Experimenting with the Globe

Essay by mrdan April 2002

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Reconstructing the peculiar kind of theatre for which Shakespeare wrote his plays, which was unique to his time, has been a matter of recurrent interest both to scholars and to directors and actors of the plays. More than thirty theatres with pretensions to being a replica of the Globe (with, of course, varying degrees of accuracy) have been built since 1820. All of these projects suffered from the inadequacy of the information about the original theatre. Until 1989 the only evidence was a few inaccurate seventeenth-century pictures and the few references to features of the theatre that recur in the plays. The discovery of a fragment, a little over 10%, of the original Globe's foundations in 1989 gave the first positive evidence that could be used to test the accuracy of the multitude of different theories about the design.

That is one possible advantage we now have, though we must still acknowledge that the gaps are enormous.

The other is the surprising point that none of these early reconstructions have undertaken the experiments that are my subject now. If you believe that you have a good model of the Globe, then you need to see what happens to your preconceptions about how the plays were staged when you try them out on the new/old stage. Early reconstructions were built out of those preconceptions, so all those Globes did was confirm them. We need a more doubting approach.

That knowing more about the original Globe is a high priority is not in doubt. It was Shakespeare's machine. He contributed 12.5% of the cost of erecting it in 1599, and within the constraints laid down by the need to use the old framing timbers of the company's previous playhouse, he must have had a say in its design. It was certainly a...