The Globe Theatre Is Built

The building of the Globe Theatre marks the flowering of the Elizabethan amphitheater, a design first established and perfected in 1576 by a London-area playhouse, The Theatre. The Globe gave William Shakespeare an apt and secure home for his mature work, launching an extraordinary period in English literature.

Summary of Event

In 1599, London was at the center of a long period of expansion. Its population had doubled in the previous fifty years and had continued to grow. By 1650, London would be the largest city in the world. This confident, prosperous capital was hungry for news and entertainment. Every day, several thousand people crossed the Thames to the liberty of Bankside. Located just outside the city limits, Bankside was free to host the more scandalous forms of entertainment. The area was packed with brothels, animal-baiting pits, and theaters. Audiences from all social classes crowded through the noise and dirt to hear the latest plays. With the arrival of the Globe Theatre, Bankside offered Londoners the best drama in the world, drama that served also as a kind of theater for reportage, in which the plays presented and discussed news of the day. With a fresh play opening on Bankside almost daily, there was always something that spoke to the moment. Globe Theatre
Theater, English
Burbage, James
Burbage, Cuthbert
Burbage, Richard
Shakespeare, William
Burbage, James
Shakespeare, William
Henslowe, Philip
Langley, Francis
Burbage, Cuthbert
Burbage, Richard
Heminge, John
Kemp, William
Phillips, Augustine
Pope, Thomas

The Globe Theatre in a detail from Claes Jansz Visscher’s panoramic view of London, Londinum Florentisima Britanniae Urbs (c. 1625).

(The Folger Shakespeare Library)

In 1594, James Burbage brought the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Lord Chamberlain’s Men[Lord Chamberlains Men] an acting company that included William Shakespeare, to The Theatre, Theatre, The (London playhouse) which was built in 1576. The company’s landlord, Giles Allen, refused to extend their lease beyond April of 1597. Meanwhile, Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre Rose Theatre (established in 1587) and Francis Langley’s Swan Theatre Swan Theatre (established in 1595) brought London’s theater district to Bankside. In 1596, Burbage purchased a hall in Blackfriars, planning a more exclusive theater, but local residents refused permission. James died in February, 1597, and for two years following, his sons, Cuthbert and Richard Burbage, negotiated with Allen for a new lease. They rented other theaters to survive and were in need of a solution to the lease problem.

In December of 1598, after Allen’s final refusal, the Burbages took decisive action. First, the brothers agreed on an unprecedented step: Five members of the company could become part owners of their new theater. John Heminge, William Kemp, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope, and William Shakespeare would each buy a 10 percent share. Sure of their finances, the Burbages secured a plot in Bankside from Sir Nicholas Brend at a good price. The lease would be signed February 21, 1599, with the partnership agreement, but the company took possession on Christmas Day, 1598.

Three days after Christmas came the second, and most striking, part of the plan. Hiring the master carpenter Peter Street, and with the aid of about ten others, the Burbages trespassed onto Giles Allen’s Shoreditch estate, broke out the main timbers of The Theatre, and transported them across the Thames River to their new site. Here, Street reassembled the precisely cut, interlocking beams of The Theatre to form a playhouse skeleton. It would have been several months into the New Year, 1599, before the Globe was finally furnished and completed around this framework. On May 16, the structure was referred to as de novo edificata, literally “newly built.”

The name chosen for the rebuilt playhouse showed a company intent on offering astonishment and wonder. The term globe was relatively new in 1599, in currency since about 1550 and given force with Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580. The term reflected the outward-looking ambition of the age, and it promised, in the form of a new theater, to bring the entire, expanded world of the late Renaissance before an audience. The motto for the theater’s flag was totus mundus agit histrionem, or “everybody acts.” The theater wanted to reflect human life in its entirety, both in content and in form, and the Globe was no exception; it reflected a true microcosm of the world. William Shakespeare would make good on both claims, exploring the full intensity of human experience and conjuring up exotic locations from Venice to Troy.

The exact floor plan of the Globe is not known, but it resembled its rivals structurally. A lime-plastered wall, perhaps 80 to 100 feet in width, with three levels of galleries, encircled a yard open to the sky. Into the yard projected a platform stage both deep and broad. Two doors opened onto the stage from the actors’ tiring house, set into the gallery wall; a shallow discovery space was available between them. An upper stage ran over the doors for scenes held “above”—as on the battlements of a castle, for example. A “hell” trapdoor in the main stage allowed for entrances from the depths, or supplied a grave for Ophelia. A painted roof, or “heavens,” spangled with stars and signs of the zodiac, was supported on two mighty columns that rose from the stage, and it protected valuable costumes from the rain. A penny bought only standing room in the exposed yard. More well-to-do customers paid to sit in the galleries. Lords could buy special rooms nearest the stage, or they could occupy the upper stage if it was not in use.

The Globe was Bankside’s new theater. Richly painted and more splendid than either the Rose or the Swan, it was nonetheless a spare theatrical machine, with a roof of thatch. The years since James Burbage built The Theatre in 1576 had brought refinements, yet the Globe was still built around the same basic plan. Recent gimmicks, including a mechanical throne for the descent of gods, were eschewed. The design relied on the skill of poet and player to bring the theater’s empty space alive, and the poet and player would prove astonishingly apt to the task.

Although Shakespeare’s genius was independent of the Globe, the space did give him remarkable freedom to study and reflect, and it did provide stability. Here, he reached further than anyone before or since. The reverberation of his words against the wood and plaster transformed the Globe into a great symbol of the universe and humanity’s condition within it. On September 21, 1599, at about two in the afternoon, Thomas Platter recorded that he and his friends went across the Thames to this house with the thatched roof. They saw Julius Caesar aptly performed. The next year it would be Hamlet, and humankind would have a new self-image. From 1599 until 1613, the Globe would hear all of Shakespeare’s finest plays, including Macbeth and King Lear.


The Globe was not the first theater of its kind. Rather, it marks a tradition at maturity: the frame of the first Elizabethan amphitheater refitted in line with twenty years of experience. The unique financial arrangement—players sharing ownership of the theater—gave the company creative control, brought much-needed stability, and focused the talent. Though built on the cheap and in a hurry, the Globe was made to order for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later to become the King’s Men King’s Men[Kings Men] , and was delivered into their hands.

The Globe’s layout had no legacy until attempts at reconstruction began in the 1790’. Puritans closed the theaters in 1642, marking the effective end of the particular design and leaving its details in mystery, but for its life span the Globe proved vital. It could accommodate all social levels and up to three thousand people. It became London’s political forum, the place where controversial views could be argued in play. Under the afternoon sun, citizens shared common pleasures and anxieties and emerged perhaps a little more human. Although not their first choice of venue, the company nonetheless was won over by the theater’s success. The amphitheater’s human scale bred a new kind of drama. When the Globe burned to the ground in 1613, a victim of its cheap thatch, it was rebuilt more magnificently than before, and with a tiled roof.

Further Reading

  • Gurr, Andrew. Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Comprehensive survey of the Globe’s and other theaters’ audiences of the period. Appendix lists references to playgoing from the period.
  • Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642. 3d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Excellent overview of the theater, placing it in context.
  • Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. London: Penguin, 2001. Primarily a study of Shakespeare’s plays, but Kermode stresses Shakespeare’s move to the Globe as a watershed in his writing.
  • Mulryne, J. R., and M. Shewring, eds. Shakespeare’s Globe Rebuilt. Cambridge, England: Mulryne & Shewring, 1997. Collection of essays on London’s reconstruction of the Globe. Thorough discussions of likely decorative schemes and construction techniques used for the original.
  • Thomson, Peter. Shakespeare’s Theatre. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 1992. Speculative in places but full of suggestive details. Also provides a broad picture of the Globe and its players. A good starting point.

1576: James Burbage Builds The Theatre

c. 1589-1613: Shakespeare Writes His Dramas