What Was the Globe Theater?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The Globe Theater was a playhouse built in London in 1599, and famously used to perform the works of William Shakespeare and the theater company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The original building was destroyed by a fire in 1613, during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Two reconstructions of The Globe Theater have been made, one in the 17th century, and one completed in 1997, 750 ft (230 m) away from the original site.

The Globe Theater was rebuilt between 1993 and 1997.
The Globe Theater was rebuilt between 1993 and 1997.

James Burbage, an actor of the mid 16th Century, leased a large parcel of land in 1576 and built a playhouse called The Theatre. When the lease expired in 1598, the landlord planned to tear down the playhouse, claiming that the building belonged to him. Determined to continue operating, James Burbage, his son Richard Burbage, and the actors of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men spent a busy few days dismantling the theater beam by beam and transporting it to a warehouse on the banks of the Thames River. In early 1599, the building materials were ferried across the river and transformed into The Globe Theater.

Shakespeare's plays were performed at the Globe from the late 1500s to the early 1600s.
Shakespeare's plays were performed at the Globe from the late 1500s to the early 1600s.

No building plans exist for the original Globe Theater, but scholars have investigated its history for many years, and have a basic understanding of the building. It is believed to have been a near-circular, open air amphitheater that accommodated 3,000 patrons. The seating comprised of upper balconies with benches, for more wealthy patrons, and a standing-room only pit for those too poor to afford a seat.

A 43 ft wide (13.1 m) rectangular-shaped stage called an “apron” extended 27(8.2 m) feet into the audience, and is believed to have been about 5 ft (1.5 m) off the ground. The back of the stage was covered by a roof, called “the heavens”. The stage and the heavens came equipped with trapdoors, for magical entrances and exits. A balcony above the heavens was frequently used for musicians, but also could serve as an upper level to the stage.

During a 1613 performance of one of Shakespeare’s final plays,Henry VIII, a prop canon misfired, setting the roof ablaze. Comprised of mostly timber, The Globe was completely destroyed in the resulting fire. A second Globe Theater was built the following year on the same foundation, continuing operations until it was shut down in 1642 and destroyed in 1644.

Construction workers discovered the foundations of the Globe Theater in 1989, spiking interest in an accurate reconstruction of the theater. In 1993, construction on the new theater began under the direction of architect Theo Crosby. Using the research of theater historian John Orrell, the theater was built as close to the original specification as current building codes and modern convenience allows. The new playhouse, operating under the name Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, officially opened in 1997 with a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. As the theater remains open-air, plays are held only during the summer and attract thousands of audience members each year.

Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries took popular stories and rewrote them for the stage.
Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries took popular stories and rewrote them for the stage.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@KoiwiGal - Also, it's open to the elements, so if it rains the show will usually just go on anyway. They try to keep it as close to the original globe theater as possible, including all the stage technology, although I'm not sure how they manage that since there aren't many records about the original Globe.

It is pretty amazing what they have managed to recreate though, considering how long ago the original Globe existed. I do think they missed an opportunity to perform the play that caused the original theater to burn down when they opened the new one. Maybe they thought that would be testing fate too much.


@clintflint - Don't just take a tour. If you've got the chance, then try to get tickets to a play there. They perform Shakespeare all the time, as well as other plays and it's amazing. Although you do have to bear in mind that you will probably be either standing through the whole thing or sitting on very hard seats.


If you are visiting London I fully recommend taking a tour of the Globe theater if you can manage it. I bought one of those passes that let me go to hundreds of different attractions while I was there and it was one of the things I got to do.

It was incredible to sit where the nobility would have sat (in the original theater) and learn about the history and culture surrounding the place. There was a lot of information about Shakespeare as well, including things like the fact that most people wouldn't have been able to see the stage that well, so the plays were supposed to be heard, not necessarily seen.

They also told us that they had tried to be as authentic as possible, but one of the things they ended up compromising on was the installation of sprinklers, which seems fair considering the fate of the original Globe.

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