The public playhouse in Elizabethan England was a place that invoked great criticism. Some saw it as an instrument of evil. The theatre, according to some, nurtured thieves, which preyed on innocent playgoers. If that was not enough public playhouse were said to help spread bubonic plague, also known as the Plague, due to the close contact of the patrons. In order to contend with this criticism all public playhouses were placed outside of the jurisdiction of the local government. One of the most famous of these buildings, which lies across the Thames River, is the Globe Theatre. It was home to some of the most influential playwrights of the time, the most notable of them was William Shakespeare. An in depth study of the Globe will show how the Globe appeared during the Elizabethan period.
In March of 1599 building began on The Globe, supervised by Peter Streete. According to Bernard Beckerman in Shakespeare at the Globe Mr. Streete would go on to build the Fortune a year later using much of the same details from the Globe, after being contracted by Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn (xii). The construction of the Globe would cost around L400 (pounds) according to John C. Adams (50). The reason it was so cheap was because it was reconstructed from the skeleton of the Theatre, which was pulled down in 1597. The foundation of the Globe consisted of a circular ditch that was filled with limestone and pebbles. On top of this a bricks were stacked to create a polygon shaped that would serve as a base for the first set of wood that would be put in to
place. There were two sets of bricks an outer polygon and an inner polygon of bricks with a distance of ten to fifteen feet between them (75). These bricks would form the outer wall and the inner yard area. The actual shape that these walls formed was under much debate until recently when archeological evidence surfaced to support the idea that the Globe had been multi-polygonal shaped. According to Leslie Hotson, the Globe was shaped like an O, he draws this conclusion from the accounts of the people who visited the original Globe (78). If the reader were to look at the original text that these accounts come from, the O that is referred to actually appear like a polygonal O instead of a round O. In the past ten years the archeological site in London, has found evidence to support the claim that the globe was a twenty-four sided structure (Mulryne 42).
This twenty-four sided polygonal structure contained three levels. On the exterior of each level there consisted of a series of windows for ventilation and to allow extra light inside of the theatre. Unlike today s theatres the higher a playgoer sits the cheaper price, during this era it was exactly the opposite, the higher the more expensive. When a playgoer would first enter the Globe he or she would enter under a figure of Hercules supporting the Globe, under which were written Totus mundus agit histrionem (Adams 32). At the entrance a patron would pay one penny to the doorman. This covered the fee for the yard, first level. The first level was called the yard were the groundlings stood. It was named the one penny area. In this area, the groundlings would stand on the ground for the entire performance, hence the name groundlings. If the playgoer wanted a better seat they would enter a stairway, to the to the upper levels. The upper levels were covered and furnished. The walls and ceilings of the two penny galleries were covered with
plaster, and the floor was elevated to allow the people in back of the gallery an opportunity to see the stage (Adams 64). Unlike the yard the upper galleries had benches in order for the patrons to sit during the performance (64). The cost for these more elaborated seats was another penny. If one wanted an even better seat, one could go upper another level which cost another penny. The second and third levels resembled each other. The only main difference in them, were the height of the seats. If one had great wealth and status one could sit in what was called the gentlemen rooms. These rooms consisted of curtains and other furnishings; instead of benches these rooms had cushioned chairs for the well to do. These gentlemen rooms would cost at least twelve pennies and would be located next to the stage (71). Unlike the other places to watch the play these rooms were reserved in advance for people like the queen and other high dignitaries. In today s society the equivalent would be the skyboxes, which the owner s of teams use. The viewing areas in the Globe ranged from dirt cheap to very expensive.
No matter where a patron was sitting or standing in the Globe they could view the stage. The stage was a rectangle and extended to the middle of the yard. The stage measured 25 X 45 feet and was constructed out of wood (Becherman 69). To the rear of the stage there were two entrances. On the left and right side of the stage there was an entrance through which actors could enter and exit the stage. Behind these two doors there stood a tiring house that could hold at least eight people in comfort. The tiring house is like today s dressing room. Between the two entrances, there was a removal storage area that could be removed for more stage area or placed on stage in order to store props for use during the play. In the middle of the stage there was also a trapped
door, this was used for scenes in which characters would come up from hell or to allow ghostly entrances (Gurr 86). Halfway between the front edge and the stage wall stood a column on each side of the stage that supported the second level of the stage. Juliet used the second level in her famous scene in which Romeo is below her. When the upper level was not in use by the actors it could be used as an enclosed in area for sound effects and machinery to allow actors to descend over the stage. The area above the stage was painted with stars, the moon, and the zodiac signs, which is the reason it was called the heavens (95). If someone looked up form the stage, it would look like they were looking into the heavens.
Above the upper levels of the stage there were the huts. These structures looked like miniaturize houses, or huts. The huts were rectangular and partly extended over the stage on each of the four sides there were windows. They had gable roofs that were constructed of hatch; the roof came to a point were a flagpole protruded (Adams 333). At the end of the flagpole flew a flag that had the theatre s symbol on it. The color of the flag that flew on any particular day told the people in London, if a tragedy or comedy were playing at the theatre that day or week. Also like the huts, the roof of the Globe was also constructed out of hatch. This design would cause the Globe to burn in to the ground on 29 of June 1613 during the production of Henry VIII (29). A cannon fired from the house of Cardinal Wolsey released some paper or debris on to the hatch that ignited the roof that spread to the entire building in a matter of minutes due to the wind and lack of ran.
The Globe theatre has been studied since the end of the Elizabethan period. Most of the evidence that has been found has been drawings and personal accounts of the way the Globe appeared. The drawings that show the Globe seem to contradict some of the personal accounts. The textual evidence that a historian would expect to find is not there, like the building designs for the globe none of the scale drawings by the architects have survived. The main source of information that has been found recently is the archeological information that has been found at the site of the original Globe theatre. As time passes this site might give further insight into a past of great playwrights.