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11 March 2021: Shakespeare’s London - 1A stylised portrait of Shakespeare overlaid by a pen and scroll

We had a complete change this week. Instead of a speaker we watched the first part of a video tour of places in London, narrated by a professional actor.

He told us that Shakespeare had come to London in his early twenties and joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company of actors who performed at a theatre in Shoreditch, outside the City walls. The City banned theatres because they were rowdy places where the audience did not behave with the decorum we now expect.

The Rose Theatre was also outside the City, in Southwark. This was an entertainment area which had a number of theatres and bear pits. Some fourteen years after the Rose was built, the owner of the land on which the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s theatre was built demanded an increase in rent. Since he owned the land but not the building, the theatre was removed and rebuilt in Southwark, just 60 yards from the Rose Theatre. It became the famous Globe Theatre.

By that time Shakespeare was a well-known playwright and his plays made the Globe very popular. If he saw the modern Globe Theatre filled with its capacity audience of 1,400, he would say that the play being performed there must be a flop. His Globe Theatre, which was the same size, regularly had audiences of 3,000. (No health and safety rules in those days.) Every day over 1% of London’s then population of 250,000 would attend a performance at the Globe. And, of course, other theatres would also be well-patronised. Performances took place in the afternoon because there was no artificial stage lighting. Some members of the audiences would be at the theatre when they should have been working.

The Globe Theatre caught fire during a performance and completely burnt down. The only other damage was to a pair of trousers being worn by a member of the audience, which caught fire. He dowsed the flames with beer from a bottle he was holding!

It was the American film producer Sam Wanamaker who led the drive to build a modern replica of the Globe in Southwark. There is now a listed building on the original site, so the replica had to be built a little distance away. It is London’s only thatched building, thatch having been banned in London following the Great Fire. It is built to modern standards, complete with sprinklers. Sadly it was not completed until four years after Sam Wanamaker’s death.

The presenter also showed us a plaque nearby on the bank of the Thames bearing a quotation from Shakespeare to the effect that “Men’s evil deeds are written in brass. Virtues are written in water.” The first part of that inscription is in raised letters. The second part is in punched letters through which the waters of the Thames can be seen.

Our President stopped the video just as the presenter was about to take us north of the river. We will watch the rest next week.