On this day in 1564, William Shakespeare was born. And then he died, exactly 52 years later, again on the 23rd of April, in 1616. Or so the historians say.
Last week I went to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and so to celebrate the 23rd of April – an eventful date in Shakespeare’s life – I’d love to share with you the experience.
William Shakespeare once wrote ‘If I chance to talk a little wild, forgive me.’ And in this post I am going to write a little wildly myself because my trip to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and it inspired me somewhat.
I thought a trip to the Globe Theatre meant just looking at the building but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there’s a whole museum dedicated to Shakespeare housed under the theatre.
So what can you expect to see on your visit?
Clothes from Shakespeare’s day
“Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.”
– William Shakespeare, King Lear
I would not have wanted to be a woman in Shakespeare’s day. Their clothes were extremely uncomfortable and if you were an actor playing a woman in Shakespeare’s plays you had to be prepared to suffer. (No women were allowed to be actors back then.)
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The actors would need to wear corsets, sometimes made with whale bone, and pull them tightly to give them a narrow waist. To give themselves a nice womanly figure they had to attach a roll of padding around their bums, as a big arse was much desired. And if this wasn’t heavy enough, you had to cover yourself in petticoats and skirts.
Many male actors playing female roles fainted on stage, especially when it was hot, because they struggled to breathe in their costumes.
But if you didn’t faint, you were likely to be poisoned, as many of the men were required to cake on thick makeup derived from lead to give them a desirable pale complexion. Orange Essex tans weren’t popular back in the 1600s!
At the museum under the Globe Theatre you can walk through a space set up like a washing room from that era, demonstrating how they kept the clothes in shape. One disgusting fact I learnt was that they used urine to remove stains. Fabric softener it was not!
We also enjoyed a dressing demonstration where two museum employees chose a woman from the audience and dressed her in the fashion of the day so you could see just how extravagant they were. I reckon it’d have taken about an hour to get dressed back then, which would’ve been a pain in the backside. Literally. That bum lining wouldn’t have been too comfortable to perch on.
A demonstration of the music used in the Globe Theatre
“If music be the food of love, play on.”
– William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Music often accompanied Shakespeare’s plays and helped to create atmosphere and mood throughout the performances. The musicians often stood in the balcony area and today music is still played in this area of the Globe Theatre.
Some of the music used in the modern day performances has stayed true to Shakespeare’s time. For example, the Globe Theatre used an authentic recreation of Elizabethan playhouse music played on reproduction period instruments for the performance of Henry V in 1997. You can see some of these instruments in the museum if you’re curious.
But not all the music used is authentic. For Augustine’s Oak, first performed in 1999, folk-rock musician Tim Arnold used music influenced by John Lennon and what he dubbed ‘Glastonbury rock’. Not sure I’d put the words Shakespeare and rock in the same sentence – but I guess this proves it can be done.
Details about the construction of the Globe Theatre
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”
– William Shakespeare, As You Like It
As part of your entrance fee, you get a guided tour of the Globe Theatre. When we went, actors were using the stage to rehearse The Tempest so when our guide took us into the theatre we could watch some of the play being performed and get a taste for what it’s like to visit as an audience.
The only downside to this is that you couldn’t take any photos, so the photo below is (the only one) from the Globe Theatre’s press library.
But as part of the tour you learn about how the building was constructed. The Globe Theatre is the only building that has a thatched roof in London as unsurprisingly following the Great Fire in 1666, thatched roofs are deemed a fire hazard. The Globe Theatre burnt down in 1613 and although 3,000 people were crammed into the building for a performance at the time, they all escaped unharmed. But they didn’t use water to douse the flames, oh no. Thanks to the British love of beer, those whose breeches caught on fire were quickly smouldering thanks to a pint or three splashed over them.
The Globe Theatre cost more than £13 million to build because it’s a replica of the former Globe Theatre and goats’ hair and lime was used for building materials. The wood was all hand carved just as it would’ve been back in the day, making it look authentic.
Depending on your rank would depend on where you sat or stood in the audience. The most expensive seats in the house weren’t actually the best, because they’re on the balcony on the stage so you were looking down on the actors from behind. The purpose of this was so you could be seen, because as a wealthy person you wanted everyone to know how important you were.
The poorer people sat on wooden benches undercover and the even poorer crowd stood in the open air section, which is closest to the stage.
What I was surprised to learn is that the person behind the construction of the Globe Theatre, Sam Wanamaker, is American and decided to dedicate the latter part of his life to the theatre’s construction when he was disappointed to find only a plaque dedicated to Shakespeare’s theatre in the 1970s. Sadly, Wanamaker died in 1993, four years before the theatre opened.
Props from the plays… and elsewhere
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”
– William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
This is a part for the men to enjoy. There are daggers that they discovered when excavating the former Globe Theatre site (which is just down the road from where it stands now) on display in the museum.
When the actors performed Shakespeare’s plays they would use real daggers and clever tricks to disguise the fact that they weren’t really stabbing each other.
Other artefacts on display include nutshells, which were found preserved in the dirt during the excavation. Dog and horse skeletons were also found in the ground.
Have you been to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre? What did you think?
What you need to know:
Cost – An adult ticket costs £13.50 and you can buy it on the door. We spent about two hours in the museum and on the tour (which lasted about half an hour) so I think it’s well worth the entrance fee.
When to go – It’s best to choose a day when the sun is shining (rare in London, I know) because the tour is outside and the Globe Theatre is open air.
How to get there – The closest underground and train stations are Blackfriars, Mansion House, London Bridge, Southwark and St Paul’s. I’d recommend coming by St Paul’s because it’s a lovely walk over Millennium Bridge to the theatre.