James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005)


Chapter 6


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

new venture.


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




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

were numbered.


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.