When Shakespeare's Globe opened in 1997 it was the first thatch-roofed building permitted in the British capital since the Great Fire of London in 1666. Today this historically accurate, open-air recreation of the theater where Shakespeare's plays were performed — located just a few hundred yards from the original Globe — has been joined by a second venue, a candlelit indoor playhouse where audiences can have a genuine 17th century theater experience.
Both are musts for visiting theatergoers, culture vultures and fans of the Bard from all over the world. How they came to be built on London's Bankside is a story of determination verging on obsession on the part of the late American actor Sam Wanamaker.
The History of the Original Globe Theatre
The area of London south of the Thames and now known as Bankside was, in Shakespeare's time, a kind of red light district outside London in the borough of Southwark. The area was home to theaters and pubs as well as bear-baiting arenas and brothels. Despite what you may have seen in the film "Shakespeare in Love," it's unlikely that Queen Elizabeth I ever travelled up river from Greenwich to attend a play there. Instead, Shakespeare's company, The Kings Men, were summoned to the royal palace to perform for her.
It was in this rowdy district that the first Globe was built in 1599. Shakespeare, along with other actors, was not the owner but a shareholder. It burned down in 1613 when a stage cannon set fire to its thatch roof. The theater was rebuilt by the company while Shakespeare was still alive and remained successfully in operation until 1642 when the Puritans, under Oliver Cromwell, closed it down. Two years later it was torn down completely and tenement housing was built over the spot.
Enter Sam Wanamaker
American actor and ex-pat Sam Wanamaker was working in Britain when the Army-McCarthy hearings got underway and worried about being blacklisted by Hollywood, he decided to stay. He built a distinguished career in the UK, acting and directing on stage and in films. While in England he played Iago to Paul Robeson's Othello at Stratford-upon-Avon and briefly directed the New Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool. In 1970, while in Southwark, he was shocked to realize that while there were several replica Globe theaters in the USA and elsewhere, all that remained of the Bard in his home city was a historic marker on the side of a brewery. Wanamaker devoted the rest of his life to correcting that.
How Shakespeare's Globe London Was Built
It took years to raise the money to build the theater and to research how to create the experience of a Shakespearean theatergoer in a modern setting — including adding a sprinkler system that keeps the roof thatch moistened to prevent fire. About three years into the project, evidence of the real Globe was discovered nearby and that information fed into the design of the new theater in terms of the architecture and materials. The project was not without its obstacles. English Heritage, who owned the land on which the theater is built, wanted to sell it for development. Local planning and council officials were not completely on board. But Wanamakers determination eventually won the day. Sadly, he died three years before the project was completed but left Londoners and visitors alike this amazing legacy.
Seeing a Play in the "Wooden O"
The theater is often referred to as a wooden "O" even though it is actually octagonal. The reference comes from Shakespeare himself. He described the setting in the prologue of "Henry V:"
"...can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?"
The modern theater is considerably more than just a wooden "O." The three levels of gallery seats are reached after crossing a courtyard (where intermission crowds can enjoy their drinks) that separates the theater from a modern building that holds dressing rooms, workshops, wardrobe stores and a museum. Since 2014, the complex also includes a second theater — but more about that below.
Plays are performed on a rectangular stage with a back wall on one side of the "O". In addition to the gallery seats, several hundred tickets, at £5 each, are sold for standees — known as groundlings. In Shakespeare's day groundlings were also known as stinkards.
Seeing a play as a groundling can be a lot of fun as the audience is encouraged to participate and heckle as they would have done in the original Globe. But before you grab at a chance to be a groundling, think about whether you can actually stand for two or three hours. Groundlings at Shakespeare's Globe are not allowed to sit on the ground. Seats on the backless benches of the galleries are none too comfortable either. Cushions can be rented but experienced audiences at the Globe often bring their own cushions and even blankets for the unpredictable English weather.
Performances, which take place from late spring through early autumn are held outdoors during daylight hours — rain or shine. The theater has no roof and no umbrellas are allowed. So if you are worried about inclement weather, bring a rain poncho.
What to Do at the Globe
- Guided Tours: You can tour the theater and theater complex year round when plays are not taking place. Tours are in English with fact sheets provided in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese and Simplified Chinese. Shakespeare's Southwark Tours are offered when the theater is in use for performances.
- Group Tours, Experiences and Demonstrations: Fancy learning how to dress like an Elizabethan? Watching a demonstration of Shakespearean stage fighting or seeing how Shakespeare's plays were printed for the First Folio? A range of experiences can be arranged for groups, some of which include meals, cream teas and visits to nearby attractions like The Shard and the Tate Modern.
- Dine and Drink: The Swan is open for lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, pre and post performance dining. You don't have to be a ticket holder to enjoy the views of the Thames and St. Paul's Cathedral from the restaurant. The Swan Bar is open from breakfast and casual daytime dining through cocktails, and there's a Foyer Cafe Bar for snacks, light meals and drinks.
The Sam Wanamaker Theater
When Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was first designed, an indoor, Jacobean theater, was also planned. Some of Shakespeare's later plays would have been performed in such a theater, lit by candles with the audience seated around the stage. But at first, no one really knew what such a theater would have looked like inside or how it would have worked. A brick building, in use at first for workshops and educational spaces, was built to house the Jacobean theater.
Eventually, the theater was designed based on the evidence of two sheets of drawings that fell out of a book in the Worcester College library, Oxford. At first thought to be by theater designer Inigo Jones, the drawings are now attributed to one of his students in 1660, depicting what a theater may have looked like 50 years earlier. They are considered the earliest known designs for an English theater.
The theater, adjacent to the Globe and connected through the same central lobby, was named in honor of Wanamaker and opened in 2014. Much of the detail is speculative with some of the decoration copied from stately homes of the period. It was built from green oak and still smells of fresh wood, several years later. Be warned, though, oak resin smells coupled with candle smoke can be hard to take if you are at all sensitive or allergic.
Shakespeare's Globe Essentials
- Where: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre London, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1 9DT
- When: Performances on the Globe stage take place from April through September. Most start in mid afternoon but, during the longest days of summer some evening performances are scheduled. Performances in the Sam Wanamaker Theater are scheduled from October through April with listings and ticket sales announced during the summer.
- See what's on: A very wide range of performances, workshops, storytelling, writing workshops and family activities is available through the year
- Tickets: Tickets for all shows and events can be purchased through the website or by phoning the Box Office on +44 (0)20 7401 9919. Purchases through the website require a password protected account that you can easily set up online.
- Getting There: The Globe is a ten or 15 minute walk from the nearest London Underground stations, St. Paul's, Mansion House, London Bridge, Blackfriars. There is limited parking for cars with blue disabled badges and taxis are readily available nearby.
- For more information: Check the main website regularly as there is always something going on.