comprehensive History of England, Volume II
[Pictures on page 26]