Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Shakespeare’s Globe

The walk along the South Bank is slow, and is taking far more time than I have planned. This is because every few steps there is something else to stop and take a look at, unlike the upper reaches where I could keep up a good pace with the scenery changing very slowly.

Having only just got started again after the Tate Modern I have to stop to admire The Globe. To be strictly correct this is known as Shakespeare’s Globe to avoid confusing it with the original Globe Theatre.

Shakespeare’s Globe
Shakespeare’s Globe

Back in Shakespeare’s day the City Corporation did not approve of popular entertainment, and many of the theatres and bear-baiting rings crossed the river to the Bankside area of Southwark to in order to continue their trade. Inevitably other entertainment trades sprung up as well, and the area was notorious for its bawdy revelry with numerous taverns and brothels. I was delighted during my researches to discover that most of these houses of ill repute were on land owned and controlled by the Bishop of Winchester whose palace was just around the corner from where I am standing. A whole new slant on stories about the actress and the bishop.

Anyway, back to the story. The impresario of the day was Richard Burbage, who owned the number one venue of the day, under the highly imaginative name of “The Theatre”. Burbage had a dispute with his landlord and this went unresolved for some time. Following Burbage’s death in 1597, his two sons, Cuthbert and Richard decided enough was enough. They sold shares in a new company to four of their actors, including a certain Mr William Shakespeare, and then the whole company dismantled “The Theatre” and carried the timbers to Southwark where they built it back up again and called it “The Globe”.

The Globe opened in 1599 and was used for most of Shakespeare’s plays. The end came rather suddenly in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII when a spark from a stage cannon set the thatched roof alight and the theatre burned to the ground in less than two hours. It was rebuilt, this time with a tiled roof, and continued to be a top location until it was closed by the Puritans in 1642. The Globe was demolished in 1644.

Nobody exactly knows what “The Globe” looked like. In fact, the only guidelines we have of any theatre design of the period are a few lines in some of the plays written at the time (Shakespeare describes his theatre as a “wooden O” in Henry V), and a couple of sketches.

Fast forward to the 1949 when the American actor and director Sam Wannamaker visited London. He was disappointed to find that there was Globe Theatre, and nowhere in London for Shakespeare’s plays to be performed in the surroundings for which they were originally written. After several years canvassing his ideas to plug this gap he founded the Shakespeare’s Globe Trust in 1970 and set about researching, designing and fund-raising for a reconstructed Globe to be built. It was 1987 before the first work started on clearing the ground and construction had only just been started in 1973 when Sam Wannamaker passed away.

Wannamaker’s aim was to reconstruct the theatre as authentically as possible. This even included creating a thatched roof. It is claimed that this is the first thatched roof in the centre of London since the Great Fire. Modern fire resistant treatments have been used to take every precaution against the reconstruction suffering the same fate as the original building. The reconstructed theatre was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in June 1997.

Shakespeare’s Globe is as close as we are ever likely to get to the original performances as The Bard intended. The Trust promotes education and research as well as putting on performances. There are daily workshops and lectures as well as a fascinating tour of the replica theatre which is highly recommended.

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