The Globe Theatre on Bankside.
In the summer of 1598 there were still demands from the civic authorities and indeed from the members of the Privy Council that the theatres should be “plucked down” as a result of the “lewd matters that are handled on the stages.” 1 This had become something of an occupational hazard, and the playhouses simply ignored the injunctions. Given the undoubted popularity of plays and playhouses there was also going to be competition, official or unofficial, springing up to challenge the two established companies. The Earl of Pembroke’s Men had put on The Isle of Dogs at the Swan, as we have seen, before being disbanded.
New theatres were about to be erected in the city and northern suburbs, also, among them the Fortune and the newly refurbished Boar’s Head. In addition, the boys’ companies were soon to be in operation again. In the following year an indoor playhouse was opened in the precincts of St. Paul’s grammar school, where the children of St. Paul’s performed two plays by a new writer, who referred to himself as the “barking satirist,” John Marston. The competition demonstrated the vitality of theatrical life in London, but it was an annoyance to the already established players. Nevertheless the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were still at the Curtain, and the Admiral’s Men across the river at the Rose. There is no record of the players touring in this year, so it can be supposed that Shakespeare and the rest of the company were playing in the capital. We know that they were performing Ben Jonson’s new play, Every Man in His Humour, in the autumn of 1598. So Shakespeare acted in a drama written by one whom posterity has declared to be his “rival.” Reports of such rivalry are always greatly exaggerated by various partisans. We may place them against the testimony that Shakespeare became godfather to one of Jonson’s children.
The wayward, obstinate and bad-tempered character of Ben Jonson is well enough known. But it is often forgotten that he was a supreme literary artist who wrote for the play-going public only on his own terms. Unlike Shakespeare he was not born to please. He had genuine faith and pride in his achievement, however, and ensured that his dramas were properly collected and published. His opinion about Shakespeare’s work seems to have been one of admiration only slightly modified by misgivings about what he considered to be his excessive fluency and his dramatic “absurdities.” Jonson was a classicist by inclination and by training. He recognised Shakespeare’s genius but considered it prone to extravagance and unrealism. “In reading some bombast speeches of Macbeth,” according to John Dryden, “which are not to be understood, he [Ben Jonson] used to say that it was horrour.”2 There are also reports of conversations between the two men at the Mermaid Tavern. The tavern itself lay back from Bread Street, with passage entries from Cheapside and Friday Street. Since Jonson had a reputation for a loose tongue, flowing with sexual innuendoes and sexual gossip, these dialogues were perhaps not always very edifying; we have seen that Shakespeare himself was not averse to bawdry. Modern auditors would no doubt be shocked. “Many were the wit-combates betwixt him and Ben Johnson,” wrote Thomas Fuller in his Worthies of England:
which two I behold like a Spanish great Gallion and an English man of War; Master Johnson (like the former) was built far higher in Learning; Solid but Slow in his performances. Shake-spear, with the English-man of War, lesser in bulk but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his Wit and Invention.3
This itself is a pleasing invention. Fuller has captured something of the spirit of both men but, having been born as late as 1608, can hardly be cited as a witness.
In this period Sir Walter Raleigh established a “Mermaid Club” that met on the first Friday of every month; among its members, according to one of Ben Jonson’s early editors, were Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, Donne and Jonson himself. Beaumont wrote some verses to Jonson in which he remarks:
What things have we seen
Done at the “Mermaid”? Heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtle flame …4
Whether any of those “words” came from Shakespeare is open to doubt. Among the members of the Mermaid Club, however, was Edward Blount; Blount was one of the publishers of Shakespeare’s First Folio. So there are connections. Jonson at this time was an avowed Catholic who used to meet his co-religionists at the Mermaid. The previous owner of the Mermaid had been the Catholic printer John Rastell, who was also brother-in-law of Sir Thomas More. Certain associations cling to specific sites. At a later date Shakespeare purchased a house harbouring Catholic associations; one of his co-purchasers was the landlord of the Mermaid, William Johnson.
Very shortly after the production of Every Man in His Humour Jonson became involved in an argument with an actor and erstwhile colleague from the Admiral’s Men, Gabriel Spencer. The quarrel may have arisen from Jonson’s recent defection to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or it may have been entirely personal. Whatever the cause a duel was fought in the fields of Shoreditch, close to the Theatre, and Spencer was killed by Jonson’s sword. The playwright only saved himself from the gallows by pleading benefit of clergy—that is, by proving he was literate and could read. His thumb was branded with the letter “T,” for Tyburn, so that he would not escape a second conviction.
In this same period Burbage and Shakespeare, together with their colleagues, had arrived at an important decision which would also have consequences for the young Ben Jonson. Their negotiations concerning the lease with the landlord of the Theatre had got precisely nowhere. They had read the existing contract very carefully, over the period of these strained discussions, and its wording seemed to offer a solution. The landlord owned the land upon which the Theatre stood, but he did not own the theatre itself. So he could keep the land, and they would take away the theatre. They literally moved it. Three days after Christmas 1598, on a day of heavy snow, the Burbage brothers, Cuthbert and Richard, and their mother, together with twelve workmen and their surveyor and carpenter, Peter Streete, arrived in front of the Theatre in Shoreditch. The aggrieved landlord, Giles Allen, has left a picturesque description of the extraordinary scene.
The Burbages and their cohorts did “ryotouslye assemble themselves” armed with “swords daggers billes axes and such like,” whereupon they “attempted to pull downe the sayd Theater.” Allen alleges that diverse people asked them “to desist from their unlawfull enterpryse,” but the Burbages violently resisted their objections and then began “pulling breaking and throwing downe the sayd Theater in verye outragious violent and riotous sort.” In the course of this operation they were responsible for “the great desturbance and terrefyeing” of the local inhabitants of Shoreditch.5 It is interesting how Tudor legalese encourages melodrama; it was a dramatic society on every level.
The great and terrifying disturbance, if such it was, lasted for some four days. Within that period the Burbages and their employees took down the playhouse’s old timbers and loaded them onto wagons; the tiring-house, the beams, the galleries, were all taken up and transported across the river by ferry or by means of London Bridge. There is no reference to the ironwork that was also employed in its construction, although they are unlikely to have left such a valuable asset on site. Much had to be discarded, however, as a result of the speed of the operation. The appurtenances of the Theatre were then deposited south of the river on some land that the Burbages had recently leased for thirty-one years. The plot of ground was a little to the east of the Rose, in the pleasure grounds of Southwark, but further back from the Thames. Ben Jonson described the area as “flanked with a ditch and forced out of a marsh.”6 It would have been filled with tidal waters, ooze and garbage. At the time of its redevelopment by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men it comprised seven gardens, a house, and a row of tenements that held fifteen people.
In these watery and insalubrious surroundings the Globe would rise. It was a bold and enterprising decision. The landlord of the plot where the Globe was erected, Nicholas Brend, was in fact brother-in-law of the queen’s Treasurer of the Chamber. So he had impeccable references. But the trustees engaged in the negotiation also throw a little light on the intricate social networks of Elizabethan society. One of them, a goldsmith called Thomas Savage, came from the town of Rufford in Lancashire—where it has been deemed that the juvenile Shakespeare was once in the employment of Sir Thomas Hesketh as schoolmaster and actor. Savage’s wife was a member of the extended Hesketh family. It may simply be coincidence, in a relatively small society, but it is suggestive. The other trustee was a merchant named William Leveson, who became a part of the colonial enterprise to Virginia that also involved the Earl of Southampton. Two of Shakespeare’s early patrons, therefore, can be glimpsed in the dramatist’s later career.
Giles Allen was obviously surprised and angered by the sudden disappearance of the playhouse. He sued the Burbages for £800 in damages, and the litigation lasted for two years through various courts and tribunals. But the Burbages had in fact behaved within the strict interpretation of the law, and Allen received no compensation.
The building work on the new theatre, however, did not proceed as quickly as had been anticipated. So the Burbages spread the financial responsibility. They created five “sharers” who between them would put up half the costs, and who would in return become “house-keepers” or part owners of the new theatre. One of those sharers was William Shakespeare, who now had the advantage of owning one-tenth of the theatre in which he acted and for which he wrote. It was the most complete association possible between playwright and playhouse. His other sharers were the principal actors of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Will Kempe and Thomas Pope, John Heminges and Augustine Phillips. They had all grown moderately wealthy out of their new-found profession.
Peter Streete contracted to finish the construction of the Globe within twenty-eight weeks, although that may be an example of perennial builders’ optimism. Strong foundations had to be laid, since the Globe was erected on watery soil; wooden piles were driven into the Southwark earth, and a ditch had to be bridged to allow public access. This operation would have taken some sixteen weeks. By May 1599 a legal document refers to a “domus” with an attached garden in the parish of St. Saviour’s, Southwark, “in occupatione Willielmi Shakespeare et aliorum” — in the occupation of Shakespeare and others, the prominence given to the dramatist’s name suggesting that he was considered to be the first mover in this enterprise. Intriguingly enough “domus” may be interpreted to mean either the theatre itself or a house adjoining that structure. A picture of Shakespeare living in a house beside the playhouse proper is not inconceivable.