5 facts about Shakespeare’s Globe theatre

How much do you know about the first Globe theatre in London, where most of William Shakespeare’s played debuted before it burned down in a fire in 1613? Here, Andrew Dickson shares five Globe theatre facts…

First built in 1576, the Globe theatre burnt to the ground in 1613. During a performance of the play now known as 'Henry VIII', a set of stage cannons were fired and a piece of flaming material from one of the cannons landed on the theatre’s thatched roof, causing the fire. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
  • The Bankside Globe first opened in the summer of 1599, probably with Julius Caesar and Henry V. Renowned though it became, it was actually not a new building – part of it was erected using recycled timbers from the Theatre in Shoreditch, Shakespeare’s first playhouse.
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A panorama of 16th-century London, showing Southwark and the Globe theatre. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
A panorama of 16th-century London, showing Southwark and the Globe theatre. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
  • The story of the Globe’s building is worthy of a drama in its own right: having fallen out with their landlord, who was attempting to repossess the Theatre, Shakespeare’s acting company the King’s Men armed themselves with cudgels and daggers, broke into the site over Christmas 1598 and dismantled it in secret, carrying the largest timbers across the Thames to Bankside to make their new home.
Portrait of William Shakespeare from the title page of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays; copper engraving by Martin Droeshout, 1623. One of the earliest portraits of Shakespeare. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
  • Heated controversy surrounds the Globe’s precise form, but most scholars agree that it was around 30m wide, in a roughly hexagonal shape, surrounding an open yard 25m across, where “groundlings” stood, and with a stage 12m wide.
  • Legend has it that the Globe’s motto was totus mundus agit histrionem, paraphrased in As You Like It (first performed in 1599) as “all the world’s a stage.” Alas, there is no evidence – but Shakespeare does sneak in other references to the Globe. Henry V (1599) describes “this wooden O”, while in The Tempest (1611) the magus Prospero refers to “the great globe itself”.
An artist's reconstruction of a 16th-century playhouse in the time of Elizabeth I. Most scholars agree that the Globe was hexagonal in shape. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
An artist’s reconstruction of a 16th-century playhouse in the time of Elizabeth I. Most scholars agree that the Globe was hexagonal in shape. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
  • Having opened in 1614, the rebuilt Globe put in impressive service – it was still in operation in 1642, when it was closed by Cromwell’s puritans. Two years later, it was finally demolished to make room for tenement buildings, seemingly in 1644

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Andrew Dickson is a broadcaster and author. His books include The Globe Guide to Shakespeare (2016) and Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe (2015).