James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005)
The Globe Rises
From Shakespeare's new lodgings near the Clink prison in the
parish of St. Saviour's in Southwark, it was just a few minutes'
stroll to the construction site of the Globe. It's likely that through
late winter and early spring he kept a close eye on progress there.
Whether it was the relief of working in a playhouse free of the ghosts of
the past or the sense of potential that the new theater offered, the Globe
clearly had a lot to do with the great surge of energy and creativity at this
moment in Shakespeare's career. His surroundings could only have contributed
to this vitality. Located outside the jurisdiction of the London
authorities, the Bankside had a reputation for freewheeling independence.
It was notorious for its criminality, prostitution, inns, theaters,
and blood sports- both bull and bearbaiting. Puritan preachers called it a
"licensed stew." Some of this local color began finding its way into Shakespeare's
plays. Everyone in the audience at Troilus and Cressida knew
what Shakespeare meant when he mentions "some galled goose of Winchester"
(5.10.54): a syphilitic Bankside prostitute. And Antonio's advice
to Sebastian in Twelfth Night that it's "best to lodge" in "the south suburbs,
at the Elephant" (3.3.39)-a local brothel converted to an inn-would
also have produced a knowing smile.
In his new neighborhood, Shakespeare would have found himself
rubbing elbows with watermen (who made up a quarter of all workers in
St. Saviour's) rather than with the merchants and musicians of St.
Helen's in upscale Bishopsgate. Southwark was a community in transition.
Its population was swelling, tenements were going up all around,
and the streets lining the Thames and leading from London Bridge were
crammed. But a hundred yards from the Thames, Southwark took on a
more bucolic appearance, and to the south and west were fields, farms,
ponds, and scattered marshland.
Because of his proximity to the Globe site and because decisions about
stage design constrained the kinds of scenes he could write, Shakespeare
was probably consulted at various points during the theater's construction.
Though its external dimensions were necessarily identical to the
Theatre's, much else about it-the direction that its stage faced in relation
to the afternoon sun, trapdoors, the balcony, special machinery for descents,
the backstage, and stage doors for entrances and exits- could be
customized to suit the actors' and their resident playwright's needs. The
only document to survive about the property during the spring of 1599
(dated May 16 and in Latin), speaks of a newly built house with a garden
"in the occupation of William Shakespeare and others." Whether this
house refers to the Globe, still under construction, or more likely to another
dwelling on the two-parcel site, remains unclear; but this slender
piece of evidence suggests that Shakespeare played a visible role in the
By spring, with the arrival of longer thaws, it was obvious that the
soggy property off Maiden Lane that had been leased so hurriedly back in
December was far from ideal for a playhouse. No wonder then that, a
year later, the lord admiral would justify relocating his playing company
from the adjacent Rose to the northern suburbs on the grounds that the
site of the Rose was "very noisome"-that is, unpleasant, even noxious"
for resort of people in the winter time." As Ben Jonson later observed,
the low-lying Bankside land on which the Globe also sat better suited the
defensive terrain of a "fort." The Globe, Jonson adds, was "flanked with a
ditch and forced out of a marsh." Fortunately for the Chamberlain's Men,
Elizabethan playgoers don't seem to have been particularly fussy about
muck and smells.
Had Shakespeare visited the construction site in late spring, he
would have stepped over the newly dug foundation trenches and found
himself within a large-scale version of the shape Prospero would later
draw onstage in The Tempest, where the stage direction reads: "All enter
the circle which Prospero had made, and there stand charmed" (SD
5.1.57). The master carpenter Peter Street had carefully measured the
exact dimensions of the Theatre's foundations after the timber structure
had been dismantled. Once the location and center point of the Globe had
been decided upon, Street took his surveyor's line and, probably sprinkling
lime to indicate where the exterior wall would stand, marked off a
ring with a diameter of seventy-two feet. The charmed circle stopped
there. It was agreed upon that, unlike the Rose, the stage at the Globe
would be entirely in afternoon shadow. Playgoers rather than the actors
would have the sun in their eyes; they'd have to squint at times, but
they'd feel warmer.
The Chamberlain's Men probably hoped to be able to move to the
Globe by June, since Peter Street wouldn't have to build the frame from
scratch. They were still paying rent at the Curtain through late April
(Simon Forman writes of going to the Curtain three times that month).
Because its foundations could not have been dug much before April, it
was increasingly clear that the Globe couldn't open before late July. The
reason for the delay was an extended cold spell. March, April, and May
had been dry-which ordinarily would have accelerated the construction
schedule-but,John Stow records, they had also been unseasonably cold,
mocking the almanac's forecast of the arrival of "goodly pleasant
weather" by the first new moon in April.
Raising the Globe's frame could take place only after the foundation
work was completed. The late cold spell brought frost, and frost was the
bane of laborers who had to break through the foot or so of frozen ground
to excavate the foundation and prevent frost heave before sinking elm
piles and filling the shallow trenches with limestone and pebbles for
drainage. It was also the enemy of the bricklayers who then took over,
constructing out of bricks and mortar the foundation plinth, a short,
squat wall rising a foot above the ground level of each of the two roughly
concentric rings of the multisided structure. The plinth was needed to
keep the groundsills or bottom-most layer of timber from rotting. Because
frost compromised the bond holding bricks and mortar together, it
would have been foolhardy-and unsound Tudor building practice-to
begin laying the brick foundation until the risk of freezing weather was
safely past. Twenty-first-century builders faced with such conditions
might pour antifreeze into the mix to prevent the bond holding the
bricks together from disintegrating. Elizabethan builders simply had to
wait for warmer temperatures if they wanted to ensure, in the words of a
contemporary theater contract, that there be a "good sure and strong
foundation of piles, brick, lime, and sand."
Londoners learned firsthand of the dangers of shoddy construction in
overcrowded playing spaces in August 1599. Thirty to forty people were
injured and five killed-including, John Chamberlain reports, "two ...
good handsome whores"- when a crammed house on St. John Street in
London's northwest suburbs collapsed while a "puppet play" was being
performed. There had been an earlier disaster in 1583 at the Paris Garden
bearbaiting ring in Southwark, when too many spectators packed the
amphitheater: the gallery that "compassed the yard round about was so
shaken at the foundation that it fell as it were in a moment flat to the
ground." Eight people were crushed to death and many others injured.
As far as those involved in raising the Globe were concerned, it was better
to wait until the risk of frost was past, and the foundations of their future
playhouse and prosperity could be secure.
William Shepherd, who was probably brought in by Street to lay
the foundations of the Globe, couldn't have waited too long to finish the
work. While the weather so far had remained unseasonably dry, spring
would bring rains and flooding-as it did in late May, when, John Stow
reports, on Whitsunday, London was inundated with "great rain, and
high waters, the like of long time had not been seen." When the
Thames overflowed its banks, it ran downhill toward the building site.
Even thirty years later, when the Globe site was drained by ditches
along its northern and southern boundaries, the land was still subject
to flooding at spring tides. The window between frost and flood in
which the Globe foundations could be built that spring was a narrow
SHAKESPEARE AND HIS FELLOW SHARERS FACED OTHER PROBLEMS THIS
spring, including the ongoing legal battle with Giles Allen over the dismantling
of the Theatre. One can only imagine how furious Allen must
have been when he returned to where the Theatre had stood and found it
gone, the grass trampled, his field littered with mounds of plaster and
shattered tile. The first legal action had taken place at Westminster on
January 20, when Allen, pursuing his case with "rigor and extremity,"
sued Peter Street in the King's Bench for trespassing and damages. Street
didn't need this kind of trouble, and it would have fallen to the Burbages
and their partners to pay for the builder's defense. And so began what
both sides understood was a complicated game. Allen may have guessed
that the Burbages would counter with a lawsuit in the Court of Requests,
even as they may have anticipated that Allen would then respond with
another lawsuit at the King's Bench. Both sides knew that if all else failed,
Allen could always cry foul and take things to the Star Chamber (which
in fact he would). The last thing that the Chamberlain's Men needed was
for Allen to delay or halt Street's progress. And even if they were to triumph
sooner or later, legal costs were mounting.
The growing number of rival playing companies was another worry.
The Admiral's Men continued to play at the Rose. And there was no
guarantee that the Swan would remain offlimits to a permanent playing
company. It wouldn't be easy selling out the Globe with three active theaters
(plus bearbaiting) on the Bankside. Meanwhile, the owners of the
Boar's Head Inn, just outside London's western boundary, had invested
heavily in transforming their playing space into a full-scale theatrical
venue by summer. And as soon as the Chamberlain's Men vacated the
Curtain, some hungry itinerant company was sure to move in.
More troubling still was word that after a decade's hiatus, the boys
of St. Paul's would shortly resume playing for public audiences at the
cathedral. And ifhe had not done so already, Henry Evans would soon
approach the Burbage brothers to see if he could rent their indoors
Blackfriars Theatre for another boys' company. It had sat unused since
adult playing had been banned there in 1596. Within a year the deal was
done: the benefits of the steady rent for the heavily indebted Burbages
outweighed the risk of losing customers to this second children's company.
Shakespeare's subsequent complaint-in lines later added to
Hamlet, that "children ... are now the fashion" and that boy players so
"carry it away" that they threaten the Globe, "Hercules and his load
too"-suggests that Shakespeare himself was considerably less enthusiastic
about this arrangement (2.2.341-62). As theaters popped up like
mushrooms, new entrepreneurs tried to cash in on what must have
been seen as a lucrative business. Shakespeare may have heard around
this time that the printer John Wolfe had plans-as Middlesex court
records for the following April indicate-"to erect and build a playhouse
in Nightingale Lane near East Smithfield," not far from the Tower of
In the face of all this unexpected competition, Shakespeare and his
fellow investors must have wondered what had happened to the Privy
Council's year-old decree that only they and the Admiral's Men would be
allowed to perform in London. Like the council's earlier threat to tear
down London's theaters, it looked to be more honored in the breach than
the observance. The decision to invest in the Globe must have depended,
in some measure, on this promise of a duopoly, and, as a result, the explosion
in the number of competing playhouses must have been especially
demoralizing. There simply weren't enough spectators to go around.
And now competition for new plays to supplement Shakespeare's offerings
would be even stiffer. Expansion also meant the potential dilution of
quality in the fare offered. Innovation-from all-boy companies to aristocrats
dabbling at playwriting-was a dangerous thing for a veteran, protected
company like the Chamberlain's Men. The sooner the Globe was
up, the sooner Shakespeare could offer plays there that set a new standard
and attracted a regular, charmed clientele.
There was greater pressure than ever, then, to distinguish the
Chamberlain's Men from their rivals. No other company could match
their experience-so it's not surprising that Shakespeare committed himself
to writing plays that showcased his company's depth. Julius Caesar is
exemplary in this regard, requiring strong performances by four adult
actors playing the parts of Brutus, Caesar, Cassius, and Antony.
Throughout 1599, Shakespeare also seems to have gone out of his way to
showcase a pair of leading boy actors in his company (whose names are
unfortunately unknown). One of them seems to have specialized in playing
romantic leads, the other both younger and older women. Consider
the extraordinary pairs of roles Shakespeare wrote for them in a little
over a year, beginning with Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado and
Katharine of France and Alice in Henry the Fifth. In Julius Caesar Shakespeare
created for them another pair of sterling roles, Portia and Calpurnia.
Most audiences remember Portia's famous lines about showing proof
of her constancy to Brutus, when she reveals how she gave herself "a voluntary
wound / Here, in the thigh" (2.1.301-2). But it is her first and
longer speech that reveals how much confidence Shakespeare must have
had in one young actor in particular, and how this speech, whose difficult
rhythms, wit, gestures, and shifts in tone, captures both Portia's character
and the story of her marriage:
You've ungently, Brutus,
Stole from my bed. And yesternight, at supper,
You suddenly arose, and walked about,
Musing and Sighing, with your arms across,
And when I asked you what the matter was,
You stared upon me with ungentle looks.
I urged you further; then you scratched your head
And too impatiently stamped with your foot.
Yet I insisted, yet you answered not,
But with an angry wafture of your hand
Gave sign for me to leave you. So I did,
Fearing to strengthen that impatience
Which seemed too much enkindled, and withal
Hoping it was but an effect of humor,
Which sometime hath his hour with every man.
It will not let you eat, nor talk, nor sleep,
And could it work so much upon your shape
As it hath much prevailed on your condition,
I should not know you, Brutus. Dear my lord,
Make me acquainted with your cause of grief
Shakespeare may have realized, watching the pair of boys handle such
challenging roles, that they were capable of handling even more taxing
ones, for he would next reward them with the extraordinary parts ofRosalind
and Celia in As You Like It followed by those of Ophelia and
Gertrude in Hamlet.
By early May the Globe was finally rising. Once the foundation work
was finished, Street's carpenters and sawyers took over the construction
site for ten weeks or so. Shakespeare and his fellow investors had to reach
deeper into their pockets, for these expensive laborers had to be paid
weekly and fresh supplies were constantly required. Even as unused
sand, bricks, and lime were hauled away, horse-drawn carts maneuvered
down Maiden Lane or along paths leading down from docks along the
nearby Thames, loaded with seasoned lumber for the rafters, joists,
rakes, and floorboards as well as with fir poles for scaffolding. Sawyers
would have already picked a convenient spot to set up a sawpit to cut
these pieces to the carpenters' specifications. And if any of the main oak
pieces of the Theatre frame had been damaged when being dismantled
and moved, now was the time for teams of sawyers to cut their replacements
and finish them off with side ax and adze.
What followed would be by far the most challenging stage of construction.
The pressure now was on the master carpenter, Peter Street,
who, in determining how the parts of the reassembled frame would fit together,
somehow had to keep in mind the relationship of the floor sills
(which rested on the foundations) to the wall plates (the topmost part of
the frame on which the roofing sat) thirty feet above. Measurements
were especially tricky because no two pieces of hand-cut timber were
alike, and yet each one had to dovetail perfectly with all those connected
to it. Each one of the towering back posts, for example, was fitted to
twenty-six other timbers on three of its four sides. Getting the sequence
right-and all the workers in place to execute it-required the skill of a
chess master who could play out in his mind dozens of moves ahead.
It helped that Street had been responsible for dismantling the Theatre.
And it's likely that the dozen or so carpenters who had worked
under his direction at that time were now employed at the Globe. Street
may also have brought down from Windsor the same crew of carpenters
that he employed a year later at this stage at the Fortune. "Erecting," as
this stage of construction was called in the trade, was not to be left to inexperienced
hands. Even illiterate carpenters could easily identify the familiar
set oflong and ornate slashes that were gouged in the wood, still to
be found on Tudor frame buildings (and even on timber frame buildings
raised in North America by their descendants), marks that all of them
had learned early on in their apprenticeship indicating where sections
were to be joined.
Sections of the extremely heavy preassembled outer wall frames were
hoisted into place first, and then, as they were held in place, cross frames
and curved braces added for stability. Once the inner wall frames and
floor frames were slotted into position, joined just as they had been at the
Theatre, the carpenters were able to move the scaffolding and repeat the
procedure at each of the twenty or so bays. If the timber had arrived in
good enough condition, and not too many new pieces had to be hewn
from scratch in the sawpits, this stage of construction would have gone
very quickly. The rising skeletal frame of the Globe was a new addition
to the silhouette of the Bankside and let Londoners know that playing
there would begin in the summer. Henslowe, who had to pass the Globe
every day on his walk to the aging Rose, knew that his theater's days
Time lost to frost would also have to be made up in the next and most
laborious stage of construction: "setting up." New joists, floorboards,
rafters, partitions, and seating all had to be measured, cut, and fitted. The
staircases, the tiring house, and the five-foot-high stage itself had to be
knocked together as well. Fresh loads of seasoned lumber continually arrived
as Street pressed his regular suppliers. The torrential rains and
flooding at the end of May were a setback, but the work must have gone
on after that at a torrid pace.
The Globe was the first London theater built by actors for actors, and
Shakespeare and his fellow player-sharers would have worked with
Street closely during the setting up, especially on last-minute decisions
about the tiring house and stage. Heminges was probably responsible for
handling the finances, while the Burbage brothers, who had watched
their father, a joiner by profession, supervise the building of the Theatre
(and more recently the indoor stage at Blackfriars), no doubt drew on
their experience to ensure that Street built exactly the kind of stage they
and their fellow investors wanted. They brought a good deal of practical
experience to the task-and they knew the strengths and weaknesses of
each of London's playhouses, having performed in all of them. Only a
playwright who knew something about construction problems and cost
overruns could have recently written:
When we mean to build,
We first survey the plot, then draw the model;
And when we see the figure of the house,
Then must we rate the cost of the erection,
Which if we find outweighs ability,
What do we then but draw anew the model
In fewer offices, or at least desist
To build at all?
(The Second Part of Henry the Fourth 1.3-41-48)
Once the setting up was completed, new teams of skilled workers
began to appear on the site: glaziers (for the tiring house windows),
plumbers (for a lead gutter), smiths (for doors and windows), thatchers
and plasterers (for the roof and exterior), and painters (for interior details).
Specialists also had to be brought in to handle the marbling of the
pair of wooden columns onstage, a skill that took years to master. The ex-
terior had to be plastered with "lathe, lime and hair"-completely covering
the timber frame, so that from a distance the building looked like it
was made of stone, perhaps calling to mind a Roman theater-a fitting
touch for a play about Julius Caesar. And, as unhappy as the idea might
seem to us, the Chamberlain's Men may also have asked Street to fence
the lower gallery (as he would at the Fortune) with "strong iron pikes" in
order to prevent those who only paid to stand from slipping over the railing
into the more expensive seating in the galleries. As Street's workmen
struggled to make up for lost time, London's fickle weather finally cooperated:
June and July were for the most part hot and dry-perfect for
painting and plastering. If the Chamberlain's Men's luck held, it now
looked like playing could begin, even if all the detail work wasn't completed,
sometime in late July. As it happens, when Street contracted with
Henslowe the following January to build the Fortune, he promised to finish
the job by July 25; there's a strong chance that they agreed on this date
based on Street's recent experience at the Globe. Shakespeare, eager to
have a new play in hand to inaugurate the theater, had probably begun
writing Julius Caesar around March and may have been ready to hand the
play over to the master of the Revels for official approval by May. Julius
Caesar would certainly be among the earliest of the offerings at the
Globe, if not the first.