Cold Open - Stealing lumber for the Globe.
It’s a snowy day in December 1598 in London; several years before the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.
Actor Richard Burbage chops into a wood column with his ax. Richard is cold and tired, but his work is almost finished. So he slams his ax into the wood again as hard as he can. Then Richard steps back.
The column comes crashing to the ground. A nearby group of ax-wielding thespians let out a cheer. Then Richard and his fellow actors get back to chopping.
Richard is the leading man of London’s most famous theater troupe: the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. But today, Richard and his company aren’t performing a play; they’re tearing down a building. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men recently lost the lease on their old theater. So Richard and other members of the troupe purchased a plot of land to build a new one. But money is tight, and they can’t afford lumber. So Richard decided to knock down the old building and take the wood while the landlord’s out of town.
Soon, a horse-drawn wagon arrives on the scene. The driver hops down and helps the actors load the lumber onto the back. Richard surveys the scene and smiles. They’ve brought down the theater, and the landlord is none the wiser. And when all of the wood is loaded, Richard and the driver climb onto the wagon.
It lurches forward, and Richard rides with the lumber to the future home of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men: the Globe.
In 1599, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men begin construction of the Globe theater. Having put their own money into the project, they’re taking a huge risk. The theater business is inconsistent and competitive. Troupes like the Lord Chamberlain’s Men vie with local artists, traveling performers, and crowd-pleasing animal acts.
It's a tough business. And the task of making the Globe successful will largely fall to one troupe member; actor and playwright, William Shakespeare. Starting in 1599, William will write a series of plays that will bring audiences flocking to the new theater. They'll make his troupe the biggest draw in town until a special effect gone wrong causes the Globe to burn to the ground on June 29th, 1613.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is June 29th, 1613: “The Globe theater Burns Down”.
Act One: Building and opening the Globe
It’s spring 1599 in London, England.
Actor and playwright, William Shakespeare, trudges through the streets. He stops as he approaches the construction site of the Globe theater, and takes in the progress, or lack thereof. When he sees that the building is nowhere near finished, he sighs with apprehension. Like most members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, William is nervous about the troupe’s future. He fears that if the Globe isn’t ready, and soon, the Chamberlain’s Men might go out of business.
The new theater was supposed to be ready weeks ago. But back in December, London was hit hard by a winter storm. The lingering cold slowed down construction, and it cost the theater plenty of money. After the storm, the troupe was forced to move into a small, indoor space. But that venue only had a few hundred seats, not nearly enough to turn a profit. William knows that for the troupe to make real money, they need the Globe, a theater that will accommodate audiences of close to 3,000.
At the construction site, William and the rest of the troupe meet with the company’s master builder, Peter Street. Peter assures the actors that he’s doing everything he can to speed up construction. He promises that the Globe will be operational by late summer. William takes this as good news, but it also makes him anxious. He has just a few months to write another play.
By 1599, William is already a respected playwright, having written and staged works like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. But in the past, William was a pen for hire. Producers paid him to write plays, and he wrote them. But now, William has sunk his own money into the construction of the Globe; and other troupe members have done the same. William is excited that he and his fellow company members will get a cut of the profits. But there won’t be any profits if his new play isn’t a hit.
So soon, William returns to his London home and gets to work. He has bits and pieces of a few plays already written, but nothing he thinks can open the Globe and get audiences cheering. So he starts reading notes he’s scribbled on pieces of paper, looking for inspiration. But it doesn’t come.
William decides the air in his house is stifling his creativity. So he heads out into the London streets and soon wanders into a pub. As William drinks, he observes the people around him; many are fans of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. And William begins to think about what they might enjoy.
London theaters entertain every class of English society, and William understands that the Globe is being built with that in mind. The new theater will feature standing room for the lower classes, raised seating for wealthier patrons, and boxes for aristocrats and royalty. And William wants his new play to appeal to all of them. He starts to think that there’s one subject nearly every class of person loves to gossip about: Queen Elizabeth I.
The aging Elizabeth has reigned for over 40 years and she has no direct heir. Many in England are worried about what will happen after she dies; some even fear the country could dissolve into civil war. William decides his new play should speak to those fears.
And back at home, he looks through his notes again. This time, something jumps out; a few lines he scribbled about the infamous assassination of the Roman leader, Julius Caesar. William thinks Caesar could serve as a template to explore the themes of political intrigue, succession, and civil war that surround the imminent death of Queen Elizabeth.
And over the next several weeks, William pens one of the most famous plays in history: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. And he finishes it just in time for the play to open his troupe’s brand-new theater.
In September of 1599, on opening night of Julius Caesar, William is a bundle of nerves. He worries that if his play fails, the Globe and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men will fail with it. But when the actors take their final bows, and the crowd roars its approval, William is sure he has a hit on his hands.
Julius Caesarmarks the beginning of a string of successful plays for William. And with each of William’s triumphs, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men grow richer and more popular. But just when it looks like the theater is destined for years of prosperity, the moment that many Englanders have dreaded comes to pass. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I will die, the government will halt all performances in London, and William and the Globe’s future will be left in the hands of a Scottish King.
Act Two: The King’s Men
It’s April 1603 at the Globe in London, England.
William and several members of his troupe banter back and forth, trying to pass the time in their empty theater. The good-natured ribbing of the group masks the seriousness of their situation. William and the others are waiting to hear if their company has a future, or if their days of playing to packed houses are over.
Following Queen Elizabeth’s death, the government shut down the London theaters for a period of mourning. But soon after, the English throne was assumed by King James VI of Scotland or as he will come to be called, King James I of England.
After King James assumed the English throne, the government kept the theaters closed. The power to reopen them now lies with the new monarch. William and the other actors have heard a rumor that James has made a decision that he’s about to issue a royal decree. William is nervous about the outcome. He fears that his life’s work might be blotted out by a stroke of the King’s pen.
Soon, a royal messenger enters the space. William and the others fall silent. But as the messenger reads the King’s words, William’s apprehension melts away. The messenger informs the actors that King James has proclaimed that they are free to “exercise the art and faculty of playing comedies, tragedies, and histories… for the recreation of our loving subjects.”
The King has reopened the theaters. And that alone is enough to make William celebrate. But there’s more to James’ message. James also decrees that as an avid supporter of the Arts, he himself will be the troupe’s new patron. Moving forward, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men will be called the King’s Men.
William can’t believe his luck. The King’s patronage comes with an added stipend, and an opportunity to perform for visiting dignitaries and at royal functions. James also invites the troupe to his coronation, which further boosts their reputation in the public eye.
James’ support brings William’s work and the Globe to a whole new level of popularity. And King James himself frequently attends the Globe, which starts to attract even larger crowds. Soon, the King’s Men are performing more than any other troupe in England, and more than they ever have in the past.
William thrives on the troupe’s ongoing financial success and the fame he’s garnered. But the increased performances put a strain on William as a writer. While the King’s Men are able to remount plays they’ve done in the past, the crowds are hungry for new work, and so is the King. So William works hard to give them what they want. And in 1606, he writes a play seemingly tailor-made for the Scottish James.
Macbethis the story of a murderous Scottish thane, and not only appeals to James’ heritage, it touches on a topic James has written a book about: Witchcraft. The subject matter is a major draw for both the King and London audiences, and Macbethmarks another success for William and the King’s Men. But the play sends William down a path that presents new challenges for him as a writer.
On stage, the witchcraft and supernatural elements in Macbeth are enhanced by multi-colored smoke, a wooden “thunder machine,” firecrackers, and other visual and sound effects. They're very successful. And soon, audiences crave more of this type of spectacle. William feels compelled to keep up with the growing expectations of the people, so the crowds will keep filling the Globe, and the troupe will continue to thrive.
Over the next several years, William continues to write at a furious pace. He adds more intricate stage directions to his plays, and he finds new ways to include more thrills and spectacles for the audience. The King’s Men are prospering, and the Globe is a popular destination for Londoners and travelers throughout England. But William is exhausted.
Finally, in early 1613, as William approaches 49 years old, he asks for help from John Fletcher, a younger playwright in the troupe. Together, William and John start working on a play about Queen Elizabeth’s father. At the time, it’s called All Is True, but it will eventually be known as King Henry VIII.
Historical accuracy isn’t necessarily William’s aim with the show. He wants the play to contain suspense, romance, music, dance, and elaborate costumes; all things that King James and everyday audience members can’t seem to get enough of.
But when the show premieres in June of 1613, William and John’s desire to bring more spectacle to the stage will lead to the destruction of the Globe theater and send the King’s Men’s prospects up in flames.
Act Three: The Globe Burns Down
It’s June 29th, 1613; above the stage at the Globe theater in London, England.
A stagehand crouches over a small cannon that’s loaded with gunpowder. He listens to the scene playing below, waiting for his cue.
William’s latest effort, All is True,orKing Henry VIII, recently opened at the Globe. With the help of playwright John Fletcher, William has crafted a play featuring several moments of visual and aural spectacle. One sound effect involves firing a cannon from above the stage as King Henry VIII enters a pivotal scene. And tonight, that part of the play is rapidly approaching.
The stagehand above readies himself. Then, hearing his cue, he sets off the cannon. The roar from the weapon as Henry enters brings cheers from the audience. But they’re so caught up in the moment that they don’t see the explosion from the cannon has shot sparks and fire onto the Globe’s thatched roof above the stage. Even when the roof catches, the patrons seem unaware. But soon, the flames spread onto the stage and out into the audience.
The crowd panics and races for the exit. One man is so close to the flames that his pants catch on fire. But thinking fast, he dumps his drink on himself, and heads for the doors.
Thankfully, no one is injured, but the Globe’s thatched roof and wooden frame burn quickly. Costumes and props stored throughout the building are devoured by the fire. And within an hour, little more than the building’s foundation remains.
After the fire, William will frequently leave London. He will spend more time at his home in Stratford Upon Avon, and less time writing. The King’s Men will rebuild their theater, but the troupe will never be the same. But Shakespeare’s canon of plays will never be forgotten.
To this day, William Shakespeare is considered by many to be the most important writer in the history of Western theater. And for over a decade, the Globe provided him with a space to share his new works with audiences and to reshape and redefine English theatrical tradition. William Shakespeare and his theater will forever be connected, because his time as a leading playwright of the era all but ended when the Globe burned down on June 29th, 1613.
Next on History Daily. June 30th, 1934: Adolf Hitler orchestrates the mass assassination of his political enemies, consolidating power at the helm of the Nazi Party.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.