December is famously the month when many people celebrate one miraculous birth, but I maintain there’s another birth we should also celebrate in this final month of the year — the birth of William Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre.
It’s a story of intrigue, legal hairsplitting, and holiday opportunity, plus a little exaggerated myth-making, that starts in December 1598 with the destruction of the theater…no, not the art form: the playhouse in Shoreditch, on the north side of the River Thames, where Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed, called the Theatre.
The Theatre, one of the first permanent structures designed for public performance in England, was built in 1576 by actor/manager James Burbage. He had two sons, Cuthbert and Richard, the latter of whom would become the leading actor in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the first person to portray many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles, including Romeo, Hamlet, and King Lear. James Burbage built the Theatre on land owned by a Puritan named Giles Allen, who leased the land to the Burbages for twenty-one years — and appeared ready to agree to extend the lease for another twenty-one years if the building only remained in use as a playhouse for an additional five.
But then two things happened in 1597 before the lease extension could be formalized: James Burbage died; and London’s theaters closed, beginning a period of uncertainty during which the status of the lease was unclear. When the theaters re-opened, Allen decided he didn’t want the theater (excuse me, the Theatre) on his land to be among them, forcing the Chamberlain’s Men to move to the nearby Curtain, a playhouse they would have to rent. The burden of this expense, combined with the surviving Burbages’ knowledge that they had a perfectly functional playhouse just sitting there, prompted someone (history fails to record who) to remember a provision in the original lease that allowed the Burbages to take down and remove any buildings they had constructed on Giles Allen’s land.
And so, with a conviction they were in the right but aware there could be trouble from those who might legitimately accuse them of trespassing, on December 28, 1598, “during the feast of the nativity,” the Burbage brothers, carpenter Peter Street, and a dozen or so other armed men (including, possibly but not definitively, Shakespeare himself) made their way to the Theatre, tore off the thatch roof and exterior walls, took it apart board by board, and re-assembled it on the other side of the river in Southwark as a brand-new playhouse not far from the already-standing Rose Theater.
They called it the Globe.
This is where mythic elements take over the story. Over the years, the legend of this adventure has grown, suggesting the Theatre was taken down in a single night, with all the timber and component pieces hustled across the frozen Thames under cover of darkness, and rebuilt as the Globe almost immediately. The facts, however, in addition to common sense, suggest this is a fun and dramatic exaggeration. The Theatre was a massive, three-story, multi-sided structure and it undoubtedly took several days to completely dismantle (fortunately, landlord Allen was spending his Christmas holiday in faraway Essex and couldn’t get back to London in time to prevent it). The Thames on that cold winter’s night was merely “nigh frozen over,” and the ground on the newly leased plot of land in Southwark far too hard to dig the massive foundations required to support the new theater. The timber was stored in a yard or warehouse near Bridewell until the weather changed enough to allow construction of the Globe to begin.
It remains unclear whether the original Globe Theatre opened in the summer or fall of the following year. There’s a contemporary account from someone who saw Julius Caesar there in 1599, but the ‘wooden O’ mentioned in Henry V (which likely also premiered that year) almost certainly refers to the similarly designed Curtain Theater, where the Chamberlain’s Men performed between the Theatre and the Globe. But whenever “the great Globe itself” opened, once it did, you know the Burbages, Shakespeare, and the rest of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men celebrated their new playhouse and (to paraphrase Prince) partied like — because it absolutely was — 1599.