John Shakespeare enrolled his seven-year old son William in The King’s New School of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1571.Latin was the most important subject taught and many children later became scholars at Oxford University but Will wanted to grow up to be just like the traveling players who performed medieval, religious and new pastymes (plays) in Stratford’s Gild Hall and the Bridge Street innyards. Stratford had amateur mummers (actors and mimes) and two touring companies, The Queen’s Men and the Earl of Worcester’s Men who played Gild Hall. Artificial light did not exist and spectacles and dramas took place during daylight hours. Limelight, gaslight, electricity, incandescent lamps and computer light boards, had not been invented in the 16th century.
Portrayals of Will’s life between school and the time he arrived in London differ Some accounts state he was apprenticed to a butcher, others think he was a schoolmaster or believe he left Stratford because he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local justice of the peace. Many are convinced a theatre company passed through Stratford and invited Will to join their troupe as a minor actor and scrivener (dramatist).
When William Shakespeare arrived in London in the late 1580s, he explored a vibrant and dramatic city of contrasts that stimulated his imagination. Shakespeare’s London had tall buildings and the majestic St. James Palace, the residence of kings and queens of England for over 300 years. Londoners shopped at Cheapside, a large market where country people displayed their goods, a butcher’s market in Eastcheap and a fish market on Fish Street Hill People had to watch where they stepped in London; beggars and artful dodgers roamed; garbage, body wastes and dead animals were thrown into streets and alleyways and epidemics of plague often raged.
The English navy scored a great victory over the Spanish Armada (an invasion fleet of about 130 ships) in the 1580s. Francis Drake, the explorer and naval hero and Walter Raleigh, a navigator, writer and colonizer, had returned after their voyages of discovery which led to the expansion of trade in the Americas. When Will crossed London Bridge on foot, the only crossing over the River Thames, he joined crowds of people—London had two hundred thousand inhabitants. On the bridge were houses—some over four stories high plus shops, a chapel and gatehouses on both ends. The bridge had been rebuilt many times and a nursery rhyme told its story.
London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady
Shakespeare lived in a section of London called Bishopsgate in the gloom cast by the Tower of London. When he crossed the Thames, he could see coal barges moored in front of the Tower and wherries carrying passengers. The Tower was a prison for high ranking citizens. Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned in the Tower, suspected of participating in an assassination plot against the Queen, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth signed her death warrant and Mary was put to death on Feb. 8, 1587. Shakespeare mentioned the Tower in many of his plays such as Richard III, Henry VIII and Henry VI Part III. There were 18 prisons around London; each held a special class of criminal. Newgate held felons, debtors and those awaiting execution. Ludgate held bankrupts and the Fleet held offenders waiting for their day in the Courts of Chancery.
Shakespeare worked with many theatre companies before joining James Burbage and his sons as an actor and dramatist. He soon became a charter member of a new company known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men that appeared by royal command. Shakespeare became one of the most popular playwrights of the day.
London’s Lord Mayors disapproved of plays believing they encouraged irreverence, and idleness; when trumpets blasted the air and flags were raised announcing a performance, workers were lured away from jobs. To avoid restrictions imposed by the authorities, theatres were built outside the walls of the city; across the Thames in Southwark, easily reached by boat or bridge and close to bear-baiting rings, prisons and cockpits.
The Queen’s Privy Council protected the actor/managers because the Queen enjoyed being entertained. Elizabeth I wrote poetry and music and took pleasure in drama, plays at Christmas and masques—a dramatic entertainment based on mythological or allegorical themes. She appointed a Master of the Revels, who acted as a producer/director and guardian of morals, in addition to providing costumes and a hall to be used for performances. Composers worked at the Chapel Royal in St. James Palace.
Beginning in 1598, the first Globe Theatre was raised in Southwark and the plays Henry the Fifth, and As You Like It were written for the theatre in 1599. Considered the glory of the Banke, the Globe had a central “discovery place.” Double doors, covered with finely embroidered hangings, a curtain or both allowed the actor to reach the upper level for balcony scenes. Above that was a room with machinery for special effects – cannon were fired, angels or ghosts descended and a trap door in the floor led to hell. Wooden stage posts, painted to look like marble, supported a canopy representing heaven filled with clouds, stars, moon and the sun; the canopy also protected the actors and their costumes from the sun.
Groundlings (commoners) paid one English penny to stand in the open yard of the Globe, two pennies would purchase a seat on a bench in the gallery, protected from sun and rain by a thatched roof made of water reed. A cushioned seat close to the stage cost three pennies and six pennies bought the most prestigious seats of all – the Lord’s rooms – behind and above the stage. Music underscored Shakespeare’s plays – the audience entered the theatre to the faint throb of a drum then the musicians of the Globe would begin playing trumpet, cornet, sackbut and percussion. The players filled the stage and a stave pounded the floor. The music gradually increased in volume and intensity, adding to the excitement until every onlooker felt a part of the drama as it developed.
Commoners, known as stinkards because they rarely washed themselves or their clothes, stood in a yard covered with a mixture of hazelnut shells, cinders, ash and silt. They fought amongst themselves and critiqued the actors with rousing cheers, hisses or a missile of fruit, often an orange. A useful piece of fruit, the orange could be used protect the nose from the stench of the unwashed or eaten to stave off pangs of hunger.
Shakespeare describes the Globe in his prologue to Henry the Fifth when the chorus asks the audience to use their imagination, Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt?
When Elizabeth I died in 1603, she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who became James I of England. James valued the arts, particularly theatre and the Chamberlain’s Men. He demanded they come under his patronage and granted a royal patent. Their name changed to the King’s Men.
Shakespeare’s company played the Globe in winter and summer. When epidemics of the plague caused the Privy Council to close the theatre, they became traveling players. Fire destroyed the first Globe theatre in 1612. During a performance of Henry VIII, a piece of wadding fired from one of the stage cannons, landed on the thatched roof, smoldered, smoked – the audience was too engrossed in the play to notice – and burst into flame. In less than an hour, the fire consumed the Globe but the three thousand spectators managed to escape through the two exits. One patron’s pants began to burn but his companion, used his wits, and doused the flames with a bottle of ale. Quickly rebuilt, the second Globe, was built on the foundations of the first, and protected by a tiled roof. It was said to be the fairest that ever was seen in England.
In 1949, the Shakespeare Globe Trust was founded and the new Globe, modeled after the first, was inaugurated in 1997 with Henry the fifth. It stands today, as a living memorial to the greatest playwright of all time.