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Culture Re-View: On this day in 1613, the Globe Theatre burns down

The modern Shakespeare's Globe
The modern Shakespeare's Globe Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
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29 June 1613: The first Globe Theatre burns down

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After the Theatre of Dionysus in Ancient Greece and the Colosseum in Ancient Rome, there is one theatre that has defined more of the artform than any other in history. It is, of course, the Globe Theatre.

First built in 1599 by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the theatre company which boasted a young William Shakespeare as a main member, the Globe Theatre was located by Southwark Bridge on the Southbank of the Thames River in London.

At the time, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were the leading theatre company in the UK, part due to the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays, which had been previously performed in The Theatre in Shoreditch.

By 1598, plays with the Bard's name attached had become a selling point and the Globe bought into his popularity too, soon after opening. 

It's heavily speculated that the first ever performance at the newly opened Globe Theatre was likely ‘Julius Caesar’, although the first definite show was reported to be  Benjamin Johnson’s play ‘Every Man out of His Humour’.

Wenceslas Hollar for his Long View of London
The Old Globe theatre — a print of the original theatre in London.Wenceslas Hollar for his Long View of London

An immediate success, the Globe Theatre became the venue that many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays debuted, including ‘Hamlet’, ‘Othello’, and ‘King Lear’.

The round venue had an open-air middle with a thrust stage covered by a cloth canopy and seating surrounding the stage under a thatched roof. Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe were so popular that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were renamed as the King’s Men in 1603 when King James ascended the throne and became the company’s patron.

But, disaster struck on this day in 1613.

Among features like a trapdoor, the Globe Theatre liked to use its setting to maximum effect. This went terribly wrong when during a performance of ‘Henry VIII’ some canons were fired. Despite no cannon balls being inside the weapons, the company had still filled them with gunpowder to create the firing explosion.

The thatched roof caught fire and within an hour, the entire theatre had burnt down. According to historical reports, no one was harmed beside a single man whose breaches caught alight, the garment put out with a bottle of ale.

It’s a miracle the fire wasn’t more dire, given this was before the 1666 Great Fire of London - an event which would soon prove just how flammable London was.

Still, the fire was national news. By the next morning two songs had been written about it.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the end for the Globe Theatre. Over the following year, the company rebuilt their theatrical home, this time to an even grander scale.

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Shakespeare's Globe in today's London skylineCanva

The King’s Men continued to perform at the Globe until 1642 when it was closed permanently during the First English Civil War due to the rising influence of the Puritans. Sometime between 1644 and 1645 the theatre was pulled down.

Over 350 years later, a modern reconstruction of the theatre opened within a short distance of the original location. Shakespeare’s Globe opened to the public in 1997 as a replica of the original building - it houses performances of Shakespeare’s work to this day.

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