History & Facts
The Globe theatre was built in 1599 just outside the London city limits on the Southbank of the river Thames in Southwark, London. The district had a rough reputation, yet the theatre managed to bring people of all classes together.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was constructed with lumber stolen from another theatre after a lease dispute. William Shakespeare was part owner, actor, and playwright for the Globe.
What was it like to see a play at the Shakespeare globe theater? What an exciting treat that would have been! The area was surrounded by market stalls offering food, drink, and merchandise. The place had a bawdy festival like atmosphere.
Commoners and nobles alike arrived early to enjoy the naughty atmosphere. Actors performed short previews outside on the green.
When plays weren’t being performed at the theatre, other shady activities such as bear-baiting, game fighting, and gambling were offered on the site.
The Whole World is a Playhouse
The open air amphitheater held an audience of 1500 while another 1500 could crowd into the courtyard. Inscribed above the main entrance of the theatre were the words: the whole world is a playhouse. There were no bathrooms on site.
The 20-sided structure had an open air central pit which the five foot high stage projected into. Part of the stage and the three-story-tiered seating along the outside edges were protected from the elements under a thatched roof. Entrance fees were dropped into a box and after the plays started the boxes were carried back to an office to be counted, thus the term ‘box office’ originated.
Plays were performed in summer months during daylight hours. There were no backdrops, no lighting, few props and only male actors. Actors had to exaggerate movements and shout lines to be able to be heard. Audiences had to use their imaginations.
The pit held approximately 500 people referred to as groundlings. This was the cheapest part of the theatre with standing room only, no roof, and a ground covered in peanut shells and other garbage. The groundlings entered through a door and dropped a penny admission price into a box. At the time, a penny was equal to about one tenth a day's pay.
The rowdy pit was filled with commoners watching and loudly applauding the plays. Fights often broke out; thievery and prostitution were common in the lowest level. The audience must have loved the plays to endure the crowded, smelly, uncomfortable conditions for up to three hours at a time.
For another penny audience members could enter the first tier of gallery seating. If more comfort was desired and could be afforded, another penny was paid to go into the more exclusive balconies, where one could see and be seen. Often, genteel ladies would wish to see but not to be seen in such a rough place, and would hide their faces behind a mask. Cushions were provided at additional cost. Rich nobles could pay for a seat on the edge of the stage, getting a very up-close and personal view. During breaks in the plays, refreshments were offered for a price.
What was it like to see a play at the Shakespeare globe theater? A day at the Globe Theatre must have been a truly entertaining experience.
Picture Credits: Wikimedia Commons/ Drama Masks: Doodledoo, rebuilt Globe: GaryReggae