In my senior year of high school, all the students in my English class were required to write two term papers. But two of us were granted a special exception. The teacher gave my friend Nick and me the option of handing in alternative projects in lieu of the second paper. In my case, I had written a funny yet tragic account of an unhappy relationship—I use the term loosely—that I had experienced the previous summer. I was writing it just for fun, but my teacher found out about it and said I could type it up and turn it in as my second essay. I did—and got an A, too. Nick was the only student in class who was not required to type his term papers. As long as I’d known him—since kindergarten—he had said he wanted to be an architect. And he had developed an architect’s handwriting: every letter perfectly formed. The teacher’s offer to Nick was that he could build a scale model of the Globe Theatre out of Popsicle sticks instead of handing in a second paper. He declined, and I always thought that was a pity. We had learned about Shakespeare’s famous London venue in class, and I would have loved to see what it looked like. Besides, I couldn’t imagine that writing a term paper would have been more fun—but maybe that was just me.
I was thinking about this last year when I visited London for the first time. I had heard that the Globe Theatre, destroyed centuries ago, had recently been rebuilt, and I was eager to see it. I didn’t particularly care if I saw a play there; I just wanted to go inside and look around. When we got to the Globe, on the afternoon of our last day in London, they had just admitted the last tour group of the day; the only way left to see it that day was to buy tickets for a play. The box office informed us that the show was almost sold out. There were two options: we could buy either fabulously expensive tickets for seats behind a pole that would obscure our view, or cheap tickets for standing room. We debated which option we’d dislike the least, but by the time we had made up our minds two minutes later, all the remaining tickets for the day were gone. So all I got to see of the Globe Theatre was the outside, the gift shop, and the ticket office, none of which was especially impressive. (Note to self: plan ahead next time.)
I take some consolation in the fact that this combination of comedy and tragedy would probably have delighted William Shakespeare, or whomever it was that wrote the works attributed to him.
Building and Rebuilding
The original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 on the south bank of the Thames in London’s Southwark district. The 1599 Globe was not an entirely new building, however. Shakespeare’s troupe had been performing in another theater across the river (called simply The Theatre), but because of the high cost of leasing the land on which The Theatre was located, it was dismantled; the pieces were moved across the river and reassembled, then dubbed The Globe Theatre. Not only was the Globe the primary venue for many of Shakespeare’s plays, he specifically wrote many of them for that theater. The original Globe burned to the ground in 1613, after a cannon went off during a production of Henry VIII and a spark ignited the thatched roof. The Globe was rebuilt within a year, however, and continued to operate until 1642, when it was closed (along with the rest of London’s theaters) by the Puritans who found it morally objectionable. In 1644, 28 years after Shakespeare’s death, the Globe was demolished.
Only a few rough sketches of the Globe survived over the centuries, but based on archeological evidence, texts, and other sources, it has been possible to make some fairly reliable educated guesses about the details of its construction. The original Globe apparently had 20 sides, making it appear almost circular. The central part of the theater was open to the sky; seating was provided in a three-story, covered gallery around the outside. But many theatergoers stood in the central court in front of the stage to watch performances. The audience was expected to interact with the actors in Shakespeare’s time, though in many cases they simply wandered in and out, eating, drinking, and talking with the play going on in the background.
Return of the Globe
In 1996, after almost three decades of planning, a new replica of the Globe—built by hand using authentic materials and construction techniques—reopened in London not far from the site of the original. The designers’ goal was to make the new Globe as similar as possible to the first one, making concessions only as necessary to comply with fire regulations. The replica of the Globe Theatre in London is just one of many around the world, but it is undoubtedly the most historically accurate. As in the early 1600s, actors perform without amplification, spotlights, backdrops, or other scenery, and with only a minimum of props.
The new Globe represents not just the reconstruction of a historically significant piece of architecture, but a way to relive the entire experience of live drama in the 1600s. All the world may be a stage, but if you want to see Shakespeare as the author intended, this particular stage is the best. —Joe Kissell