The construction of the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the river Thames in 1599 was an act of desperation on the part of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was also one of the best things they ever did.
A perfect storm of financial difficulties, an irascible landlord and a new and not entirely helpful patron created the conditions which led to the building of one of the most famous theatres in the history of drama.
The Theatre: the Nursery of English Drama
The Chamberlain’s Men were, along with the Admiral’s Men, one of the two most prominent companies of players in London. Formed in 1594 under the patronage of Sir Henry Carey, the Lord Chamberlain, they performed both at court and at the aptly named Theatre in Shoreditch, the oldest purpose-built theatre in the city.
The Theatre was the brainchild of James Burbage, carpenter-turned-actor, who leased the site in the grounds of the former Holywell Priory from landowner Giles Allen in 1576. Shoreditch was outside the jurisdiction of the puritanically inclined authorities of the City of London who strongly disapproved of the rough and tumble world of the theatre.
By 1594, the Shoreditch playhouse had become home to the Chamberlain’s Men, a company which boasted the star tragedian of the day, Richard Burbage; the theatre world’s most famous clown, Will Kemp; and that literary sensation, William Shakespeare.
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The company’s long-term plans centred on being able to perform year-round, in the open air surroundings of the Theatre in the summer, and a covered, more upmarket and better paying structure during the winter. To that end, in 1596, Burbage bought the freehold of the dorter, a large hall that had been the dormitory of the Dominican friars at the former Blackfriars Priory, for the substantial sum of £600.
It was at this point that things started to go wrong for the Chamberlain’s Men.
Challenges and Difficulties
Blackfriars retained its religious status as a Liberty, which put it outside the jurisdiction of the City Fathers. However, it was also a wealthy, upscale district, and the thought of a theatre in the area prompted some alarm amongst the residents, who petitioned the Privy Council to ban the project.
On the death of his father in July 1596, George Carey, the second Baron Hunsdon, took over the patronage of the company, which now became known, albeit briefly, as Lord Hunsdon’s Men. There were limitations to his patronage, however. As a resident of Blackfriars, Hunsdon signed his name to the petition to ban the use of the building as a theatre.
James Burbage died shortly afterwards, leaving his sons Richard and Cuthbert with the ultimately fruitless task of negotiating the renewal of the lease of the Theatre with Giles Allen. With the bulk of their capital tied up in the Blackfriars theatre, the company lived precariously, renting temporary space at the Curtain Theatre, also in Shoreditch. Without a permanent playing space, the Chamberlain’s Men were in a vulnerable position.
The Chamberlain’s Men Take A Gamble
This was when the Burbage brothers decided the situation called for desperate measures. They rented land in Southwark not far from the Rose Theatre, securing a 31-year lease from landowner Sir Nicholas Brend.
They then approached five other members of the company – William Shakespeare, John Heminges, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope and Will Kemp – with an unprecedented offer.
The Burbages would secure the building material for a new playhouse, if the five sharers would each cover ten percent of the remaining costs along with the expenses of running the theatre. Shakespeare and his colleagues would be both shareholders in the company and owners of the theatre in which they performed.
Taking the Theatre: Legal or Not
So it was, on the bitterly cold evening of 28 December 1598, that a group of around a dozen armed men, among them Richard Burbage and carpenter Peter Street, gathered in Shoreditch and made their way to the site of the Theatre.
The structure had lain empty for the past two years. Their plan was to dismantle the building and use the timbers to build their new theatre. The canny James Burbage had inserted a clause into the contract which stated that while Giles Allen owned the land, Burbage owned the theatre he built on it. Which meant that the Burbage brothers were simply taking what was theirs.
The legality of this was dubious, considering that the lease had expired, but they didn’t let that stop them. They had a narrow window in which to dismantle the Theatre, as the company had performed before the Queen at Whitehall Palace on 26 December, and were due again at court on New Year’s Day. It was now or never.
The Contract with Giles Allen
There have been a number of theories put forward as to why Giles Allen was being so difficult, prime among them that he was a Puritan who disapproved of the theatre. But that doesn’t explain why he leased the land to Burbage in the first place, nor the clause in the contract which stated he would have free access to the theatre for performances.
Another clause in the contract offers a clue. It allowed Burbage to renew the lease for another 21 years if he spent the sum of £200 on the upkeep of the other buildings on the site by the end of the first ten years of the lease. The Grand Barn, for instance, was in a particularly dilapidated state and requiring shoring up against the wall of the theatre.
Two hundred pounds was a lot of money, and Burbage evidently failed to spend such a sum on the other buildings in the time allotted.
The timbers went to Peter Street’s warehouse for storage, before Street and Burbage arranged for their passage across the river the following spring.
The Globe Rises on Bankside
Bankside, the area closest to the river in the area of Southwark, was a free-wheeling, rough and ready kind of place. As the home to a variety of disreputable entertainment venues, including brothels, gambling dens, bear-baiting arenas and now theatres, it was the red-light district of its day, a cross between London’s West End and Soho at its most notorious. Bankside was where Elizabethan Londoners went to take a walk on the wild side.
As the weather eased, work began on the foundations, and the new theatre began to rise in May. A twenty-sided polygon, it was larger than the nearby Rose Theatre, which suffered in comparison. The Rose’s owner, Philip Henslowe, rose to the challenge by hiring Peter Street to build a new theatre, The Fortune, in Shoreditch, the contract for which still survives. Elements of the new theatre were to be “done according to the manner and fashion of the said house called the Globe.”
The Globe was not a carbon copy of The Theatre. The actors and writers, Shakespeare among them, had experience of multiple playing spaces and could therefore customize many of the details to suit their requirements. For one thing, they agreed the stage would be entirely in afternoon shadow.
The Legacy of the Globe
Julius Caesar was one of the earliest, if not the first, plays to grace the Globe stage. A change of environment and a splendid new theatre appear to have inspired Shakespeare to ever greater heights. In addition to Julius Caesar, he would write As You Like It and Hamlet in his first year at the new theatre.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men would have a successful life at the new Globe Theatre. So successful were they that when it burnt down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII, they had no difficulty in paying for its rebuilding on a grander scale.
Yet even they could not have imagined that the third theatre to bear the name The Globe, built just a few metres from the original, would see that success last into the twenty-first century.