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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Shakespeare's Globe Burns Down


On 29 June 1613, the Globe theatre burned down.

During a performance of Henry VIII, some cannons were fired, and the sparks ignited on the thatching and wooden beams of the gallery.

It only took an hour for it to burn down.






It seems that no one was seriously hurt. There was a man whose clothing caught on fire but it was put out with some ale.

If you were standing in the yard, or seated in the galleries, it must have been very frightening. Especially if you were in the top gallery, and you had to make your way out of a burning and crowded theatre.

The closest I came to a burning building was while I was in a movie theatre (!) and the building next door caught on fire. My theatre evacuated safely, but the smoke in the air outside was so heavy that it was very difficult to breathe, and I had to run a block away before I could breathe normally.

For the audience, the Globe was an important part of London life, and when it burned down, it would be sorely missed. There were other theatres, but nothing was like the Globe. It was the most popular playhouse and it had the best plays.

For the actors, like Richard Burbage and Henry Condell for example, it must have been truly heartbreaking.

The Globe was built from what was taken from the old Theatre in Shoreditch, when that was torn down in 1598 and rebuilt into what became the Globe in 1599.



The Theatre in Shoreditch


Richard Burbage’s father had been a joiner, and he had built the Theatre piece by piece. When those pieces of timber were burned into ashes in 1613, Burbage was watching part of his family’s very significant personal history vanish.

I don’t think Shakespeare was anywhere near London on that day. By 1613, he would have gone back to Stratford for good. He would die within 3 years, in 1616.

What did he think of the news when he heard it?

The Globe to him was not just a place to perform plays. It was more than just a home away from home for him. His whole identity was tied to that building.

When he had a hand in tearing down the Theatre and creating the Globe in 1599, it was at a very critical moment in his own life. He was very involved with the Earl of Essex, who was fighting at court with the Robert Cecil faction, over the fate of the country.

The end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign was coming, and Essex, Cecil and Shakespeare knew it.

Whatever each of them did in this period of time would determine their fates in the future after Elizabeth, and it could mean disaster or triumph.

When Shakespeare opened the Globe in 1599, the first play was probably Henry V, which was written to celebrate Essex, just as he was riding off to fight in Ireland.



The Globe, circa 1600



In the same year, Julius Caesar was performed for the first time. It was a play about the plot to kill the emperor.

It would seem that Shakespeare, based on these plays, was struggling with the possibility that his friend and patron was building support to lead a rebellion and overthrow Elizabeth.

Essex did lead a rebellion in February 1601 which lead to his execution.

Essex was gone, and Shakespeare’s future was in doubt.

The fact that he survived the rebellion’s fallout, and the Globe remained open is something of a miracle.

Much of Shakespeare’s later success was due to King James, who made him a King’s Man, and the Globe owes its existence to the patronage of the king himself.

But Shakespeare knew that at any moment that all of the theatres could be closed down, and theatre as he knew it could come to a halt.

Shakespeare fought for over ten years to keep the Globe alive and I think the toll of that fight had much to do with his death, at the relatively early age of 52.



The Globe, center, and The Rose on Bankside



If he had not succeeded in keeping it open, we would not have King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, and many more.


By 1613, the relationship between Shakespeare and King James was not what it once was, and Shakespeare retired to the country.

I don't think he went willingly. I think it was very hard for him to separate from the Globe, and the audiences he wrote for.

For Shakespeare, when the Globe burned down, it would have been like the final nail in his coffin. 

Despite the fact that the Globe was to be rebuilt, I think that its destruction had a hand in accelerating Shakespeare's own death.

I hope that when audiences go see Shakespeare plays, especially when they see them in the new Globe in London today, that they realize the tremendous personal risks and the sacrifices that Shakespeare made to make the Globe, keep the Globe open, and make the Globe famous enough to be remembered all these years later.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


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