On our London walks that take you through the places that Shakespeare would have known we pass the New Globe Playhouse that looms majestically on the south side of the River Thames across from St. Paul’s Cathedral.
However, we also delve in to the backstreets around Bankside and, as we do so, we encounter a plaque on a wall along Park Street that marks the site of the original Globe Playhouse – the theatre at which Shakespeare worked and at which audiences first thrilled to the words of the immortal Bard.
It was at the Globe that Shakespeare spent much of his career and on our London walks that cover this part of London we introduce you to the streets and people that he would have known.
The leading actor of the company (originally the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later  the King’s Men) was Richard Burbage. Other actors included Augustine Phillips, William Sly, John Heminges, Henry Condell, Cuthbert Burbage, Thomas Pope and William Kempe.
Will Kempe was the great jester of the Burbage company, having pioneered the roles of Peter in Romeo and Juliet and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, but in 1602 the restless and eccentric Kempe left the company to dance the Morris from London to Norwich. Having achieved this to his satisfaction, Kempe then danced over the Alps and out of the history of the Globe.
He was replaced by Robert Armin, a much more subtle comic and tragedian than his predecessor. It was Armin who in 1605 first played the Fool in King Lear with Richard Burbage in the title role.
The Globe, in common with the other public theatres of the time, was a circular (in fact polygonal) structure, with three tiers of galleries surrounding an open inner circular space into which the stage projected. The audience could stand or sit in front of it. Above the stage was a turret containing pulleys and devices for swinging things or people onto the stage.
There were also cannon balls to be rolled across the floor of the ‘tiring house’ for effects such as thunder, and stage cannons for the alarms of war. From the turret flew a flag with a globe upon it to announce a performance in progress, and a trumpeter would sound out from the turret to summon the crowds.
The Globe burned down on 29 June 1613, during the first night of Shakespeare’s Henry Bacon, Sir Henry Wotton described the event thus:
The King’s players had a new play, called ‘All is True’, representing some principal pieces from the reign of Henry VIII, which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting of the stage, the Knights of the Order with their Georges and garters, the Guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now, King Henry making a masque at Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain chambers being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoke, and their eyes more 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.
This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few foresaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale.
The Globe was rebuilt and was open again by 1614, but Shakespeare seems to have decided that this was the time to retire.
He went home to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he died three years later in 1616.
On our Shakespeare’s London walk we stand on the spot where many of his most stirring words first echoed and ponder how in The Tempest, written in either late 1612 or early 1613, Shakespeare seems almost to have anticipated the end of the Globe:-
Our revels now are ended.
These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
We are such stuff As dreams are made on,
and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.
The Globe continued with John Fletcher replacing Shakespeare as the playwright. But finally, along with the other theatres, it was suppressed by the Civil War Parliament of 1642 and pulled down.
On 12 October 1989, during redevelopment of the modern buildings that now stand on this site, archaeolog¬ists discovered what are believed to be the foundations of both Globe theatres.
The remnants are now preserved beneath the car park beyond the wall where the information boards that now adorn the site and which provide a little history on the age of Shakespeare.
It really is a poignant moment of our South London walks when we stand at this site and ponder the golden age of English theatre when Shakespeare’s words once sounded out around these very streets.