Although Shakespeare's performed his plays at other venues during his career, the Globe Theatre in the Southwark district of London is the venue more closely associated with his stage works. Even when students study about the playwright, the Globe will feature prominently in the lessons. The Globe was built in 1599 by one of Shakespeare's long-standing associates, Cuthbert Burbage.
In 1597, Burbage inherited another London theater called the Theatre. Although Burbage owned the Theatre, its structure and materials, the land on which the Theatre sat was leased by his father, and he was unable to renew the land lease. Consequently, he demolished the Theatre and used the materials to erect the Globe Theatre at a nearby site. Cuthbert and his partners were confident that people would flock to the theater, and the most renowned company of actors in England would perform at the venue. He built the Globe primarily for the Chamberlain's Men, including their chief writer, William Shakespeare.
Five years before the Globe opened, Shakespeare became one of the partners in a theater company with the sponsorship of the Lord Chamberlain, the head of Queen Elizabeth I's royal household. Shakespeare's acting company, called the "Chamberlain's Men," dominated the London theater scene during the last decade of Elizabeth reign and, under her successor, James I.
Under James I, Shakespeare's troop was renamed "His Majesty's Servants," and enjoyed important positions as members of James I's royal household. The atmosphere of nobility extended to commercial productions at the Globe.
The Globe Theatre had the capacity to seat an audience of between 2,000 and 3,000. There was no lighting, so all plays at the Globe were performed during the day, depending on the weather. Most of the Globe and all of its stage was open air; therefore, acoustics were poor and the actors shouted their lines, stressed their enunciation, and engaged in exaggerated theatrical gestures. However, the productions staged at the Globe had no background scenery, but costumes and props were utilized. The actors indicated changes in scenery by means of speeches and narratives situations written in the plays' texts.
During Shakespeare's era, the Globe Theatre was not in the formal jurisdiction of London but part of what might be called the "sporting district" of Greater London and condemned by London authorities. The Globe drew people from a variety of social class, from the low lives in the pits to high class, well-educated citizens. His plays were truly for all people.
The original structure of the Globe Theatre burned to the ground on June 29, 1613, when its thatched roof caught on fire as a result of a cannon fired during a performance of Henry VIII. By this time, Shakespeare was in semi-retirement at Stratford-on-Avon, and he died three years later at 52.
The Globe was renovated in 1614, replacing flammable material with tiles on its partial roof. Nevertheless, in 1642, a quarter-century after Shakespeare's death, a new, Puritanical and anti-theater establishment assumed power in England and closed down all theaters. Two years later, the Globe was leveled, and tenement housing was constructed on the site. The Globe remained dormant for the next 352 years.
The foundations of the Globe were rediscovered in 1989, rekindling interest in erecting a modern version of the theater. Construction began in 1993 on the new theater near the site of the original and completed in 1996. Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the theater on June 12, 1997 with a production of Henry V. Opening season attracted 210,000 patrons.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of seeing an actor who performed at the Globe occasionally. Interestingly, he said the performers try emulating the way plays were presented during the Elizabethan era.