The Globe Theatre

I like to say that Shakespeare is
Hollywood’s most successful screenwriter and after several Hamlets, Ten Things I
Hate About You, and Shakespeare In Love, a lot of people would agree. Hello, I’m
Professor Melissa Aaron from California State Polytechnic University at Pomona,
and today I’d like to talk to you about Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. You can
perform Shakespeare in almost any kind of theater; a regular proscenium arch
theater, a theater in the round, a black box theater, in the open air and even in
the street. Shakespeare plays have been set in the past, in the present, in the
future, and on the moon. But the plays were written in a specific time and place, to be presented in a certain kind of theatre. To understand that theatre, the
Globe is to understand the tools Shakespeare was working with, how the
plays might have been presented, and how to understand them better. So let me give
you a guided tour of Shakespeare’s Globe. First, theatres aren’t just built and
then filled by actors. Actors or producers put on plays in any available
building, and when they can afford to, they build a theatre to fit their needs.
So I want you to imagine that you’re an actor in the 1550s, before the first
English public theaters were built. If you were an actor, you would be wandering
from town to town, putting on shows wherever you could. One place you would
most likely put on a show would be a lord’s hall, which the smaller indoor
theaters were modeled on. The Blackfriars was an example of one of these smaller
indoor theaters, and it was much smaller. It had seating and it used candles to
make up for the lack of daylight. Let’s leave aside the lord’s hall for the
moment, and look at another popular place to present plays, and that
would be the inn-yard. Why was an inn-yard such a great place to
do a show? An inn is a terrific place for a show because of the crowds. It
attracts the cooperation of the landlord, the easy availability of snacks
and refreshments, and most importantly, the ability to make sure your audience
paid up. Innkeepers loved for players to do shows, and at a time when actors
weren’t popular with everybody, that was important. They attracted big crowds who
would buy a lot of beer, and it was the perfect shape. It was usually a big open
circle or square with the yard in the middle and the building running all
around, up maybe two or three stories. The actors only had to drive their cart
right in, roll some barrels together, put some boards over the
barrels and hang a cloth behind for the stage to dress behind, and they were in
business. And they could station someone at the entrance to make sure that
everybody coming in paid. So when theater became popular in London and people
began building the first purpose-built theaters like The Theatre in 1576, actors
thought back to what they were used to: an open round or square building with two or
three stories so people could sit up high, protected from the weather, a
big open yard, places for money gatherers to collect admissions, a high stage, about
barrel height– five feet up– with a wooden plank floor, a place in back for props to
be hidden and for actors to dress, and what you wind up with is something that
looks very much like the Globe. Of course, that’s only the basic outlines. It didn’t
take long for actors to import useful technology and embellishments from other
sources. From the medieval mystery and morality plays, they developed the
concept of the spaces underneath and above the stage.
In medieval plays these were known as “hell” and the “heavens”. Devils popped up
from under the stage and angels were lowered from above, and the Renaissance
theater kept the idea; so when the ghost of Hamlet’s father disappears,
Hamlet refers to his presence under the stage: “Do you hear this fellow in the
cellarage?” Shakespeare also had gods lowered from above, even
late plays like Cymbeline. The winch and rope used for the lowering made a
creaking sound, and since other playwrights like Ben Jonson thought the
technique was old-fashioned, this is probably where we get our term “a creaky
device.” Flying high above the theater was a flag with the theater’s device. Some
people think there were different colored flags depending on whether the
play to be performed was a tragedy, a history, or a comedy. The device usually
symbolized the theater. The flag for the Globe showed Atlas holding up the world–
or the Globe. Underneath the sign outside with the same device, there was written
“totus mundus agit histrionem,” Latin for “all the world plays the player,” or as
Jaques says in As You Like It, “all the world’s a stage.” Holding up the heavens
and a small roof over the stage were two big pillars made of oak. This is so
unlike a modern theater that if it weren’t for a small drawing made by a
Dutch tourist for the folks back home, scholars would probably never have
guessed that such a thing existed. The two pillars shown look as though they
would be in the way. Actually, they were very useful. They held up the roof: vital
for protecting expensive costumes in the days before dry-cleaning.They acted as a
sounding board to help project the actors’ voices, and they probably stood
for trees, walls, and whatever else was needed for the plot. Before they had a
permanent theatre, actors probably had to make do with a makeshift space behind
some curtains to dress and wait for cues. Now that they had their own building,
this base developed into the elaborate tiring house. It had two doors both in
the back of the stage with a curtained space in between; two or three levels
including a balcony and elaborate decoration. It’s easy to see that
Shakespeare had this kind of space in mind when he wrote his plays. Romeo
and Juliet wouldn’t be Romeo and Juliet without the balcony scene, and the
curtained space behind the stage is perfect for Polonius to hide behind
and for Hamlet to stab him through. It’s easy to assume that the early modern
theater was quaint and old-fashioned and that they didn’t make much use of
technology, but that wouldn’t be correct. There were all sorts of special devices
and effects built into the theater itself and added by clever technicians.
in the stage itself were several trapdoors. Actors dressed as Devils
popped up, actors going to hell or caught in some fiendish plot suddenly dropped
down, a big double trapdoor could be left open for a grave: and in Hamlet the grave
trap is very busy. Grave diggers make it bigger, skulls are tossed up out of it, Ophelia’s body is lowered into it, and finally Hamlet and Laertes have a
wrestling match in it. As you can see here, back behind the tiring house
curtains, waited the bookkeeper, who kept track of the play as it progressed, and
several hired men. By them were stacked the tools of the trade: firecrackers,
sound-making devices daggers, swords and other death-dealing instruments, various
props, like crowns and lion skins and– of course–staged blood and guts, as
realistic looking as possible .On a slightly nicer note, musicians were
stationed up in the balcony. Up above the heavens, some more hired men waited,
mostly to produce sound effects. They rolled cannonballs down long wooden
troughs to simulate thunder, and also shot off cannon: either above the stage
or in back of the theatre when the script called for it. In 1613 the owners
of the globe had reason to be sorry for this particular device. Some wadding from
the cannon lodged in the roof, set fire to the thatch, and burnt the theater to
the ground. When they rebuilt it, they remembered to put a tile roof on instead:
more expensive, but fireproof. When people interested in reconstructing the globe
first began to imagine the building, they decided it must have been white and
brown like the outside of so many buildings of the time. They forgot about
the descriptions people had actually written. No one wants to sit in a boring
looking theater then or now, and Elizabethan and Jacobean theaters
actually had wild paint jobs. The inside glittered
with reds and blues, and even gold. Sometimes they painted the wood to look
just like marble, so realistic that some play goers had to get right up next to
it before they realized it was only wood. The curtain behind the stage was
elaborately embroidered and all sorts of figures–nymphs and satyrs–were carved
into the wood. On the underside of the stage roof, there was a painted sky with
the sun, the moon and the zodiac. It was divided up into squares by gold and
borders forming a sort of checkerboard, as many ceilings and Renaissance palaces
and churches were. So when Hamlet refers to the heavens,
he calls it “that most excellent canopy, fretted with golden fire” and the audience
can see that he’s referring to the stage roof. And when Petruchio and Kate argue
about whether or not it’s the sun or the moon that is shining, the audience can
see that it’s daytime, but on stage both the sun and the moon are out. They could
both be right. There’s so much to say about the theater of Shakespeare’s time.
So many books have been written about it, and there’s still so much we don’t know.
If you want to know more, you might like to look at the notes, suggested readings,
and web links attached to this page, but at the very least, hopefully you have a
better image of the theatre Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked in:
spare but colorful; an actor’s theatre; an acoustic marvel: and the perfect
instrument for Shakespeare’s plays. I’m Professor Melissa Aaron. Thank you for
joining me today, and thank you for your interest in Shakespeare’s Globe.

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