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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London

What is Shakespeare’s Globe?

Shakespeare’s Globe is a late 20th-century reconstruction of the 16th-century Globe Theatre that stood nearby and held the plays of William Shakespeare and competing dramatists.

Shakespeare’s Globe

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Shakespeare’s Globe History

Walking west along the south bank of the River Thames from Southwark Bridge, there’s a building that stands out: curved white walls with oak frames topped with thatched roofing. This stunning piece of reconstruction, completed in 1997, is 230 metres away from the original site and is a tantalising window into William Shakespeare’s early modern world. The circular building, whose stage thrusts into an open-air courtyard, is a (reasonably) faithful copy of the original Globe Theatre completed in 1599. Because of the playwright’s stratospheric reputation, the original Globe is one of the most famous and significant theatres in the world, but it led a brief and rambunctious existence.

Today, theatre has a well-respected status and the works of Shakespeare have been lauded by innumerable critics and actors over centuries for accessing the timeless themes of human nature. Elizabethan theatre, however, could be a rowdy affair. Due to the perceived nuisance they incited, and the risk of plague, theatres were banned from the City of London (the ‘Square Mile’ just north of the river) in 1575. Nevertheless, one in eight Londoners regularly attended performances of Shakespeare as well as Christopher Marlowe, John Webster and other competing writers. Outside the city limits, theatres also competed with other forms of entertainment, such as cock-fighting and bear-baiting, and the many attractions and spectacles of the itinerant fairgrounds.

Shakespeare’s Globe wall

Theatres were places not only for watching plays, but also for gambling, drinking and eating; from your spot standing or sitting you could choose between apples, oranges, nuts, gingerbread and ale. Accordingly, playwrights had to work hard for the audience’s attention. If they succeeded, the audience hissed and hollered, clapped and booed their approval or displeasure for the heroes and villains. To stand in the yard amongst the ‘groundlings’ only cost one penny, the price of a loaf of bread – theatre truly was for the people. If you wanted to avoid the ubiquitous pickpocketing and stench of garlic and beer, you could pay several pennies more for a covered seat and cushion. The Venetian ambassador enjoyed Shakespeare’s Pericles in 1607 from the most expensive seats.

Theatres were raucous and interactive spaces, and audiences required steadily more from them. Special effects to enhance performances were used in ingenious ways, from throwing resin powder into flames for lightning, to setting off firecrackers attached to wires to fabricate lightning bolts. In June 1613, a small cannon was fired during a battle scene; an hour later, the entire theatre had burned to the ground. The Globe was quickly rebuilt, with a tiled roof as a precaution, but this could not stop its ultimate demise at the hands of the Puritans.

While some had critiqued the theatre for the boy players who cross-dressed (women were not allowed on the stage), the Puritans vociferously argued that they were dens of vice: places which distracted from work; presented a false view of the world; and ultimately encouraged pleasure and sexual deviancy. When, in the first years of the British Civil War, the Parliamentarians and their Puritan regime gained control of London in 1642, theatres were ordered to close due to their ‘lascivious Mirth and Levity’. The Globe was pulled down two years later. Only after the monarchy was restored in 1660 were theatres allowed to reopen, and a new era of Restoration theatricality began.

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