As I have written previously, in medieval times London’s South Bank was a centre for cultured (and less cultured) entertainment. The lack of the constraints enforced north of the River Thames by both the Cities of London and Westminster meant that taverns, bear pits, ‘stews’ (legalised brothels) and theatres flourished on the South Bank.
One such theatre was the Globe Theatre, built in 1599 the theatre company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. What is perhaps most notable about this particular group is that their playwright in residence was one William Shakespeare.
The original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 but destroyed by fire in 1613 when a prop cannon misfired during a performance of Henry VIII. The theatre was rebuilt by June 1614 and finally closed down by the puritans in 1642.
The theatre itself was thought to have been an open air amphiteatre, some three stories high, with an ‘apron’ stage thrusting out into a courtyard area. Spectators could watch the performances from the galleries around the courtyard or from the yard itself. Spectators within the yard were known as ‘groundlings’ who would each pay a penny to watch the plays – equivalent to around £8.50 at today’s prices.
In recent years the Globe was recreated on a site a few hundred yards from the original, funded after a long campaign led by the American actor Sam Wanamaker. The new Globe theatre opened in 1997, after Wanamaker’s death, and is home to performances of the works of Shakespeare and others each summer.
Groundling tickets these days now cost around five pounds – even cheaper in real terms than the 1620 price.