Shakespeare’s Globe and the Reinvigoration of Bankside

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Across the Thames, from the OXO Tower in the west to the Southwark Cathedral in the East, extending southward to St George’s circus, the borough of Southwark faces, throughout its history opposing—or reflecting–the city center of London. Throughout developments of centuries, Bankside, traditionally defined as the short riverfront path running east from Bankend to a western point somewhere just past the Tate Modern, has been the hotbed of culture and character of this borough.
Largely, contributions of Southwark to the city have been overlooked by historians who preferred to ignore certain elements of the city they’d rather not bring to light. Historically, it has been seen as “unruly, badly run, poor industrial, overcrowded, immoral, polluted, coarse, raucous, and unhealthy.� What is often obscured beneath its seedy reputation, however, is its “creative, independent, cosmopolitan, tolerant, vigorous, reforming, resilient, enterprising� character. All in all, it has served as a sanctuary: a home for prostitution, for criminals, for the poor, for immigrant communities, for the theater, and for “a culture-led regeneration that is the envy of London� (Reilly).

Until the end of the 18th-century, the entire cultural character of Bankside was determined by the area concentrated along the riverfront. This river walk, from the Tate Modern in the west; past the clink, Southwark cathedral, and the Golden Hinde, to Vinopolis and the Borough Market in the east, is my neighborhood of interest. Its present character takes root in its colorful history.
As Southwark has always been located just across the river, it was not under direct jurisdiction of the city until the early 20th century, when the Metropolitan Buroughs were formed. Thus, it has historically served as an area for the “illicit,� a refuge for those lewd activities banned on the other side. During its medieval years, it might be identified as London’s “red light district.� Bankside provided a lucrative home for brothels, as trans-river access, facilitated by wherry men with boats, was convenient and thriving. Elizabethan England, through the Northern literary Renaissance and the expulsion of theater from the North bank, saw an influx of theater into the area. When driven from the main bank, theaters found refuge in the South, alongside the established prostitution industry and active bear-bating culture. All South Bank entertainment was closely related; indeed, the activities of theater and bear-bating, oddly, were especially intertwined. Not only did the activities share buildings, promoters, and audience; this sixteeth century map actually mistakes the Globe theater for a bear-bating arena and the arena for the theatre.

Hollar’s Long View of London from Southwark, 1647

The Rose was the first theater to make its home on the South Bank. The Swan came soon after in 1595. In 1599, the Globe Theatre appeared on the South Bank, assembled from timbers from James Burbages’ 1576 Shoreditch Theatre. Once he wore out his welcome in the north, his sons made the fateful move to what was for the time being a more amenable location. There they rebuilt the 1576 Theatre in a team of twelve men led by master builder Peter Street. In November of 1601, the owner of the site of the Theater complained:

“The said Cuthbert Burbage, unlawfully combining and confederating himselfe with the said Richard Burbage and one Peter Street, William Smyth and divers other persons to the number of twelve to your subject unknown did about the eight and twentieth day of December riotously assemble themselves together and then and here armed themselves with divers and many unlawful and offensive weapons, as namely swords, daggers, bills, axes, and the like. And so armed did then repair unto the said Theater and then and there, armed as aforesaid, in very riotous, outrageous and forcible manner and contrary to the laws of your highnesse realm attempted to pull dowen the said Theatre. And having done so did then, also in most forcible and riotous manner, take and carry away from thence all the wood and timber therefore unto the Bankside and there erected a new playhouse with the said timber and wood.� (Globe Trust, 2005).
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And this new playhouse became Shakespeare’s Globe, the vitality of the riverside for the next twenty-five years.

All too soon, the Bankside theaters were closed by a 1624 Puritan edict. The rest of the seventeenth century saw urban expansion, as the resident Bishop left his Southwark estate, allowing the land to be sublet for the rapidly growing London population. Industrialization and further urbanization characterized the neighborhood over the next few hundred years. The population explosion brought its own set of social problems, including housing shortages and unsanitary living conditions. Efforts to curb these ills took place throughout the industrial years, taking form of introduction of welfare organizations and establishment of hospitals and educational institutions, and were mildly successful.

Unsurprisingly, based on the patterns of the past centuries, the development and decline of Bankside during the twentieth century continued to follow the whims of industry. Firstly, just following the First World War, housing and public health conditions underwent soaring improvements with production booms of the twenties. Industrialization continued, before meeting an abrupt end with the total decimation of the Second World War. Post-war Bankside then was subject to a steep decline in both population and industry.

This was the Bankside of 1949 that American actor Sam Wanamaker stumbled into in search of the gem in the area’s history that was Shakespeare’s Globe. To his dismay, all he discovered was a tarnished bronze plaque on the walls of a brewery. Motivated with the desire to give Shakespeare’s theater its due honor, he embarked upon a plan to rebuild the Globe near its original site. In 1980, he established the Museum of the Shakespearean Stage in Bear Garden, despite serious opposition from the North Southward Community Development Group, who expressed reluctance to bring tourists into the area. Stonewalling from the said group who felt that reestablishment of the Globe was contrary to the needs of the “traditional working class community of North Southwark� created a formidable obstacle to Wanamaker’s reconstruction. Lacking federal support, Wanamaker decided to engage in a “self build� method of building. Through this system, the Globe itself became the contractor and took small steps in the building whenever enough money trickled in. He took his extra time to assemble an academic advisory team to insure that the reconstruction be as authentic as possible. John Orrell served as a historian and scholar of theatre design, while Andrew Gurr joined as a Shakespeare scholar. Wanamaker hired architect Theo Crosby to oversee the design, and master carpenter Peter McCurdy to head the actual construction process.
Having a team of scholars behind his construction was key to Wanamaker’s purpose. Project managers Eric Vassar and Ted Hampton spoke to a collective desire for historical accuracy:

“We intend to make the most accurate reconstruction possible on the basis of known information and a consensus of academic opinion within the context of twentieth century safety standards.� (Linnell)

Although held up on small details by stringent, and necessary, fire codes—we musn’t forget the Globe burned down in an hour in 1613–the team was actually able to top the building off with a thatched roof: the first and only one in London since the Great Fire of 1666. To this day, thatched roofs are still illegal.
An accurate historical reproduction was not as easy as it might seem. In fact, the team had but scant historical information concerning the Globe’s detail. Much of this consisted of written descriptions of the theatres, mostly by visitors to the city, and contemporary engravings, including John Norden’s depiction of the theater and Hollar’s Long View of London. The most important document for the team proved the contract for building the Fortune playhouse. Details from this piece, however, are still ambiguous. Characteristics of the sister theatre had to be deduced from passages such as the following:

“The…Stadge to be paled in belowe with good, strong & sufficient newe oken bourdes and likewise the lower Storie of the saide Frame withinside, and the same lower storie to be alsoe laide over and fenced with stronge yron pykes…And the saide howse and other thinges beforemencioned to be made & doen to be in all other contivitions, conveyances, fashions, thinge and thinges affected, finished and doen accordinge to he manner and fashion of the siade howse called the Globe, saveinge only that all theprincypall and maine postes of the saide Frame and Stadge forwarde shal be square and wroughte palaterwise, with carve proporcions called Satiers to be placed & sett on the top of every of the same postes…� (Globe Trust, 2005).

On-site archaeological excavations were the missing physical link in the still blurry historical blueprint. In 1987, in an effort to determine the structure of the theatre, the grounds covering the remains of London’s Old Globe was broken. The entire site could not be excavated, however, due to the fact that the majority of the remains lay buried, as they do today, beneath the 1834 “Anchor Terrace,� a late-Georgian building protected by the historical society.
Today, the “Old Theatre Court� Apartments stand directly to the left of the site of the actual Globe.

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Semi-circular granite cobblestones in the brick ground, visible only through the locked gates of the apartment complex, denote and commemorate the outer circumference of the Globe.

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Cobblestones of a different shade reveal the exact location of the archeological remains, now protected by a specific preservation system, two meters below the present ground surface. The numerous buildings that stood on the site of the Globe Theatre since its Puritanical demolition in 1644 unfortunately severely damaged the remains of the theatre, leaving only the tiny traces preserved. In the Northeastern section of the site, chalk and brick foundations of parallel gallery walls were unearthed. Because the Bankside was a marshland during Elizabethan times, foundations were capped with bricks bonded in lime mortar to provide dry footings for the oak beams at the base of the timbre frame. To the East, a brick structure, which probably formed the base of a stair turret, was discovered. Foundations of two cross walls, running between the inner and outer gallery walls, were the final finding. All in all, excavations revealed a mere five percent of the foundations of the Globe theatre. They proved the team’s assumption that, indeed, the building was not round, as many had previously believed; instead, it was a twenty-sided polygonal structure with a diameter of 99 feet.
Armed with this information, combined with deductions from contemporary written and artistic materials, the team set out to construct the New Globe. Not only did they want to produce a product that appeared to resemble the Old Globe, but they were determined to use materials and building techniques as similar as possible to those of the model building. Vassar and Hampton claimed they learned as much from their building process as people learn from the space itself. (Linnell)
First, brick and lime mortar footings were cemented on a concrete piazza, forming the now unnecessary “dry� base of the structure. Next, circular oak tree sections with annular rings were hewn to a square with an axe, and the faces were smoothed with a long-handled adze. Secondary structural timbres were halved, and tertiary timbres quartered. Each section of timbre was cut, and joints were precisely scribed and fitted by wooden pegs—each individually, in a variation of a mortise and tenon design. The peg holes in the mortise and tenon were intentionally set just out of line. Because of this orientation, when the tapered oak peg were driven into the offset holes, the timbres were pulled tightly together in an Elizabethan building process called “draw boring.� Each frame was tediously produced lying flat on the ground in the carpenter’s yard and the joints were marked. These were then dismantled before being reassembled individually on site. Finally, each was lifted into position and connected to another. Once the frame was assembled, the walls were filled in with a plaster material, composed of oaked staves, sand, slaked lime, and animal hair.
Interestingly, the oak timbres are visible on the exterior of the building. Historically, the outside of the Globe was probably completely plastered over. In this singular case, however, Wanamaker dismissed his desire for reproductive authenticity in favor of revealing building materials and structural foundation. Some complain that the revealed timbres are just a tourist show catering to those coming to see a bit of “merrie England,� when really the exterior should be plain in order to maximize its contrast with the brilliantly painted interior (Globe Trust, 2005).

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Inside, the design was “improvised� in the style of Elizabethan theatrical interior decoration. Solar studies at the excavation site revealed that the Old Globe was aligned toward the midsummer sunrise. Thus, actors were always shaded while the audience was left in the sun. As they are today, they were left to contend with all the elements, as contracts for the Fortune and Hope theatres refer to a cover for the stage but nothing to shield the observers. Documents concerning the Shoreditch Red Lion Playhouse gave stage dimensions of forty by thirty feet. The Globe’s five-foot high rectangular stage adheres to this model. It projects halfway into the central yard, and has no facilities for stage scenery or painted backdrops.
Instead, the interior is richly painted. Above the stage sit the heavens, a series of panels are framed in gold and painted to represent the twelve figures of the zodiac, the planetary deities who govern the human destinies enacted below.

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The “heavenly lightâ€? in the center disguises a trapdoor designed for entrances of dues ex machinae. The gods of eloquence–Mercury as the mediator and between humans and gods and Apollo as the head of the muses and patron of the arts–watch over each side of the stage. The trapdoor on the stage leads to hell beneath. The stage is, of course, earth, “caught between heaven and hell.â€? It is the ideal set to play out the struggles of humans, lost in between benign divine influence and malign devilish influence. The physical layout of the stage itself explains the “resultant disarray of earthly existence,â€? provides a perfect forum for these “trials and folliesâ€?—or tragedies and comedies—to be played out on the stage (Linnell).

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Not only is the world reflected in the structure and action of the Globe stage, but also the audience acts as a global microcosm. Throughout British history, the theatre has been traditionally considered a place where all classes can go and are represented. In a 1771 Oxford magazine, Garrick enthusiast Sir John Talbot writes, “As it was in Athens, the playhouse in London is for all classes of the nation. The peer of the realm, the gentleman, the merchant, the citizen, the clergyman, the tradesman, and their wives, equally resort thither to take places and the crowd is greatâ€? (Globe Trust, 2002). As a representation of English social structure, the organization of the 1600 theatre attendees–reduced from the original 3000—is of course hierarchical. For Elizabethans, entrance to the yard cost one cent, or one twelfth of a weekly salary. Today, “groundlingsâ€? are allotted to a place to stand on the stage-front ground for five pounds. The gentleman’s rooms are located nearest the stage on the ground floor of the gallery, while the Lord’s rooms float above them. Oddly, in Shakespeare’s day, the seats behind the stage—and on the stage—were the most coveted. Going to the theatre, then, was not about seeing but about being seen. Today, the most expensive seats, of course, have the best view of the action.

The world of people the Globe attracts is huge. Thus the establishment of the Globe Theatre actually became the first step in the post-decline regeneration of the Bankside area. In time with the opening of the Globe came the opening of the Thames walkway and new access to Southwark from the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Walkway. A publication of the Borough of Southwark proclaims the “rebuilding of the Globe stimulated the idea of culture and heritage-led attractions� that soon begin to give new character to the South Bank (Reilly). In the reproductive style of the Globe, the replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde rests just east down the Thames path.

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The Clink prison museum, in the actual setting of the Clink prison, draws visitors curious about historical torture practices. Southwark cathedral, the Bear Bating arena, and the Globe’s original site all draw further tourists to original locations and structural replicas and refurbishments of the historical buildings.
With the new Southwark tourism industry comes new developments, reflections of the cultural demands of today. In the building opposite the Clink prison sits a Starbucks,

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while another Starbucks is next to a Pizza Express across from the Globe.

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The area is brimming with chain culinary haunts, as well as hotels and facilities to house the visitors to the area. Other modern cultural developments have led the area in a more distinguished direction, with the exploration of today’s art through the establishment of the Tate Modern. A Globe tour guide described the combined effects of the Globe and the Tate Modern upon Bankside as monumental. These two institutions, he claimed, made a depleted area again what it was in Shakespeare’s Day, a place where everyone goes to hang out during their free time.
One might object to this statement, in the sense that the area seems initially more of a tourist attraction–a giant amusement park–then a hotbed of local community activity. This is not entirely true, however. The Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern both attract loyal local support, while just down the river walk, behind the museum and wine-taking mega-plex Vinopolis, sits the Burough market. These food stalls are teeming with crowds of Londoners, buying their vegetables and cheeses and sausages, eating a late lunch from a local butcher, sampling a juice fresh squeezed by an area farm.

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This very market has brought locals to this same area for one thousand years. Activity here today, due to cultural developments of the area, is as vivacious as ever.
Today, Bankside is an eclectic mix of buildings of disparate functions and periods. It finds continuity, however, in its synchrony. It has been regenerated by its very history. Although for much of its first thousand years, the area was a location for disdainful activity, in the past several years the area has celebrated this “illicit� past, soared with it, and built itself into a British cultural mecca.

The New Globe Theatre

SOURCES

Linnell, R. and Daniel Hahn. Shakespeare’s Globe Exhibition. International
Shakespeare Globe Centre Ltd. 2001.

Reilly, L and Geoff Marshall. The Story of Bankside: From the River Thames to St.
George’s Circus. Neighborhood History Number Seven. London Borough of Southwark, 2001.

Shakespeare Globe Trust. Proceedings of the Finishing the Globe Conference.
4 Sept 2002.

Shakespeare Globe Trust. Proceedings of the Globe Architecture Symposium Weekend.
12 & 13 Feb 2005.

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