The Globe was the first theatre to be built for and financed by an existing acting company. Shakespeare designed many plays for the theatre, including: Hamlet, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, King Lear, Othello, Timon of Athens, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Pericles, As You Like It, The Winter's Tale, and Troilus and Cressida.
Shakespeare was a major shareholder of his company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. They used a theatre built by their chief actor Richard Burbage's father, James Burbage. In 1596, the lease on the land of that theatre was about to expire. To replace it, Burbage built a roofed theatre in the part of the city called Blackfriars. Unfortunately for the Lord Chamberlain"s Men, the residents of Blackfriars got the government to block its use for plays, so it was a waste. In 1597 James Burbage died, and that cut short his plans for Blackfriars.
Without Burbage's theatre, the acting company had to rent a playhouse. They soon decided to build one for themselves. However, they lacked capital. They formed a new consortium to pay for the theatre. Shakespeare and four others became the co-owners of the Globe. To construct the Globe, they stole timbers from their old theatre to make the framework of the new.
The Globe theatre was very successful. It was a favorite of both the London public and the acting company. The Globe was so much a favorite they resisted leaving it. In 1608 they had an opportunity to do so, and fulfill the original plan of moving to Blackfriars hall. Instead the acting company chose to run both playhouses, the open Globe in summers and Blackfriars in the winter (because it was covered). When the Globe burned down in 1613 they again had a chance to move to Blackfriars fulltime, but instead they chose to rebuild the Globe. At that time Blackfriars was beginning to bring larger profits than the Globe. Even though the Globe was larger, they could charge more for Blackfriars tickets. Instead, the Lord Chamberlain"s Men rebuilt the Globe.
Design of the Globe
The old Theatre was a 20 sided structure, the closest to a circle the carpentry of the time could make. It stood 30 feet high with three levels of seating in its galleries. The stage was a five-foot high platform jutting from the backstage area of the theatre to the middle of the yard. An overhanging cover, built to protect players and costumes from rain, protected the stage. The audience had no cover, except for the lowest gallery of seats.
The Globe was very similar to this building, with a bit more decoration of the stage and fresh paint. All four London amphitheatres were all about the same size, except for the Rose, which held 1/5 as many people. Seating was in the form of wooden benches, with roofing over the topmost gallery. Estimates of the total capacity of the Globe are placed at 3,000 people.
The stage was large, 40 feet or more across and about 30 feet deep. There was a trapdoor on the stage, which served as Ophelia's grave and the entry point for King Hamlet's ghost. The back wall of the stage had two doors, one on each side, for entrances, as well as a large central opening used to conceal objects in some plays. A balcony ran the width of the stage wall, for window/balcony/town wall scenes, such as Act 2 in Romeo and Juliet.
Viewing at the Globe was very different than watching modern Shakespeare. The plays occurred in the afternoon, and were lit only by the sun. No scenery was used, except for occasional symbolic devices such as a throne or a bed. The audience surrounded the stage on all sides, and it was almost impossible to not see the other half of the audience behind the stage. The stage was very large, which made asides look less artificial than today. The recess in the back of the stage could have been used for the Capulet's tomb.
The costumes were elaborate, but had little respect for historical accuracy. Dr. Hilda Spear notes, 'I generally grumble today about the performance of Shakespeare in modern dress but I suspect that Shakespeare himself would have no objection.'
Acting at the Globe
The theatre's design had effects on the play. Much more had to be inferred through character's dialogue and much less in indirect ways. This was caused by the limitations of Elizabethan theatres.
Settings had to be provided through words in the play, instead of elaborate sets.
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene
This line from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet would have been the only way to know that this story took place in Verona.
The outdoor performances only took place in the afternoon, so time had to be established in speech too.
The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night
is said by Friar Laurence
in the beginning of Act 4 of Romeo and Juliet.
Possibly the most dramatic difference between modern stage and Elizabethan stage was the impossibility of drawing curtains around the stage or hiding it in darkness. Thus, Shakespeare could not close scenes or even acts with a dramatic gesture or a set scene. The biggest problem with this was when there were dead left on the stage at the end of a tragic scene. A modern playwright could end a bloody scene with darkness or closing curtains, but the Elizabethan audience could see the stage as they left the theatre. It would ruin the illusion to have the dead bodies get up and walk to the back of the stage.
It was because of this that Shakespeare had to end the play with the tension lowered, normality regaining control. He was forced to find methods to remove the dead:
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
cries Fortinbras, or Octavius Caesar
says of Cleopatra
Take up her bed;
And bear her women from the monument.
The realities of the stage in the Elizabethan times had a marked effect on Shakespeare"s plays. Dr. Hilda Spear comments, 'He certainly understood the power at his command, for he shows in Julius Caesar how Antony rouses the crowd and what the results of sending an audience away in a highly tense and emotional state can be. Nevertheless, I believe that, had he been able to end his tragedies at the high point he would have done so.'
"Globe Theatre," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000
http://encarta.msn.com 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
"The Elizabethan Theatre," University of Cologne
"Shakespeare and the Globe," Encyclopaedia Britannica
Baker, Herschel et al. (Ed.). (1997). The Riverside Shakespeare (Second Edition)
Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
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