The reign of Queen Elizabeth I between 1558-1603, heralded more stable times in a previously divided England. This era is referred to as the Elizabethan Age where peace prevailed and an environment was created where theatre, music and arts were allowed to flourish.
English Renaissance Theatre
Life was difficult for the majority of people in this era and popular entertainment was an important way for them to escape life’s hardships. Before Elizabeth I, most plays were based on religious themes, called morality plays, or miracle plays, which showed scenes from the Bible. It wasn’t until the Elizabethan Age that English playwrights, such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare began to write tragedies and comedies, which they are famous for today, heralding the age of English Renaissance theatre between 1558-1642.
As the watching of plays became increasingly popular, purpose-built theatres were encouraged and they had tiered seating with prices accessible for all ranks of society. One such purpose-built theatre was the world famous Globe Theatre in London, which has been linked with Shakespeare for over 400 years.
The Main Features of an Elizabethan Theatre
- Theatres had no roofs and plays had to be performed in daylight. Even today, The Globe Theatre is exposed to the elements and in the wintertime plays are moved to an indoor setting.
- Flags flying high from the top of theatres were used as a form of Elizabethan advertising. Different colours were used to indicate that a performance was to be staged that day and whether the play was based on history, comedy or tragedy.
- People sat around the stage in tiered galleries, according to their social status. The cheapest place was in front of the stage, where the poorest folk stood. They were known as ‘groundlings’, and referred to as ‘stinkards’ at the peak of summertime.
- There was very little in terms of props or scenery in these playhouses. A character would introduce and describe the scenery to the audience.
- Women were not allowed to perform in theatres. Their roles were played by male actors.
- Long speeches gave the actors a chance to change their costumes.
The Drama of the First Globe Theatre
There was plenty of drama surrounding the building of the first Globe Theatre in London. The work took place between 1597 - 1599 in Southwark on the south bank of London’s River Thames. It was an extremely successful Elizabethan-era playhouse part-owned by William Shakespeare with three-storey seating and capacity to hold a 3000 strong audience.
The original theatre was built by the theatre company Shakespeare was part of, called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and later known as the King’s Men. It was built using timbers recycled from The Theatre in Shoreditch, the first playhouse to put on Shakespeare’s early plays, built by James Burbage, who is attributed to have built the first theatre in England since Roman times.
The story goes that their old landlord, Mr Allen, refused to renew their lease on the land the Theatre stood on, so the theatre company, including William Shakespeare took the building apart whilst he was away for Christmas, and they transported the timbers bit by bit to a location by the RIver Thames and constructed the original Globe Theatre.
Why is It Called The Globe?
By May 1599, the new theatre was ready to open. Richard Burbage, son of James Burbage, named it The Globe after the Greek figure Hercules who is famously depicted carrying the globe on his back. He likened the actors carrying the timbers of The Globe on their backs across the River Thames. The architectural style of the theatre was similar to the Roman Colosseum but on a much smaller scale. All Elizabethan theatres followed this style of architecture called amphitheatres.
Three Globes One Location
Just 14 years after the opening of this hugely successful open air theatre, in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII, the gunpowder from a cannon used in the play tragically landed in the thatched roof of the theatre and burnt it to the ground in less than two hours. No one was hurt, only a man's trousers caught on fire which was imminently put out with beer.
A year later, the second Globe Theatre was built on the same spot but it was soon to be turned into residential dwellings after the Puritans suppressed all stage plays and ordered all London theatres to close in 1642.
In 1997 a third, very careful reconstruction of The Globe Theatre was lovingly built close to the original site in Southwark and it was renamed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It was built using the same materials as the original, English oak and Norfolk reeds for the thatched roof but incorporating modern health and safety measures this time to prevent any fire damage.
Experience of a Lifetime
This year the UK is celebrating the Queen’s Jubilee, her incredible 70-year reign on the throne, and 2022 is promising to be a very special year to visit England. If you are planning to enroll on our popular illuminate Cambridge academic summer program, you will be spoilt for choice with our exciting itinerary.
As part of our two-week summer programme aimed at girls aged 13-17, students will explore a series of lively academic themes devised by our experienced Oxbridge-educated course leaders. Beyond the classroom, a variety of educational and cultural trips will bring learning to life, and one such visit will be to the world famous Globe Theatre in London to reflect upon the power of language as part of our oracy course.