JULY / AUG 2016: BY MARIANNA KAPLUN
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players
What do we know about Shakespeare’s theatre? We always associate theatrical Shakespeare’s world with the name of the great English Queen Elizabeth I Tudor. And, definitely, it’s very true. In 1576 Elizabethan drama entered an entirely new era. James Burbage, a prosperous joiner, built a theatre in the style of an amphitheater near Bishopsgate in London and called it the Theatre (the word “theatre” had a meaning “the art of writing and producing plays”). Later, two others theatres opened north of the City of London: the Fortune in 1600 and the Red Bull in 1605. By then, on the south bank of the Thames on Bankside had appeared Rose in 1587, the Swan in 1595 and, finally, the Globe in 1599.
Round in appearance, the new theatres were generally 14- or even (as the Globe itself) 20-sided, with benches in three tiers of galleries, where seats cost up to sixpence. The stage had a gallery that was used by musicians or hired by wealthy spectators eager to be seen. William Shakespeare himself was a shareholder who owned 12.5% of The Globe Theatre. As a young writer Shakespeare bought shares in the theatre and benefited financially as his popularity grew.
There was very interesting detail with the performances of different genres. Flags could be seen hanging outside the Globe to let people know what type of play was being performed. A white flag meant it was a comedy, a red flag was a history and a black flag signified a tragedy.
Despite a large number of comedies written by Shakespeare, Globe was called “the tragic stage” and that’s why. Shakespeare’s tragedies represent human action in a secular world. But the tragedies also address broader, ultimately cosmic implications of the tragic protagonist’s progress and death. Shakespeare’s tragedies, performed at the Globe, therefore employed the stage from top to bottom.
The Globe’s stage is the platform on which the main action was played. At the Globe, it was around 27 by 43 feet wide and raised five feet off the ground. Emphasis on horizontal action favored audience interaction and allowed tragic figures to explore the breath of their existence, as when Lear discovers his humanity in the storm scene of King Lear: “Here I stand,” he says on the stage.
Discovery space is an area at the back of the stage concealed by a curtain or “arras” (black for tragedies and multi-coloured for comedies) that could be pulled aside to reveal a surprising sight, such as the slain body of Polonius in Hamlet. A roof projected over the stage and supported by pillars captured upper limits of the theatre’s expansive symbolic scope. At the Globe, the ceiling was decorated with zodiac signs, as in the new Shakespeare’s Globe. Characters could descend from or be lifted up into “the heavens” with suspension gear.
There were no actresses performing at The Globe Theatre—or any other theatre at that time. Female roles were played by young boys as theatre stages were considered too risqué a place for ladies.
In 1613, the first Globe burned down when a prop cannon being used in a performance of Henry VIII set the building alight. It took only two hours for the entire structure to be destroyed but no one was hurt. An account does claim a man’s trousers caught fire but a quick-thinking friend doused him with a flagon of beer. The second Globe was built the following year on the same site, where it lasted until 1642. The Puritans brought an end to The Globe Theatre in 1642 with an order suppressing all stage plays. In 1644 The Globe Theatre was turned into tenement housing, ending 85 years of turbulent history. In 1997 a third version and faithful reconstruction of The Globe Theatre was built as “Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre”, close to the original site in Southwark.
A crest above the main entrance to The Globe Theatre was inscribed with motto “Totus mundus agit histrionem” – Latin for “The whole world is a playhouse.” We can agree with that. In the past and in the present Globe is the heart of English drama. No dramatist in history has wielded such influence as Shakespeare. During his lifetime, Shakespeare brought the passions and politics of distant lands to the stage of the Globe. Through his stories, characters and poetry, he has reshaped humanity’s understanding of itself. Viva Shakespeare, Viva Globe!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marianna Kaplun was born in Moscow. She is a philologist specializing in Ancient Russian drama and theatre. She’s also a film and television critic by calling and librarian by profession. You can find her essays on her Facebook page and on Lumiere. She also blogs in English and Russian.