Sunday, 19 June 2005

Shakespeare's Globe

An actor performs in the modern Globe on the Bankside.

Actors weren't always the softies they are now reputed to be. For instance, on a freezing, snowy December night in 1598, a troupe of them turned up at a recently vacated theatre in Shoreditch, armed with "swords, daggers, bills, axes and such like" as one contemporary account described it. The weather's contumely was such that the Thames had frozen over. Yet, with the aid of lanterns, this company of actors surrounded the area with guards and tore down the entire theatre in one evening. As the penumbra receded in the dawn hours, they began to load the stripped timber onto wagons, which they used to transport the timber to Southwark.

Before getting into the reasons for this apparent lunacy, it bears remarking that the actors could do this because a) there was no regular police force in London at the time, and b) they were all trained in the use of weapons, as actors were obliged to be in the days before stuntmen and botox. Mull over that: once upon a time, thespians were among the toughest fighters in London.

The occasion for the destruction of the Theatre in Shoreditch was that the owner of the land on which it had been built had refused to renew the lease. The Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's company of actors and our esteemed vandals, had played at the theatre for years, and many of Shakespeare's most famously plays had been performed there: Richard III, Richard II and The Merchant of Venice, for instance. To raise funds, the company sold off many of the play books for these popular plays, but the situation was more desperate than that, and it demanded greater ingenuity.

For that reason, and in that fashion, the Theatre was carefully taken apart, and transported across the river to site they had secured not far from the Rose Theatre in Southwark. A talented carpenter named Peter Streete recycled the old pieces of wood to fashion an astonishing new theatre - a wooden polygon, capable of holding up to 3,000 spectators. Shakespeare, himself an investor in commodities, was a joint producer of this new theatre, as were some of his fellow actors. On the front, they placed a sign depicting Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders, and they called the theatre The Globe.

The present replica on the Bankside, while a splendid reproduction with excellent acoustics (I watched an all-woman cast perform Richard III), has only half the capacity of the original. All the other effects are faithfully re-created - from paper cups of dried fruits and nuts on sale to the uncharitable wooden seating, and also a large area at the front for people to stand and watch. If you ever care to visit, do pause to remember that it is a magnificent tribute to the recklessness, inventiveness and near-criminality of Shakespeare's acting company.


HCaldwell said...

I am sure that some Shakespearean scholars will probably disagree with me. But I have always suspected that some of his genius was just being a shrewd observer and investor who lived in an interesting time in an very interesting place. His work only seems to exist on a "glorified" pedastal nowadays. We forget that what he wrote were "common" entertainments in his time. (You would enjoy reading the Lord Mayor and Alderman of London's Petition to the Privy Council dated July 28, 1597 about suppressing performance in and around London) I would guess that William S. was, his times, equivalant of a soap opera or sitcom writer not even in the same league as Marlowe or Jonson.

HCaldwell said...

(You would enjoy reading the Lord Mayor and Alderman of London's Petition to the Privy Council dated July 28, 1597 about suppressing performances in and around London) Sorry, I forgot to mention the fact that this was one of the reasons that several theatres were moved. Landlords were pressured by the government to get rid of the rif-raf.

lenin said...

I'm afraid I don't agree. Shakespeare's work is much more expansive in its imaginative sympathy - if you watch how he extends his generosity of observation even to his apparently hated Jew in The Merchant of Venice, you see he accomplishes something that Marlowe never does. Through sheer restlessness of curiosity, he gets to the heart of the matter. Shylock's magnificent speech ('if you prick us, do we not bleed?') is one of the greatest humanist pleas to be heard in the early-modern era. This, I say, in spite of Shakespeare's clear acceptance of the anti-Semitic drivel of the time.

Stephalupogus said...

I have been reading your blog for a while now and am curious as to where you find these fascinating pieces of history.
Just please do not stop posting! I love reading your blog!

C.L. said...


Mark Kaplan said...

Shylock's magnificent speech ('if you prick us, do we not bleed?') is one of the greatest humanist pleas to be heard in the early-modern era.

Not sure I quite agree with this. Shylock's continues with 'If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?' Now this is obviously not on the same level with bleeding and dying from poison - in other words, this is Shylock trying to pass off his own (cultural) idea of revenge as 'natural' - it's a rhetorical ploy rather than a heartfelt 'humanist plea'. Of course, it is eloquent in its own right, abstracted from its dramatic context.

Alterior said...

Stephalogogus, Thanks for your lovely compliments. I have been on holiday the past few days and had little access to the internet, so I did not get chance to post much. I will continue posting though because I love history and I love sharing it with others like you who love it as much as I do. :-))))

Alterior said...

Oh and thanks hcaldwell,lenin, c.I and Mark Kaplan for your contibutions and interest in my blog! :-)))