Author: Jacob Hill
On the southern banks of the Thames sits a theatre. It sticks out like a sore thumb against the modern London skyline: rotund, white and half-timbered accents that are quintessentially Tudor. This is the Globe Theatre, also known as “Shakespeare’s Globe” for it is where he premiered many of his famous plays.
The building is twenty-six years old.
But didn’t Shakespeare die four hundred years ago?
How is that possible!?
Indulge the former theatre-kid for a moment and I’ll explain how.
ACT I – THIS SCEPTERED ISLE
England is renowned for its theatrical legacy, but before Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), plays were pretty boring. They were essentially one-dimensional skits with an Aesop’s Fables-esque message tacked on at the end. But during Elizabeth’s reign, England culture flourished – the “English Renaissance”.
Drama and theatre especially blossomed. Plays became more complex, adding incredible depth to the stories being told. The lines that defined theatre before were blurred: Societal norms were challenged. Morals were suddenly complicated. Nobody was wholly good or evil. Characters exposed their vulnerabilities while lamenting directly to the audience. Also, gore and violence were utilised to shock audiences (I’m looking at you, Titus Andronicus).
Imaginations ran wild since there was little to no scenery used – it was just actors on the stage. But this gave the audience a more active role in theatre – they could imagine the court, the countryside, the battlefield. The audiences became apart of the show themselves, interjecting and crying out to the actors during the show, as if what they were watching was real.
Playwrights were also challenging linguistic conventions. Christopher Marlowe (died 1593) was an early pioneer who utilised unrhymed verses. Shakespeare built upon Marlowe’s work, adding subtlety and flexibility to it: Magical creatures typically rhymed, relaxed scenes were typically prose, and the soliloquies utilised the famous iambic pentameter (y’know: da-dah-da-dah-da-dah-da-dah-da-dah…) Other notable playwrights at the time include Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson and Peele and Lyly.
Apart from a brief closure of theatres due to plague (1592-1594), theatres popped up all over the place. The first theatre in England since the Romans was built in 1576 by James Burbage, simply called “The Theatre”. Shakespeare’s company, “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men”, performed there regularly after the theatres reopened in 1594.
Burbage lost the lease to the property and needed to build a new theatre. He didn’t have all the funds to do so, so he shared the lease with some of Lord Chamberlain’s Men – including Shakespeare.
This a new theatre was the Globe Theatre. Opened in 1599, it sat on marshy swampland south of the Thames. It was liable to flood and was outside of London. Why would anyone choose to build there?
They didn’t choose: The Puritans forced them to build there.
ACT II – IT SMELLS TO HEAVEN
Martin Luther had nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517 and sparked a split in the Catholic Church. The Protestants were those who broke from Catholicism, which included the Church of England (which Henry VIII created just so he could divorce his wife). But the Church of England (or Anglican Church) still maintained many Roman Catholic customs and rituals despite formally divorcing from the Church.
This sparked the Puritan movement, which wanted the worship of God to be plain and stripped of pomp and pageantry. They also wanted to ‘purify’ the Church of England of Catholic traditions. Some were moderate, but many were extreme, applying their unforgiving ideology to aspects of life outside the church.
See, the Puritans hated theatre. (The feeling was mutual). Alongside taverns and brothels, theatres were considered destructive places that lured people away from worshipping God. Theatres initially didn’t observe the Sabbath (Sunday performances were forbidden by the 1630s), they were usually the scenes of ‘ungodly’ rowdiness (again, by the 1630s theatregoing became a more orderly affair).
But they also didn’t like how theatre questioned old certainties or explored difficult topics. They considered this socially dangerous (despite being protestant and questioning Catholic orthodoxy). But more than anything, theatrical performances ridiculed the Puritans. Theatre mocks and humbles everyone (as it should), but the Puritans resented being exposed as religious hypocrites whereas theatre didn’t pretend to be something it wasn’t (ironically).
But theatres were hardly bastions of revolutionary thought. Yes, they challenged conventional thought and kept society on its toes, but their patronage was assigned to members of the Royal family. Furthermore, the monarch gave actors permission to perform. Therefore, theatre couldn’t have been that subversive.
Theatre was rooted in royalism. Royals paid for it, people revelled in it. Theatre strengthened the bonds between the people and the monarchy. Since both groups enjoyed theatre, the Puritans saw both social classes as morally corrupted (Of course, the Puritans were paragons of piety).
London was infested with Puritans and Parliament had a lot of Puritans as MPs (Members of Parliament). Obviously, several MPs wanted to restrict theatre, but Parliament didn’t have the powers to do so. All theatre-related demands required writing a petition to the Lord Chamberlain – the patron of William Shakespeare’s theatre company. Big shock: He denied all their restrictions!
Still, the Puritan movement was so strong in London that theatre was unwelcome, even when Shakespeare came under the patronage of Elizabeth’s successor, James (VI of Scotland, I of England: Scotland r. 1567-1625, England r. 1603-1625). So, now known as “The King’s Men”, Shakespeare and his men got to work setting up theatre performances.
The first performance in the Globe was probably Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but the first confirmed performance was Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour. Shakespeare’s greatest works were performed here: Macbeth, Twelfth Night, King Lear. His not-so-great works were also performed here: Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, and the absolute dumpster-fire that is Henry VIII.
Speaking of Henry VIII, this play sucks so hard that during its premiere (1613) it set the Globe on fire – a cannon accidentally set the thatched roof on fire and burned it down (luckily, nobody died). The theatre was rebuilt in 1614 with a tiled roof to avoid the previous drama. But Elizabethan theatre had started to wane by then. Shakespeare’s works buoyed enthusiasm for a little while longer, but when he died in 1616, it truly was the end of an era.
ACT III – RELIGIOUS CANONS, CIVIL LAWS
It was also the end of an era of peace in England. Tensions between Monarchy and Parliament had been brewing since the death of Elizabeth I. But James VI and I was a wary man, and evaded conflicts both abroad and at home. The same cannot be said for his son Charles I (r. 1625-1649), who immediately declared war on Spain. The war was an instant disaster. In 1626 Charles tried to raise taxes for the war but Parliament refused.
See, Parliament had been granted real administrative powers, such as making laws and controlling the purse-strings. Charles, however, believed in Divine Right (i.e. that he was ordained by God to govern as he saw fit). This frustrated MPs who wanted to clearly demarcate what Parliament and King could and could not do. Neither Charles nor Parliament were willing to compromise. The conflict over arbitrary power grew hotter.
In response to Parliament’s blocking, Charles raised taxes anyway without Parliament’s approval. Parliament replied with the Petition of Right (1628), which emphasised protection against royal overreach. Charles conceded. Then, in 1629, he dismissed Parliament…and didn’t summon it for eleven years. Without Parliament, Charles ran the whole show (as was his Divine Right). Thus began the era of “Personal Rule”.
The conflict between Parliament and King wasn’t just about power. Religious division had been growing across Europe for generations. This climaxed into the disastrous Thirty Years War (1618-1648) on the continent. Initially revolving around Protestantism vs. Catholicism, it soon devolved into fighting for the sake of it. Nobody won in the end.
However, England stayed out of the Thirty Years War (apart from that tussle with Spain, which ended in 1630). Personal Rule was a time of peace for England…on paper. But the religious rift still reared its ugly head in England.
For one, Protestants were concerned about Charles’ religious loyalties. Remember, the Church of England is a Protestant church, but is coloured by Catholic tradition. The monarch is the head of the Anglican Church. Charles I championed his role as its sole defender, but his diplomatic marriage to a Catholic princess in 1625 frightened Protestants. They didn’t like the Pope or Bishops, which is why Anglican Bishops were also seen as enemies. Moreover, the bishops would often censor the Puritan preachers. This had to mean that Charles was a closet catholic, ordering his bishops to persecute the Protestants!
Charles fanned the flames further in 1637 by introducing the Book of Common Prayer into Scotland. It sounds like much ado about nothing, but the Book of Common Prayer is an Anglican book, hence it has some very Catholic traditions rooted in it. Scotland was overwhelmingly Protestant (specifically Presbyterian, which is essentially ‘diet-Puritanism’). The Scots formed the National Covenant, which asserted Scottish principles of religion and inspired political opposition to the English monarch.
Incensed, Charles led an army into Scotland in 1639 – the First Bishops’ War. It didn’t go well. In fact, Charles racked up a huge debt and couldn’t prosecute the war anymore. So, in April 1640, he recalled Parliament to secure funds.
Parliament returned, but far from being a Deus ex Machina, they demanded that unpopular Personal Rule policies be revoked before they voted for any money. Three weeks passed with no resolution. Charles dismissed Parliament again. This Parliament became known as the “Short Parliament”.
Charles invaded Scotland again – the Second Bishops’ War. This time the Scots humiliated him and occupied northern England. The King had to pay war reparations as well as cover expenses on his end. England was on the brink of bankruptcy and Charles had lost a lot of authority and respect.
Charles was forced to recall Parliament, who exploited his weak position. They annulled despised policies and passed two showstopping laws. First, taxes without parliamentary approval were illegitimate. Second, Parliament could only be dismissed if MPs agreed to it. This was an affront to Charles, and the mood in England grew sinister.
In 1641, Parliament went further by executing Thomas Wentworth, Lord Deputy of Ireland (1633-1640). Wentworth was an MP who was highly connected to the King and the Anglican Archbishop, so was incredibly unpopular in Parliament. Truth is, Charles wasn’t his biggest fan either, but he kept him around since Wentworth was a loyal royalist and effectively administrated Ireland. Effectively, but tyrannically – the Irish hated him, and through him the King. Wentworth was executed as a national scapegoat, but with him gone, the monarchy’s power over Ireland loosened. The Irish rebelled in October 1641.
Order needs to be restored in the kingdom…but Ireland was incredibly Catholic. Puritan Parliament didn’t trust possibly-Catholic Charles to put the rebellion down. Thus, the debate over who commanded the armies began. Then a discussion over who got to appoint unelected officials ensued. Soom, there was talk of abolishing the bishops.
Charles had had enough – this was treason! He attempted to arrest the leading opponents in Parliament, but he failed. Given Parliament was in control of London, Charles fled to York. The battlelines were slowly drawn, with towns and cities declaring loyalty to the King or Parliament.
The Rubicon was crossed on 1st June 1642 when Parliament published the “Nineteen Propositions”, which demanded the King cede virtually all his powers to Parliament. Charles raised his standard over Nottingham on 22nd August 1642: Parliament and Monarchy were officially at war.
The English Civil War had begun. The kingdom descended into a decade of war and 200,000 people died – 4.5 percent of all England.
And the first casualty was theatre.
ACT IV: FIGHT, GENTLEMEN OF ENGLAND
The Civil War was interpreted by Puritans as God’s wrath against England, which needed to be appeased by fasting, prayer and doing away with the frivolous and obscene – starting with theatre. Several attempts were made to close theatres before the war, especially using the Irish and Scottish wars as excuses, but the current situation was perfect for finally drawing the curtain on theatres in September 1642.
Theatres were vandalised to make them unusable. Provincial touring of theatre died despite having permission from the King to perform. King’s licences were ignored and players were paid by authorities to leave. People were heftily fined for attending plays. Parliament even created a squad, the “Provost Marshall”, to enforce this hostility towards the dramatic arts.
But performers nevertheless believed that when the Civil War was over, the theatres could come back. They were shocked when Parliament made one of their peace terms a permanent ban on theatre, which the King rejected (along with the other ludicrous demands).
Parliament won the war in 1646. Even then, thespians clung to hope. But further suppression orders in 1647 dashed their hopes. As the monarchy was being torn away, so was the theatre.
As negotiations played out, Charles made a deal with the Scots, who initially fought with on Parliament’s side. Scotland switched sides and attacked Parliament in 1648. This was quickly quelled and Parliament grew more puritanical after expelling all moderate members. In 1648, Parliament passed a further resolution to obliterate theatre once and for all.
But still, the actors were determined to put on a show.
On 30th January 1649, Charles I became the only English monarch to be executed and the monarchy was toppled. Prince Charles, heir to the throne, fled to France. Republicanism in England had begun.
But four years passed and Parliament still hadn’t figured out how exactly England should be governed. That’s when Oliver Cromwell, a commander of the parliamentary armies during the War, dissolved Parliament and installed himself as the “Lord Protector”. In other words, Cromwell was king.
The Protectorate, with the army on its side, ruled the British Isles along Puritan lines, persecuting Catholics, abolishing the bishops, and heavily restricting public behaviour. Previous parliamentary stances on theatre were reaffirmed. Theatrical performances were still raided during Cromwell’s rule, and no royal patrons could save actors from Puritan purges.
But still, the shows went on.
Cromwell died in 1658 and was succeeded by his son as Lord Protector (hmm, hereditary rule…). But people were already fed up with the Protectorate; Parliament had failed to present a viable alternative for ruling Britain. Parliament allowed the moderate MPs who were purged to return in February 1660. The “Long Parliament” was over after twenty years.
Sensing his chance, the exiled Prince Charles proclaimed the Declaration of Breda: recognise me as king of England and all civil war crimes will be forgiven. Parliament accepted. On 29th May 1660, Prince Charles returned to London and re-established the monarchy, but Parliament would become the main instrument of executive power. Tensions continued, but by 1689 the constitutional monarchy we know today was firmly established.
After 1660, theatres were reopened and plays could be performed unrestricted. However, the outdoor theatres had fallen into disrepair, meaning all theatrical performances had to be done indoors. The devastation of war meant people had less to spend, meaning only the wealthy could attend performances. This is partly why theatre took on an increasingly aristocratic flavour in Europe.
Meanwhile, the Puritans became unpopular and faced religious persecution. The more extreme Puritans, frustrated that they were being ostracised by society, set sail for the Americas to (hopefully) found a theocracy.
And that brings me back to the Globe Theatre – how on Earth did it survive all this turmoil? It didn’t. The Globe was demolished in the mid-1640s as part of the war against theatre.
ACT V: ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE
What hadn’t been destroyed was Shakespeare’s works, which continued to be performed long after his work across Europe. However, he wasn’t held up as a literary genius. Nor was there much reverence for his works: they were treated like templates for a show, with characters added or deleted, lines swapped and all sorts of editing.
But with the growth of the British Empire, Shakespeare also grew to international prominence. The Germans in particular worshipped Shakespeare, Practically proclaiming him as Germany’s national playwright. In the USA, open-air festivals were held to honour Shakespeare’s works. In the late 1800s, Elizabethan theatre in general enjoyed a renaissance, further catapulting Shakespeare’s fame.
It was around this time that Shakespeare’s plays were being held up as the best literature the world had ever seen. His works had been adapted by various theatrical movements – sentimentalism, realism, naturalism, Epic theatre etc. – and continue to inspire people to this day (and frustrate high schoolers).
That’s when Sam Wanamaker wanted to create the ultimate monument to Shakespeare and his impact on English literature and language: A reconstructed Globe Theatre.
In 1970, he set up The Shakespeare’s Globe Trust to gather funds and research to rebuild the Globe. It is a perfect replica of the original theatre, including the notorious thatched roof. The Globe was reconstructed about 230m from its original location and opened in 1997, 350 years after the second rendition was destroyed. It is a centre for learning about Shakespeare and does regular performances.
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