Burning of the Globe Theatre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first Elizabethan theater fire occurred when the Globe Theatre, south of London, rapidly burned to the ground during a performance of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s history play, Henry VIII. The firing of a special effects cannon into the thatched roof caused the fire. Within a year, the Globe was rebuilt on the same spot.

Summary of Event

Built in 1599, the Globe Theatre was located in Southwark, south of the Thames River from London proper. The theater was important as the venue for many of William Shakespeare’s Shakespeare, William plays, as well as those of other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights. Theater;England Its design was similar to but larger than that of the Rose Theatre of the same era: Called “the Wooden O,” the Globe was round or polygonal in shape and open in the middle. Wealthier audience members sat in covered seats around the theater’s perimeter, while those who could not afford seats (the so-called groundlings) stood by the stage itself. The roofed portion of the stage was covered in thatch, a material made of dried straw. [kw]Burning of the Globe Theatre (June 29, 1613) [kw]Theatre, Burning of the Globe (June 29, 1613) [kw]Globe Theatre, Burning of the (June 29, 1613) Theater;June 29, 1613: Burning of the Globe Theatre[0640] England;June 29, 1613: Burning of the Globe Theatre[0640] Globe Theatre, burning of Theater;England

It was in this straw that the fire started. Burning wadding, the packing material used in loading munitions, was fired from a sound effects cannon, caught by the wind, and blown into the ceiling, igniting the very flammable thatch. The cannon was employed during a production of Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Fletcher, John collaborative play Henry VIII (pr. 1613), probably to signal the appearance of the King in act 1 at Cardinal Wolsey’s house. The catastrophe took place on the third day of the play’s performance by the King’s Men theatrical company under its original title, All Is True. Within an hour or so, the entire theater had burned to the ground. This was the first London theater fire in the time of Shakespeare; it would not be the last.

Fortunately, there were no fatalities from the incident and perhaps only a few injuries. Several eyewitness accounts tell the tale. One, a letter from diplomat Sir Henry Wooten Wooten, Sir Henry to his nephew Sir Edmund Bacon, reported that a male audience member’s breeches caught fire, only to be put out by some ale. Another witnessed some burns on a man who returned to pull a child out of the blaze. An anonymous broadside ballad, written within a day of the fire, tells of Richard Burbage, Burbage, Richard actor and co-owner of the theater, running out of the burning building and of the grief of actor John Heminges Heminges, John .

Reports differ concerning how much property was lost in the fire. Besides damage to the wood and thatch structure itself, Wooten’s letter mentions only coats burning. Some historians have speculated that the King’s Men’s costumes and promptbooks were presumably saved, but other historians claim playbooks and other properties were lost. Shakespeare’s manuscripts, however, were certainly safely stored elsewhere.

This reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, based on what is known of its design, shows several features of the theater that influenced the plays written to be performed within it. The upper stage was the setting for the balcony scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the recessed “discovery space” at the back was used in such plays as his The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.

(Folger Shakespeare Library)

The destruction of the first Globe Theatre, which had been so closely associated with Shakespeare’s drama, coincided with his departure from the world of playwriting. Shakespeare had, in fact, been one of the shareholders who financed the construction of the original Globe Theatre, together with the heirs of James Burbage, Burbage, James his sons Cuthbert Burbage, Cuthbert and Richard, and four other actors. The elder Burbage had owned The Theatre, the first building in England erected specifically to house dramatic productions, and the original Globe had been built from the timbers of The Theatre after Burbage’s death. The Globe was home to Shakespeare’s acting company, known first as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men Lord Chamberlain’s Men while Elizabeth I was ruler and then as the King’s Men King’s Men[Kings Men] under James I.

The Globe Theatre was not to disappear from the London scene. The land lease for the first Globe stipulated that a new theater would have to be constructed within a year. The shareholders were concerned that rebuilding might not be financially rewarding, however, as there were only fifteen years left on the original land lease. They worked with the landholder, Sir Matthew Brend, Brend, Sir Matthew to extend the lease for another fifteen years, on the condition that they spend at least £1,000 to rebuild the Globe; the original Globe had cost only £700. The leasees claimed to invest £1,400 to £1,500 of their own money in the new theater, although Brend alleged later in a lawsuit, initiated because he wanted to revoke the lease to earn more money from the property, that they had spent only £500.

The second Globe was built on the foundations of the first in the spring of 1614; the construction must have been rapid, as it was open that same summer. Philip Henslowe, Henslowe, Philip a rival theater investor, tried to build his nearby Hope Theatre at the same time to capture the Globe’s lost market. There is some speculation that the second Globe was somewhat larger and more elaborate than the first, but just how similar it was to the original Globe is unknown. A 1634 Southwark survey reported the theater to be built of timber, as the first one had been, upon an old foundation. Some of the wood may have been reclaimed from the original Globe; the rest was probably imported fir.

One important change in the Globe’s construction was in the roofing material: Costlier but more fire-resistant tiles replaced the thatch of the original roof. This change was advisable, but it was no guarantee of safety. Another London public playhouse, the Fortune Theatre, located near the Globe, burned down on December 9, 1621. Unfortunately, its tiled roof did not save it.

The burning of the Globe was not the first time that the theater had to be closed down, nor would it be the last. From time to time, whenever a plague spread through the city of London causing at least thirty deaths, all the theaters were closed until the danger was past; plague had closed the theater for an entire year starting in late summer of 1608. After the second Globe was finished in June of 1614, it was used for twenty-eight years, until the English Civil Wars and the beginning of the Puritan Commonwealth. The Puritans viewed stage plays as sinful, and the Puritan Parliament officially closed all the theaters in London in 1642. The Globe was demolished in 1644.

Significance

The burning of the first Globe Theatre may have led to Shakespeare’s retirement, as he wrote no more plays following its destruction. Whether it was coincidental with his decision to leave the theater or not, biographers of Shakespeare comment on the irony of the blaze that brought his career to an end.

With the Globe’s brief closure, the private Blackfriars Theatre Blackfriars Theatre , built by James Burbage, which was a more intimate, enclosed venue, increased in popularity and was used by such early seventeenth century playwrights as John Webster. At Blackfriars, plays could be performed at night in an interior lit by torches and candles, allowing a darker setting for the Jacobean dark tragedies of the era than was possible in the daylight open-air setting of the Globe. Despite the precariousness of open flames used to illuminate the Blackfriars, surprisingly, it never burned. However, there is evidence that the second Globe continued to be a popular venue as well following its reconstruction. It was used for the summer theater season and the Blackfriars for the rest of the year.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, John Cranford. The Globe Playhouse: Its Design and Equipment. 2d ed. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961. Brief discussion of the fire includes eyewitness accounts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bate, Jonathan, and Russell Jackson, eds. Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A good guide to original staging; contains a concise but thorough overview of the 1613 fire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berry, Herbert. “Playhouses.” In A Companion to Renaissance Drama, edited by Arthur F. Kinney. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. This comprehensive volume includes essays by numerous scholars on staging, context, playwrights, and genres. Berry’s chapter provides good information on the rebuilding and use of the Second Globe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berry, Herbert. Shakespeare’s Playhouses. New York: AMS Press, 1987. Using early seventeenth century primary documents, Berry uncovers a lawsuit about the rebuilding of the burned Globe. His chapter on the lawsuit provides information on the land lease, rebuilding expenses, landowner, and investors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. An excellent, thoroughly researched resource for background to Shakespeare’s productions, this contains information on the Globe fire and all the playhouses, including the Second Globe. Includes reprints of primary documents about the fire and the theater rebuilding.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gurr, Andrew, and John Orrell. Rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989. Discusses the construction of the present-day Globe Theatre in London but includes extensive backgrounds on the first and second Globe Theatres, including information on the fire, as well as early and contemporary illustrations of the theaters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knutson, Roslyn Lander. The Repertory of Shakespeare’s Company, 1594-1613. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991. Coverage of the Globe fire conjectures that the event caused a significant loss of King’s Men properties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare: For All Time. London: Macmillan, 2002. Briefly discusses the fire and its impact on Shakespeare, and contains three stanzas of the 1613 ballad written to commemorate the event.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Richard Burbage; Oliver Cromwell; John Fletcher; James I; John Webster. Globe Theatre, burning of Theater;England

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