Guide To Shakespeare’s Globe Theater In London

All the world’s a stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London.

If you’re fascinated with playwright William Shakespeare, you’ll likely be fascinated with his namesake Globe Theater in London and want to visit.

It’s a unique theatrical space that’s an epicenter of London history associated with the bard. The reconstructed open air theater is a half-timbered and thatched roof reconstruction of the old theater where Shakespeare acted and directed.

the reconstructed Globe Theater
the reconstructed Globe Theater

It was an Elizabethan style theater in the round, hence the term “globe.” The theater’s debut play was Julius Caesar. Most of Shakespeare’s tragedies were specifically written for the Globe.

This Globe Theater guide gives you a history of Shakespeare, the Globe, and tells you everything to see inside.

Who Was William Shakespeare?

Who art though, William Shakespeare? Friends and countrymen, lend me your ears for the tall tale.

Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, just a short jog from London. He was born to a glove maker, but disliked both his father and the trade.

In 1582, Shakespeare married Ann Hathaway when he was 18 and they had three children. The novel Hamnet would have you think that, perhaps, it was a love match with Shakespeare wearing his heart on his sleeve. Certainly, the pair played fast and loose because Ann was pregnant when they married.

But, not afraid of greatness and with only modest doubt, Shakespeare decided to suffer a sea-change hoping for something rich and strange.

He left his family to try to make a living based on the stuff dreams are made on. He became an actor, playwright, theater manager, and theater owner in London.

the only known contemporaneous portrait of Shakespeare, in London's National Portrait Gallery, 1600-10
the only known contemporaneous portrait of William Shakespeare, in London’s National Portrait Gallery, 1600-10

By 1592, Shakespeare had hit the big time. He did not have greatness thrust upon him. He was simply brilliant and deserved his accolades.

Shakespeare became renowned in his time, leading a charmed life. He’s now considered the greatest dramatist of all time and perhaps the best author in any language.

Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets. He even invented words we still use today.

The bard is still popular because he wrote about timeless themes and what fools these mortals be. His subjects were the guts of life — love, death, revenge, hate, and the royal throne of kings on the sceptered isle.

But every why hath a wherefore. Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life and personality. There are no diaries or memoirs.

Shakespeare mural outside the Globe Theater
Shakespeare mural outside the Globe Theater

Did Shakespeare even write his own plays? That’s been the fraught subject of academic fury, with conspiracy theories cropping up like a twice told tale, vexing the ear of a a drowsy man.

Ardent Stratfordians give a resounding “yes” in answer to the question. But, yet, there are strange bedfellows whose misery begs to disagree.

Thought is free. And so some waspish scholars have gone on a wild goose chase speculating that Shakespeare had from help others or, alack, that others did the deed.

Included on the list of supposed co-authors are such luminaries as Christopher Marlow, Francis Bacon, the Earl Of Oxford, or even a Jewish-Venetian woman named Amelia Bassano.

But proving a single person wrote X play is an elusive task.

Creative workshops were the rule in early modern theater, as in Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance workshops in Florence and Milan. It’s possible that Shakespeare collaborated with other people or rivals on his plays, just as Leonardo did on his paintings.

Most of the authorship theories have been widely dismissed, as pricks that did not poison. And really, what’s in a name? The play’s the thing in the end.

The Globe Theater
The Globe Theater

History of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater

The Globe’s Success

The first Globe Theater opened in 1599. It was owned by and built for actors.

The Globe was built outside the walls of ancient Londinium on the south side of the Thames. Government officials didn’t cotton to the idea of a bawdy playhouse in the center of town.

The Globe’s debut play was Julius Caesar, a play that for my own part was once Greek to me as a youth. The theater originally accommodated 2,200 seated and another 1,000 standing.

Music, the food of love, played during the play and at intermission.

For 14 years, the Globe was a huge success. The theater was referred to as “the glory of the Bank,” bringing the merry man everlasting joy.

stamp printed in Great Britain dedicated to theater reconstruction, 1614
stamp printed in Great Britain dedicated to Globe Theater reconstruction, 1614

Fire & Rebuilding

But, in 1613, it was double double toil and trouble. During a performance of Henry VIII, the thatched roof caught fire in a cauldron bubble and destroyed the building.

The theater vanished into thin air. It was the winter of Shakespeare’s discontent.

But the two fire exits allowed the company time to save its precious scripts and costumes. As night follows day, the theater was rebuilt within a year by a band of brothers with a giant’s strength.

It reopened in June 1614. And the theater had not lost her lustre.

The new Globe Theater had a much larger roof, more noble than the earth. It was tiled instead of thatched, to protect against fire. It was decorated inside in riotous colors, as was the fashion of the day for theaters.

In 1642, the Globe Theater was closed down by the Puritans during the Elizabethan era. The goatish Puritans thought entertainment had little value. They also didn’t like the gamblers, rogues, and prostitutes the theaters attracted.

actors rehearsing in the Globe Theater
actors rehearsing in the Globe Theater

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Thus, the theater was eventually demolished. And the Puritans too, because no evil lost is wailed when it is gone.

The Wanamaker Plan

Enter Sam Wanamaker. He was an American actor-director who though it a form of treason that there was no proper commemorating monument to Shakespeare in London.

All he saw was a blackened sign on a brick wall saying “This is on or around where Shakespeare had his Globe.”

Dauntless and casting all doubt aside, Wanamaker was determined to recreate the Globe Theater. It became his lifelong obsession, dreamt of in his philosophy.

But English miscreants weren’t thrilled with an American intervening. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, they grumbled “off with his head … we have seen better days.”

But ambition is made of sterner stuff and, with money, all ways lie open. It took over 27 years for Wanamaker’s idea to come to fruition.

ceilings in the Globe Theater
ceilings in the Globe Theater

The project survived many a tempest. Methinks it had some wondering whether the new theater was to be or not to be. But Wanamaker taught green-eyed beasts to know their friends.

In the end, their outcry was all sound and fury, signifying nothing and achieving nothing.

As with any decent Shakespearean hero, Wanamaker died before the new theater was completed. While parting is such sweet sorrow, his building continued as he envisioned.

The New Globe Theater

Using Elizabethan building techniques, the architects re-created a 20 sided roofless theater. After an absence of nearly 400 years from London’s theater scene, the Globe Theater rose like a phoenix in 1997.

the recreated Globe Theater

Striving to thine own selves to be true, the architects embraced authenticity. Past is prologue, after all.

They kept the original whitewashed half timber walls, thatched roof crown, lime-plaster walls, and wooden seats. The thatched roof was the first one built since the Great Fire of London in 1666.

In an ode to modernity, it’s treated with fire retardant chemicals. Modern sprinklers also are set into the roof, proving men at some time are masters of their fate.

The Globe reconstruction essentially parallels a new trend in the arts. It’s an attempt to return to the original instruments and ways of staging, so that Shakespeare’s plays may be interpreted afresh.

With the exception, naturally, that women, the very sparkle of the right Promethean fire, now act on stage.

For safety reasons, the Globe now only seats 1,500 people.

replica of the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey
replica of the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey

Does the Globe Theater we see today really look like it did in the 17th century?

What the dickens, that’s a ball of mingled yard too. Along with other enduring Shakespeare controversies — dubbed “Bardalotry” — there’s disagreement about his titular theater.

Much about the original theater remains shrouded in mystery, a smoke made with the fume of sighs. There are no surviving contemporaneous drawings.

The theater was roughly based on drawings of the Rose Theater, a theater that existed at the same time as the Globe. Though the Rose fell on ill fate with the Globe’s success, being shut like a book.

It’s known that Globe was in the shape of a polygon, like the Rose. How many sides in the polygon is a matter of an academic fight to the last gasp.

In the final analysis, preservationists did their best to recreate the drama and atmospherics of Shakespeare’s time. A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.

side seats for the aristocrats
side seats for the aristocrats

Tickets & Tours For The Globe Theater

My dear readers, you can book guided tours of the Globe Theater complex. On a tour, you’ll visit the open air theater, the box office, and the theater.

You can also book a Shakespeare-themed walking tour in London. Or a literary tour that includes the Globe and Charles Dickens House. The Globe is also free with the London Pass.

There are also 45 minute public tours that leave every 30 minutes. They leave from the column with the words “Out Damn Spot” from MacBeth on the first floor.

The storytelling guides vividly recount colorful stories of the Elizabethan playhouse, the London Shakespeare would have known, and the Globe reconstruction process in the 1990s.

On a tour, you’ll see the stage and various viewing areas for different classes of people. However, you can’t walk on the stage or see the dressing rooms.

You may even get lucky and see actors rehearsing their scenes. With the luck of the fair goddess Fortune, I was fortunate to see a fight scene from MacBeth.

hallways in the Globe Theater
hallways in the Globe Theater

Guide To The Globe Theater: What To See

In mine eye’s clear eye, here are the things to see on a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

1. The Stage

There’s a rectangular wooden stage about 44.5 feet by 25 feet. The stage is supported by two pillars. As in the 17th century, they are painted to imitate red marble.

There are three entrances to the stage, with the largest one in the center. Pushing aside the saying that all that glisters is not gold, they went for historically accurate gaudy decorations and riotous color.

The entrances are framed by faux marble columns. On the second level, two gods from the classical world flank the stage. Apollo is stage right and Mercury is stage left.

The stage is stopped with a roof. The underside is painted. The design is taken from text about an Elizabethan theater in 1594.

In the center is a sunburst. It hides the trap door used for special effects. Signs of the zodiac are flanked by the sun and moon.

gentleman's seats with murals
gentleman’s seats with murals

2. Galleries

The theater boxes are on three levels, as were all playhouses back in the day.

The aristocrats’ seats were on the second level to the left and right of the stage. They’re not what we would think of as the best seats in the house. But, back then, people went to “hear” a play.

These seats also had the advantage of avoiding the heat of the sun that fell on seats opposite the stage. Plus, they were the best place for the glitterati to see and be seen.

Seats opposite the stage were for the everyday men and women. There were no bathrooms in the theater. My guide informed us that people would discretely pee in their seats and dump hazelnuts on the floor.

There was no limit on attendees. Everyone crammed in tightly.

There were standing spaces in the back of the gallery called the yard or pit. This was the cheapest part of the theater.

Attendees who stood there were called “groundlings” or sometimes “stinkers.” They are known for being loud, boisterous, and hot tempered. You can still be a groundling at the Globe today.

Wanamaker Playhouse
Wanamaker Playhouse, courtesy playhouse

3. Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Towards the end of his life, Shakespeare wrote plays that seemed intended to be performed indoors, like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.

So Wanamaker wanted both an outdoor theater and an indoor theater in his new complex.

But, as the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune would dictate, there was even less historical information about indoor theaters.

They decided to use plans found among the papers of 17th century architect Indigo Jones.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, though modern, is most often lit by beeswax candles in seven chandeliers and in sconces off the pillars.

William Shakespeare monument in Westminster Abbey
William Shakespeare monument in Westminster Abbey

4. Seeing A Play At The Globe Theater

Seeing a play at the Globe Theater is different in every way from your typical theater experience.

Consistent with the institutional mission, the plays are staged the same way they were in Shakespeare’s day. There are no stage sets, decor, microphones, spotlights, or other flashy pyrotechnics.

Under the “shared light” principle of Elizabethan times, the audience doesn’t sit in darkness. They are illuminated by the same light as the actors, creating a more intimate experience while they watch the players playing many parts.

At the end of the performance, when the jig is up, the actors don’t bow. Rather, in time honored tradition, there is a jig at the end of the gig.

The Globe offers up a true celebration of live performance, perhaps made more real in a time of virtual reality. As a bonus, the Globe’s ticket prices are lower than theaters in the West End.

From April to October, performances are in the Globe Theater. Concerts and plays take place in the Wanamaker Playhouse throughout the year.

Click here to see what’s on, if you want to attend a play.

box office of the Globe Theater
box office of the Globe Theater

Practical Guide & Tips For Visiting Shakespeare’s Globe Theater

Address: 21 New Globe Walk

Hours: The box office is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Hours to visit the theater vary depending on whether there is a performance. So check the website.

Ticket Price:

£ 17.00 for a 45 minute guided tour. You can’t wander around on your own.

You have free admission with the London Pass. But you will have to take your pass to the box office and exchange it for a paper ticket to hand to your guide. Leave a bit of time for this process.

Cafe & Shop: You can get refreshments, snacks, or afternoon tea at the onsite Swan Cafe. The Globe Theater also has a wonderful bookshop stuffed with all sorts of Shakespeare paraphanalia and books.

Swan Cafe
Swan Cafe

Hop On Hop Off: The Globe is a stop on the hop on hop off river boat.

Tube Stations: London Bridge, St. Paul’s, Mansion House

Where To Stay Near The Globe Theater

If you want to stay near the Globe, which is near so many of London’s attractions, you have plenty of choices. The Bankside Hotel Autograph Collection is a luxury hotel less than a half mile from the globe.

Vintry & Mercer is a beautiful hotel just across the Millennium Bridge. Novotel London Bridge a chic spot nearby too.

And thereby hangs a tale. I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to visiting Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. But the game is up and I conclude now because brevity is the soul of wit.

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