To build a globe

London, 1598. 

Picture a theatre in Shoreditch, a tall polygonal building, a wooden O, with tiered galleries facing a stage, a wooden embrace able to house three-thousand bodies in rapt entertainment. It is London’s first theatre, owned by James Burbage, a businessman and impresario, father of Cuthbert and Richard, the latter a soon to be well-known actor. Creatively enough, theirs is named the Theatre, the first and only of its kind for sometime. Outside the city walls, anything is possible. Here, dreams are made and acted out by men playing at soldiers and braggarts, kings and queens, lovers, tyrants, gods and mortals; a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

This winter, in 1598, the Burbage’s and their company of players, the Chamberlain’s Men, players to the Her Majesty, found themselves in the unpleasant place of having a landlord who wanted his land back, preferably without a theatre on it. Only trouble was, as players and theatre-folk, the theatre was their only means of survival. Sure, they could have toured, but every touring company needs a base, needs a home ground, a waterhole, a place of succour and refuge; their place. The Burbage’s called a council of war, a meeting of minds, where each of the shareholders in the Theatre met to voice their concerns. Present that night was a man who has since become legendary, a William Shakespeare of Stratford. As the night lengthened and their wits wandered, desperate to find a solution to their darkest hour, a candleflame flickered in that marvellous mind.

‘Gentlemen,’ a soft voice broke from the rabble, carrying across the cold air with an authority that belied his position in the shadows. ‘If I am not mistaken, what we have is a theatre without a site. Isn’t there that empty plot across the river in Southwark, almost in a bearing directly opposite old St Paul’s churchyard that your man knows?’
Richard chuckled, a rumbling boom that bounced around the theatre’s walls. ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a way, isn’t that what they say? You are a genius, man. God knows we don’t need any more proof of it.’ Will tried to hide a modest smile. ‘What is it you propose, exactly?’
‘I say we use that land to build ourselves a new home.’
‘But…’ Will Kempe began, voicing the concerns of those assembled. ‘What will we build with? Timber and plaster are not easy to come by, if you haven’t noticed. The river’s almost frozen daily, and what trees there are bear frost and ice on their branches, ill-suited as pillars to our theatre, don’t you think?’
‘I didn’t say from scratch, Master Kempe.’ Behind the eyes of Will Shakespeare, the eyes that saw more in heaven and hell than is dreamt of in most peoples’ philosophies, a dangerous spark flared, and the Burbage’s knew they were in safe hands. Where there’s a Will… ‘We have a theatre, the Theatre. We have a site of land. Call upon the good-man architect Peter Street, and kindly arrange for him to oversee the dismantling of our hallowed home and ensure its safe passage across the river. There, we shall erect ourselves a house and our pathetic landlord shall have none of us no more.’

The men shivered. It was all well and good talking, but it was cold, and the river was freezing over. As the night drew in, the men set off, vowing to return the next night with the architect and tools enough to ensure the safe-dismemberment of their crucible.

The following night, under cover of starlight, the band of brothers met in the yard of the darkened theatre, their architect waiting with plans and chalk and a twelve-strong team of labourers to ensure their plan to safety. Saws and mallets dismembered that ‘O’ one log at a time, each numbered and marked according to Street’s plans, and loaded onto wagons that trundled their diverse ways into the night of secrecy and intrigue. As the night grew long and the dawn appeared, the last of the logs were loaded onto the last wagon and were sent on their way, hiding the day in a disused warehouse until the night after, in the hope the river would freeze solid so they could convey their treasure to new ground.

The next night, just after Christmas, the Thames did indeed freeze, the gods joining the band of players in their merry deceit, conspiring against the landlord with his greed and malice. Wagon after wagon trundled across the icy surface and onto the opposite bank. There, the Theatre was unloaded and re-erected. That night, as darkness paled towards dawn, and first light crept over the horizon on icy feet, the band of brothers, shareholders all, met on the site of their new theatre; a house-warming, if you will.
They shared a flask of ale as their frozen feet stamped the muddy ground.
‘What’ll we call our new home, lads?’ Kempe asked.
‘What about the Crown?’ suggested one of them.
‘Too risky,’ they all agreed. Their other ideas weren’t much better.
The Capitol, too boring; the Sun, too bland.
‘What say you, wordsmith?’ Burbage’s call cut through the thin air, and the men breathed in with anticipation.
‘We need a name that speaks of a charmed circle, of worlds and oceans beyond our dreams, of most rare visions, of hot ice and cold fire; we shall call it the Globe, for we are forging ourselves a new firmament.’
‘O brave new world, that hath such wonders in’t,’ Burbage whispered, marvelling at the aptness of his friend’s words. Shakespeare smiled, remembering the phrase for later use.
The men drew their swords and touched their points together, an eight-pointed star of steel, their blades glinting in the new light of day.
‘The Globe,’ they all cheered, and raised their swords into the air.

Within a few months, the Globe opened, a flag flying from its roof showing mighty Atlas bearing a globe on his back. And beneath it, their new house’s motto, in Latin: Totus mundus agit historionem. All the world’s a stage


This is the story of the Globe theatre’s creation, phoenix-like from the timbers of the Theatre. The Burbage’s, Messers Kempe and Shakespeare were all real men, members of the Chamberlain’s Men and later The King’s Men. Whilst my own telling, the story is inspired by the accounts in two sources in particular: Edward Rutherfurd’s London (Arrow Books Limited: London, 1997), and Christopher Rush’s Will (Beautiful Books Limited: London, 2007).

William Shakespeare needs no introduction. His story and works are well-known, the subject of fathomless pages and volumes, countless hours of film and television. Some day, I’ll write about my fascination with him and his work, but it is not this day.
St George is the patron saint of England. April 23rd is St George’s Day. April 23rd is also the day upon which it is thought William Shakespeare was born (in 1564, and died in 1616). It has been conjectured that William Shakespeare is, in a way, the patron saint of England, his words being his miracles and deeds, his plays his legacy and testament.

Where there’s a Will, there’s always a way…

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