LONDON'S GLOBE THEATRE: WHERE KING LEAR BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE WAS FIRST PERFORMED
The most remarkable playhouse in history started life because of a dispute over a lease. In 1598 the 21 year lease expired on the Lord Chamberlain's Men site, the Theatre. Landlord Giles Allen had wanted back the Shoreditch land that the Theatre stood on, along with the building James Burbage had constructed on it. The lease however stated the James Burbage could 'take down the buildings he might erect.' The dispute over the exact terms of the contract went back and forth. The Lord Chamberlain's Men company moved to The Curtain Theatre temporarily and leased Blackfriars for indoor performances. Then Nicholas Brend offered the company a lease on a plot of land in Maiden Lane, 100 yards from the Rose Theatre on Bankside. On the night of December 28, 1598, while Giles Allen was on Christmas holiday in the country, the sons of James Burbage, Cuthbert and Richard, along with carpenter Peter Smith and a dozen workmen dismantled the structure of the Theatre, and moved it to a warehouse at Bridewell.
On 21 February 1599 a 31 year lease for the Bankside site was signed. In order to pay for the rebuilding costs, the Lord Chamberlain's Men created a share issue - 25% to Cuthbert Burbage, 25% to Richard Burbage, and 10% to John Hemminges, Augustine Philips, William Shakespeare, Will Kempe and Thomas Pope. Kempe soon left the company and sold his shares to Phillips, Shakespeare and Pope. Later shareholders included Henry Condell and Will Sly. The company's backers were the goldsmith Thomas Savage and the merchant William Leveson.
The Theatre's oak beams and timber were transported across the Thames and rebuilt as The Globe. It opened in the summer of 1599 either with a production of As You Like It, with Shakespeare himself playing Adam or possibly on 12 June with Julius Caesar. On September 21, 1599 Thomas Platter, a Swiss tourist, reported in his diary, 'we witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar'. It is thought that subsequently Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest were first performed at The Globe.
The Globe was thought to have been a polygonal, 20 sided structure, with an open roof. About 30 metres (90 -100 feet) across, with a stage 43 feet wide and 28 deep and raised 5 feet above ground level. In front of the stage there was a pit (where the groundlings would stand) and three galleries of seating rising above. The capacity was thought to be nearly 3300 people. The rectangular apron thrust stage had a trapdoor (possibly used for the graveyard scene in Hamlet). On stage there were two pillars which supported the upper stage roof, made of canvas and painted with celestial figures, that contained a trapdoor to lower actors or props onto the stage (possibly used for Jupiter in Cymbeline). The back wall of the stage had a central entrance, which had a hanging curtain (possibly for the closet scene in Hamlet) and two entrance doors on either side. Above ground level was a balcony for musicians or acting scenes (possibly the Romeo and Juliet balcony). Backstage, behind the door exits was the 'tiring house' where the actors prepared and made their entrances. As the Globe site was liable to flooding by the Thames at high tide and built on a muddy ditch, the whole building was thought to have been constructed on a low wooden pier with bridges across for the audience to enter into the theatre.
Flags flew above the theatre to announce a performance. Above the main entrance was engraved the phrase - Totus mundus agit histrionem (all the world's a stage). It cost 1 penny to stand in the pit (about one tenth of the average daily wage). To sit in a seat was a further penny, and for each level ascended in the galleries, a further penny was deposited. A cushion also cost a penny. The best seats were either on the side of the stage or in the levels above the stage and near the musicians. There were sellers of hazelnuts and oranges, the remains of which were found in the recent excavation of the original site. After Queen Elizabeth's death in 1603, and the ascension of King James, the Lord Chamberlain's Men were invited to become the King's acting company. The patent stated that the King's Men had royal approval 'freely to use and exercise the Art and faculty of playing Comedies, Tragedies, Histories...stage plays...as well within their usual house called the Globe...' The plague closed the theatre for some time, but it reopened in 1605 with Shakespeare on top form - Antony and Cleopatra, King Lear, Othello and The Tempest were playing alongside revivals of earlier plays.
Shakespeare's stagecraft was to concentrate upon the actors and the words they spoke. The audience in the Globe would not have been overly conscious of the courtly staging, the King's costume or props when Burbage played King Lear: They were only aware of Lear. As Harley Granville Barker wrote 'Elizabethan drama was built upon vigour and beauty of speech.' The groundlings in the pit of the Globe 'would stand in discomfort for an hour of so to be stirred by the sound of verse.'
During a performance of Henry VIII a canon shot misfired and the thatched roof caught fire. The Globe burnt down on June 29, 1613 witnessed by Henry Wooton: '...it kindled inwardly and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds..'. In 1614 the Globe was rebuilt with a tiled roof, but within five years performances of plays were overtaken by the spectacle of bear-baiting. The theatres were formally closed in 1642 by the Puritans by the decree of Oliver Cromwell. The Globe itself was destroyed in 1644 to build housing. In 1989 developers found the original site of The Globe Theatre on London's Southbank. Excavations and computer-aided attempts to measure the remains at Anchor Terrace on Southwark Bridge Road continued, but the site of one of the greatest places in theatrical history is at present underneath a car park. The current Globe Theatre stands 750 feet from the original site and was completed in June 1997 due to the remarkable efforts of Sam Wanamaker. The audience capacity is 1800 and there are sprinklers on the roof to prevent fire.