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The Globe Theatre
An Overview
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Table of Contents

Original Globe Theatre      Second Globe      Location      Builders      Owners      Featured Authors      Actors      Acting Company
Stunts      Sets: Effect on Writing      Special Effects      Music and Dancing      Costumes      Acoustics      Memorizing Lines      Audiences
Globe Motto      Box Office and Marquee      London Theatres: 1576-1614      Opposition to Theatres      Censorship      Theatre Season

.. By Michael J. Cummings © 2003, 2011

Description of the Original Globe (1599)
The original Globe Theatre was a wood-framed building with plastered outside walls joining at angles to form a circle or an oval. The interior resembled that of a modern opera house, with three galleries protected from rain and sunlight by a roof. Between 2,000 and 3,000 playgoers paid two or more pennies to sit in these galleries, depositing them in a box. The stage was raised four to six feet from ground level and had a roof supported by pillars. In front of the stage was a roofless yard for up to 1,000 "groundlings" or "stinklings," who paid a "gatherer" a penny to stand through a performance under a hot sun or threatening clouds. Playgoers could also sit on the stage if their wallets were fat enough to pay the exorbitant price. It is unlikely that the uneducated groundlings who huddled in the yard understood the difficult passages in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare himself belittled them in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, calling them (through lines spoken by Hamlet) incapable of comprehending anything more than dumbshows [pantomimes]. But because the groundlings liked the glamour and glitter of a play, they regularly attended performances at the Globe. When bored, they could buy food and drink from roving peddlers, exchange the news of the day, and boo and hiss the actors. 

There was no curtain that opened or closed at the beginning or end of plays. At the back of the stage, there was probably a wall with two or three doors leading to the dressing rooms of the actors. These rooms collectively were known as the "tiring house." To tire means to dress—that is, to attire oneself. Sometimes, the wall of the tiring house could stand as the wall of a fortress under siege. Props and backdrops were few. Sometimes a prop used for only one scene remained onstage for other scenes because it was too heavy or too awkward to remove. Peter Street was the carpenter/contractor hired to construct the Globe. The main rival of the Globe in the first years of  the 17th Century was the Fortune Theatre, constructed in 1600 (also by Peter Street).

In Shakespeare's time, males played all the characters, even Juliet, Cleopatra and Ophelia. Actors playing gods, ghosts, demons and other supernatural characters could pop up from the underworld through a trap door on the stage or descend to earth from heaven on a winch line from the ceiling. Off the stage, the ripple of a sheet of metal could create thunder. Stagehands set off fireworks to create omens, meteors, comets, or the wrath of the Almighty. Instruments such as oboes and cornets sometimes provided music. If an actor suffered a fencing wound, he simply slapped his hand against the pouch (perhaps a pig's bladder) beneath his shirt to release ripe red blood signaling his demise. 

The gallery had a thatched roof. (Thatch consists of straw or dried stalks of plants such as reeds.) During a performance of Henry VIII on June 29, 1613, the Globe Theatre burned down after booming canon fire announcing the entrance of King Henry at Cardinal Wolsey's palace ignited the roof. 

Second Globe

Although the second Globe had a non-flammable tile roof, it was torn down in 1644 after a fire of another sort, Puritan zeal, closed all theatres. Puritans were strict Protestants who favored strait-laced living and opposed theatre performances. After the Globe was razed, tenements replaced it. Between September 2 and 5, 1666, the Great Fire of London—which destroyed more than 13,000 dwellings and more than 80 churches—consumed the foundations and whatever else was left of the Globe. Not a stick of wood from it was left. Modern recreations of the first and second Globe theatres are based on 17th Century descriptions and drawings. No one knows the exact dimensions or appearance of the second Globe or its predecessor. Globe Theatre recreations are based on educated guesses and on a surviving drawing of a rival theatre.
Location: Wrong Side of the Thames

The Globe was built west of London Bridge on the south bank of the Thames River in an area known as Bankside. It was the seedy section of town, frequented by prostitutes, pickpockets and other unsavory people. Not far from the Globe were "bear gardens," where Londoners attended entertainments in which a bear chained by the neck or a leg was attacked by dogs, including mastiffs. The sport was known as bearbaiting. More than two decades before the first Globe Theatre was built, Queen Elizabeth herself attended an entertainment involving thirteen bears. Bankside residents also enjoyed bullbaiting. In this entertainment, a bull’s nose was primed with pepper to excite it. Dogs were then loosed one at a time to bite the bull’s nose. 


Richard Burbage and his brother, Cuthbert, inherited a playhouse called "The Theatre" from their father, James. The Theatre, which opened in 1576, stood in the Shoreditch section of London. It resembled a miniature U.S. baseball park in that it had a circular seating area surrounding an open area. Unlike a baseball park, however, the open area had a stage. In front of the stage was a yard in which playgoers unable to afford seating could stand. 

When the owner of the land on which The Theatre stood threatened to demolish the building after the lease expired, Richard and Cuthbert dismantled the playhouse and reassembled it, timber by timber, on the south bank of the Thames in a district where two other theatres, the Rose and the Swan, were already competing for the coins of London playgoers. The reconstruction was completed in 1599.
Richard Burbage was an actor in a company called The Lord Chamberlain's Men, which Shakespeare had joined in 1594. (The name of this company changed several times.) Burbage was the first actor in history to play Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Romeo, Henry V and Richard III. Cuthbert Burbage did not act, although he was interested in drama. The Lord Chamberlain's men was the most prestigious acting company at the time. However, another company known as the Admiral's Men (which featured the works of Christopher Marlowe, among others) also enjoyed wide popularity and respect.   


The Burbage Brothers owned a 50 percent interest in the Globe. William Shakespeare and four other investors—John Heminges, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope and Will Kempe—owned the remaining 50 percent in equal shares. 
Featured Authors

William Shakespeare was, of course, the main dramatist. But other authors also debuted plays there. They included Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker and the writing team of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Fletcher and Shakespeare teamed up to write The Two Noble Kinsmen.

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All actors at the Globe and other theatres were males, even those who played Juliet and Cleopatra. It was forbidden for a woman to set foot on an Elizabethan stage. This proscription against females meant that Romeo probably recited his lines to a fuzzy-faced boy and that Antony may have whispered sweet nothings to a gawky adolescent male. However, because of wigs, neck-to-toe dresses and makeup artistry, it was easy for a young male to pass for a female. After an actor reached early adulthood, he could begin playing male parts. Shakespeare himself sometimes performed in his plays. It is said that he enjoyed playing the Ghost in Hamlet. All actors had to memorize their lines exactly; if they forgot their lines, they had to improvise cleverly or watch or listen for cues from an offstage prompter.
Highly skilled actors, such as Richard Burbage, earned more money—and received more praise—than Shakespeare and other playwrights. Actors who played clowns and jesters were celebrities, much as today's television and movie comedians. The main actors who performed in the plays listed in Shakespeare's First Folio were the following:

..............William Shakespeare
..............Richard Burbadge (Burbage)
..............John Hemings (Heminges)
..............Augustine Phillips
..............William Kempt (Will Kempe)
..............Thomas Poope (Pope)
..............George Bryan
..............Henry Condell
..............William Slye
..............Richard Cowly
..............John Lowine
..............Samuell Crosse
..............Alexander Cooke
..............Samuel Gilburne
..............Robert Armin
..............William Ostler
..............Nathan Field
..............John Underwood
..............Nicholas Tooley
..............William Ecclestone
..............Joseph Taylor
..............Robert Benfield
..............Robert Gouge
..............Richard Robinson
..............John Schanke
..............John Rice

The World of Shakespeare, an encyclopedia, speculates that Shakespeare acted the following parts in his plays:

Antony and Cleopatra: Lepidus
As You Like It: Adam
Comedy of Errors: Duke of Ephesus
Hamlet: The ghost
Henry V: Charles VI
Julius Caesar: Cicero and/or Cinna
Measure for Measure: Friar Peter
The Merchant of Venice: Duke of Venice
Much Ado About Nothing: Friar Francis
Othello: Duke of Venice
Romeo and Juliet: Escalus
The Taming of the Shrew: Vincentio
Twelfth Night: The sea captain
The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Antonio

Shakespeare's Acting Company

The acting company to which Shakespeare belonged established itself in 1590 as the Lord Chamberlain's Men, also called simply the Chamberlain's Men. Shakespeare joined the company about 1594. After the company's patron—Henry Carey, First Lord Hunsdon, a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth—died in 1596, Carey's son, George (Second Lord Hunsdon), assumed the patronage of the company. It then  adopted a new name, Hunsdon's Men. However, the company reverted back to its old name, Lord Chamberlain's Men, in 1597. It retained that name until the death of Queen Elizabeth I in March 1603 and the accession of James I as King England. At that time, James became the company's patron, and its name changed to the King's Men.

Stunts and Skills

Shakespearean and other Elizabethan actors had to perform their own stunts, such as falling or tumbling. They also had to wield swords and daggers with convincing skill. In addition, most actors had to know how to perform popular dances of their era and earlier eras, depending on the time and place of the play. Finally, actors had to have a voice of robust timbre. After all, there were no microphones in Shakespeare's day. Several thousand noisy people—sometimes cheering, sometimes booing—had to hear every line. 

Spare Sets Equal Improved Writing
Because settings on an Elizabethan stage were spare, Shakespeare had to write descriptions of them into his dialogue. This handicap proved to be a boon, for it motivated Shakespeare to write some of his best descriptions. 

    Whenever place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic effects were needed, they could be created by the poet's pen. Hence, it is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare. Such conditions, moreover, encouraged a greater imaginative cooperation on the part of the audience in the production of a play, and this active participation was further increased by the informality of the platform stage. With such intimacy, soliloquies, asides, and long set speeches are natural and not absurd as they are in modern theatre.—Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947 (page 8).
Special Effects, Music, and Dancing

Before performing a bloody play such as Titus Andronicus, actors in Shakespeare's day filled vessels such as pigs' bladders with blood or a liquid resembling blood and concealed them beneath their costumes. Onstage, they had only to pound a fist against a bladder to release the blood and die a gruesome death. Stagehands in the wings simulated thunder by striking a sheet of metal or pounding a drum. They also sometimes set off fireworks during battle scenes and  lit torches during night scenes. The imagination of the audience was called upon to provide other special effects, as the prologue to Henry V suggests. 

Productions of Shakespeare's plays often included vocal and instrumental music, especially in plays performed on special occasions before royalty. Minor characters usually sang the vocal selections. Instruments used included the trumpet, the oboe—called an hautboy or hautbois (pronounced O bwa)—and stringed devices such as the viol and the lute. The plays also included dancing. In fact, Romeo and Juliet met at a masked dance. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy king, Oberon, dances with his queen, Titania, after inviting her to “rock” with him, so to speak. Oberon says, “Sound, music! Come, my queen, take hands with me, and rock the ground whereon these sleepers be.” Shakespeare’s popular comedy As You Like It ends with a dance. Other plays with dancing include Henry V and Love’s Labour’s Lost. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, the schoolmaster and the jailer’s daughter speak of a dance called the morris.


Actors at the Globe and other London theatres generally wore clothing currently in fashion. Thus, the characters in plays set centuries before the age of Shakespeare dressed in Elizabethan or Jacobean apparel. For example, the characters in King Lear and Cymbeline, both set in ancient Britain, wore clothing popular at the time of Shakespeare. Presumably, it would have been too costly and time-consuming to research and make costumes of another era. 


Sound quality in the Globe Theatre was poor, and spoken lines did not carry unless actors bellowed them viva voce. Consequently, actors had to recite their lines with boom and thunder while helping to convey their meaning with exaggerated gestures. 

Memorizing Lines

Elizabethan actors had to know all of their lines word for word. In a day when their were no cue cards and no intermissions—and actors had to perform in many plays each year instead of the one or two that occupy modern actors in New York and London—such a task surely was Herculean for the major actors playing Hamlet, King Lear, or Macbeth. However, acting companies did post a person offstage to prompt actors who forgot their lines. 


In an age when royals and nobles held full sway over commoners, the Globe Theatre was a democratic institution, admitting anyone—whether a baron, a beggar, a knight, a candlemaker, an earl, a shoemaker, or a strumpet—if he or she had coin of the realm to drop in a box before entering. The viewers of a play could be noisy and rowdy, and they could deliver an instant review of an acting performance in the form or a rotten tomato colliding with the forehead of an offending actor.


The Globe had a Latin motto: Totus mundus agit histrionem. It was a translation of one of Shakespeare's most famous lines: All the World's a Stage. The line can also be translated as All the world plays the actor. 

Box Office

Some writers have erroneously attributed the derivation of the term box office to the use of a money box at the Globe Theatre into which theatregoers deposited coins to pay for seeing a play. In fact, the term box office did not originate until several centuries later, when it was used to refer to an office at which theatregoers could reserve an enclosed area of seating (box) for viewing stage performances. 


There was none. But a flag flew over the theatre on play days to advertise performances. If a tragedy was scheduled, the flag was black; if a comedy was scheduled, the flag was white; if a history play was scheduled, the flag was red. 

Other Venues for Playwrights

Before the Globe and other theatres opened, Shakespeare and his contemporaries staged their plays in inns, halls, and open arenas (amphitheatres). It is believed that Titus Andronicus and The Taming of the Shrew debuted at an arena called Newington Butts.

The first two structures in the London area constructed specifically for stage productions were the Theatre, completed in 1576, and the Curtain, believed to have been completed in 1577. Shakespeare acted and/or presented plays in both theaters, as well as in the aforementioned smaller buildings. His history play Henry V debuted at the Curtain.

In the prologue of the play, Shakespeare refers directly to the Curtain, the theatre in which the play debuted in 1599. He asks, "Can this cockpit [theatre] hold the vasty fields of France?" In other words, can the small stage of the Curtain adequately present a play set on a vast battlefield? He then asks, "Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?" The wooden O of course refers to the circular Curtain Theatre. Shakespeare was preparing his playgoers to use their imaginations to pretend that a great battle is to take place on the stage of the theatre, just as modern audiences pretend that everything they are about to see in movies such as Gladiator and Raiders of the Lost Ark is real and devoid of artifice.

From time to time Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights also presented plays in private residences, courtyards, and the palace of the reigning monarch.
In 1617, a year after Shakespeare's death, Englishman Fynes Morrison wrote in a journal,

The City of London alone hath four or five companies of players with their peculiar [own] theatres capable of [holding] many thousands, wherein they all play every day in the week but Sunday, with most strange concourse of people . . . . [A]s there be, in my opinion, more plays in London than in all the parts of the world I have seen, so do these players or comedians excel all others in the world. (quoted by Michael Best, author of "The Players," published in Internet Shakespeare Editions, sponsored by the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, and posted at <>.

Why Some Londoners Opposed Theatres

Many Londoners opposed theatres on grounds that the crowds that they attracted would spread plague, cause riots, and increase pickpocketing. In addition, opponents believed theatre plays would lure young people and tradesmen from gainful activity and tempt Sunday churchgoers to stray their paths to the theatre door instead of the church door.


Before any play could be staged in Shakespeare's time, it had to be approved by the king's (or the queen's) censor, the master of revels. The censor scrutinized each play at the expense of the production company. Plays considered morally or politically offensive could be banned under pain of imprisonment. John Russell Brown, author of Shakespeare and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1982, page 31) discusses the circumstances under which the censor forbade the staging of one of Shakespeare's plays:

    At a time of unrest, when the Earl of Essex was challenging the Queen's [Elizabeth's] authority and armed bands terrorized the streets of London, the Chamberlain's Men [Shakespeare's company] were forbidden to perform Richard II, a play already licensed and performed, because it contains a scene in which a king is compelled to renounce his crown; in 1601, the queen's counsellors believed that this might encourage her enemies and spark off a revolution. The theatre was taken very seriously by the authorities and was allowed to deal with political issues only if they did not refer too obviously to current affairs or seditious ideas, but were set, safely, in an earlier century or, better still, in ancient Rome or foreign countries.
Theatre Season and Time of Performances

Because the Globe had a roofless yard, it was a warm-weather theatre. In cold weather, performances were held at the Blackfriars, a monastery converted to a theatre, or at another location. Performances at the Globe began in mid-afternoon after a trumpet sounded. Sunlight provided the lighting, although torches were sometimes lit to suggest night scenes. There were no intermissions. All performances had to end before nightfall so that playgoers could return safely home. There were no performances during lent or during outbreaks of plague.