A Small Theater Burns

It was on this day, 29 June 1613, in Southwark, across London Bridge from the City of London proper, that the original Globe Theater burned to the ground. The destruction was a financial calamity for The King’s Men, the company which owned the facility, but the greater calamity is that the loss of the theater probably occasioned the loss of a great deal of material by and about William Shakespeare. Henry Wotten, who was there that day, wrote:

The King’s Players had a new play called All Is True forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty. [wadding from a stage-prop cannon landed on the thatched roof and ignited a blaze.] Being first thought but an idle smoke, and all eyes attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds.

The company lost its wardrobes and costumes and many “diverse papers.” Who knows what treasures were destroyed in that conflagration?

The Globe was rebuilt (with a fire-proof tile roof!) and it did a brisk business for another thirty years or so until it was finally closed for good during the puritanical restrictions of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. Eventually the land was sold and new structures built on the site until the exact location of the original Globe was forgotten. In the early 1990s, excavation due to construction allowed the location of the original Globe to be determined.

About that time, Sam Wanamaker, an American actor and director, formed an organization to rebuild the Globe on or near its original location. In 1997, a new “Shakespeare’s Globe Theater” opened its doors. The building has been as authentically reconstructed as possible, based upon contemporary descriptions and the sole drawing of the interior of an Elizabethan playhouse which survives (hard to imagine that only one drawing survives, but that’s all we have to date) as well as the evidence uncovered during archeological analysis of the site of the original Globe. The structure is genuine half-timber and plaster, and it has the distinction of being the first building to be built with a thatched roof in London since all such rooves were prohibited in the aftermath of the great fire of 1666.

It is worth noting that in Wotten’s account above, he refers to the play underway when the fire began as All Is True, yet most sources today say that the fire started during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. The confusion stems from the fact that Shakespeare himself titled the play All Is True. It was the editors of the famous First Folio who entitled it Henry VIII. This was one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and was written in collaboration with a lesser playwright, John Fletcher. Shakespeare’s last three plays are now accepted to be collaborations with Fletcher.

In the wake of the loss of the Globe, Shakespeare seems to have retired. Most scholars believe that he sold his share in the King’s Men to retire at last to his beloved Stratford and his wife, Anne Hathaway. He lived less than three years after his return to Stratford and is buried in the 12th century Trinity Church there, in a place of honor at the high altar.

That calamitous fire in 1613 is perhaps as much responsible as any other act or event for our limited information about Shakespeare. But in the past three decades an enormous amount of new documentary information has come to light about the actual person who was William Shakespeare. While we will probably always crave more specific data, it is plain that we have good hope of learning much more as the vast archives of England are explored.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

— Henry V; Prologue

FURTHER READING:

There are far too many volumes about Shakepeare to even begin to attempt a significant listing, but two
works of the past few years are well worth a look for the interested generalist:

Will In The World Stephen Greenblatt; Norton, 2004: ISBN: 0393050572

This is a wonderfully well-written and enjoyably readable and comprehensive life of Shakespeare based upon all the newly available information as well as long-established scholarship. Greenblatt’s book is as entertaining as the best historical fiction while being informative and thought-provoking. I feel this by far bests Rowse’s 1963 biography which has been a “standard” for 40 years. Greenblatt makes the world of late sixteenth century/early seventeenth century England come alive.

Shakespeare Michael Wood; Basic Books, 2003: ISBN: 0465092640

This is a companion volume to Wood’s outstanding PBS series, In Search Of Shakespeare. In this book, Wood not only advances his case from the television series, but he greatly expands his argument in a far more detailed and convincing manner. Wood incorporates the latest information about Shakespeare into his unexpected conclusions, but he never overstates his argument nor does he make his point feel labored or strained. This is a terrifically entertaining and readable tour through some very complex history, and Wood makes sure it is always exciting. The book is very nicely illustrated as well, and I think that is a great plus.

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