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Shakespeare’s Globe, 400 Years On

400 years ago today, the original Globe Theatre in Southwark famously burned to the ground during a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. To mark this anniversary, we’ve included here an extract from Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, published in 2012 by the British Museum Press.

Shakespeare P 18

I hope to see London once ere I die’. Henry IV Part 2 5.3.45. London (‘The Long View’), Wenceslaus Hollar, 1647. Etching comprising four sheets, overall 47.1 x 158.7 cm. British Museum, London.

Shakespeare -staging the world

“Although London was far smaller than it is today, it had, by the standards of the time, extensive suburbs. The south bank of the river – the district of Southwark – was all suburb. That was where you went for entertainment. In 1599… a brand new theatre called the Globe opened its doors. The first play staged there is likely to have been Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Some of the audience would have arrived by water taxi, others would have walked over the bridge. The tragedy of Caesar’s death was played out within sight of the Tower of London, across the river, that he was supposed (incorrectly) to have erected. The drama of ancient conspiracy and treason would have been given edge by the very modern sight of those heads on spikes witnessed on the way to and from the theatre.

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‘With this wooden O’… Henry V Prologue. 13. Detail of Sheet 2 from Wenceslaus Hollar’s print London , showing Southwark with the second Globe, built in 1614 after the first Globe burned down, mistakenly labeled as the ‘Beere bayting house’. The building labeled the Globe was the Hope, built in 1613 as a dual-purpose venue for animal-baiting and as a theatre. Etching, 46.6 x 39 cm. British Museum, London.

…Like all crowded places, the playhouses were a magnet for petty criminals. Simon Forman (1552-1611) was a celebrity astrologer and sought-after physician. He kept a diary in which he recorded intimate consultations with a wide range of London society, from prostitutes to fine ladies, who came to him with their problems and concerns (he had a tendency to take advantage of the doctor-patient relationship). In 1611 he went to see Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale at the Globe. He drew a moral from the performance in noting how the trickster Autolycus ‘feyned him sicke & to have ben Robbed of all that he had and hoe he cozened the por man of all his money’ and reminded himself to ‘beware of trusting feined beggars or fawning fellouse’.

The success of Shakespeare’s representation of a feigned beggar and pickpocket on stage came in small measure from the presence around the theatres of numerous real-life figures of just such a kind. In popular literature there was a vigorous market in pamphlets describing the tricks and jargon of the petty criminals who duped their victims, known as ‘conies’ or rabbits, in the streets of London. The most valuable sequence for our purposes in Thomas Platter’s diary is his account of theatergoing, including a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe:

“On September 21st (September 11th in the English calendar) after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people;  when the play was over, they danced very marvelously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women”.

…The value of this account goes far beyond the information it gives about such details as entrance prices, starting time, costumes, dance routines at the end of the show, the competition between different venues, and so forth. Platter also reveals how plays helped to shape cultural identity. The ‘play in which they presented diverse nations’ shows how the theatre was an arena in which national stereotypes were forged (or overturned). The centrality of theatre to London life is suggested by the idea that merely to witness how the English ‘play or act’ in their social encounters is to see how much time they have clearly spent at the playhouse: the English go to the theatre, Platter implies, in order to learn how to behave like English men and women”.

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The above is extracted from Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, published by the British Museum Press, paperback £25. To read more and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

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