Did you know that the 23rd April, is not only St George’s Day but also Shakespeare’s birthday? Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon on 23 April 1564. 23 April was not only his date of birth but also his date of death – which was on 23 April 1616 at the age of 52. Shakepeare lived for many years in Middlesex at addresses in Shoreditch and Bishopsgate. He drunk at many Middlesex Inns – favourites being the Boar’s Head in Eastcheap and the Mermaid in Cheapside (both of which burned down in the Great Fire of London). These areas would quite dangerous at that time – Middlesex Court Sessions records contain details of the crime prevalent in the Shoreditch area. Shakespeare was a member of the Friday Street Club – a drinking club which included other prevalent poets, artists and writers of the time such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Johnson, John Donne and Francis Bacon.
Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebrations at The Globe
It was around this time last year that I joined the birthday celebrations at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This was a great chance to take a look around the Globe Exhibition and soak up the atmosphere of Elizabethan open air theatre.
The original Globe Theatre was first opened in 1599. Many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays such as Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra were performed here. At this time the Southbank area was a bit of a den of iniquity being home to a number of brothels, pleasure gardens, taverns and bear baiting pits. The theatre was a very popular form of entertainment but considered anti-establishment – with construction of theatres was not permitted on the north side of the Thames.
Theatre provided an escape from the often harsh realities of life in London. Being in the audience was a much more vibrant experience than it is today with much loud cheering and booing of the action on stage and interaction with the actors. The Audience included all stratas of society from the poor to royalty and provided rich takings for pick pockets. Fights would also frequently break out.
The original Globe theatre was usually packed and could hold up to 3000 people. Disaster struck in 1613 when a fire broke out during a performance of Henry VIII and burned the theatre down in under an hour. A second Globe Theatre was constructed on the same site.
The exhibition explains how the first two theatres were built as well as the modern day theatre (230 metres from the original site) which was the first building of it’s kind to be built with a thatched roof in London since the Great Fire of 1666.
Model of The Globe Theatre
You’ll view models of the Globe and it’s rival the Rose Theatre as well as a view of the Southbank at the time of the Frost Fairs. There are curiousities such as beer tankers in which the audience would have supped their ale and piles of shells discarded from the nuts they would have snacked on during the performance.
Model of the Ice Fair and a Beer Tanker
The section about Sam Wanamaker who founded the theatre is really fascinating. He had the original idea for a theatre to mark the work of Shakepeare during a trip to London back in 1949. The idea became his life’s mission and the exhibition charts the highs and lows on the path to the successful opening of the new Globe in 1997. It’s just sad that Sam passed away in 1994 so was never able to see his dream become reality.
There is a lot of information about the clothing and fabrics worn by the actors – who in Shakespeare’s time were all male. Any actor playing a female role must have taken hours to get ready – having to wear whale bone corsets and other padding. Powdered hogs bones mixed with poppy oil was a natural method to give boy actors playing women a pale complexion. Alternatively, poisonous white lead and vinegar was used to make up a lethal concoction known as ceruse which obtained the same effect.
One of the more bizzare facts I found out was that they actually used urine to remove stains on the clothing – with the urine of pregnant women apparently having added efficacy!
Music was important in Shakespeare plays to create mood and atmosphere. There is a display of typical instruments used at the time.
I particularly enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere in the Globe open air theatre. I was able to sit on one of the wooden benches surrounding the standing area to watch the performance. I was really pleased about this having visited the Globe for a production some years ago and stood for 2 hours plus in the area facing the stage which, although authentic, was uncomfortable! At the time of my visit there was an updated modern day performance of Romeo and Juliet taking place which was well received by the crowd. When the performance finished everyone had the chance to climb up on the stage to get an actor’s view of the theatre which was a really cool experience.
Inside the open air theatre and Middlesex Explorer
The life of William Shakespeare should be celebrated on both 23 April and Middlesex Day – 16th May – for it was in Middlesex that he created some of his most famous works and changed the world of literature forever.
21 New Globe Walk, Bankside SE1 9DT
Nearest Stations: Southwark or London Bridge.