Miranda is every inch the woman that Ferdinand imagines. Yes, she really is. Watching a performance of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, I’m reminded that the only women visible in the original Elizabethan theatre would have been fanning themselves in the undercover galleries or cracking their teeth on hazelnuts in the open-air yard. Miranda would certainly have been played by a young man.
These days, 450 years after Shakespeare’s birth, a female player is treading the boards as Miranda. Most plays are now performed by a mixed cast. However, in a nod to tradition, Henry V, the new Globe’s opening play in 1997, was performed by an all-male cast in authentic Elizabethan costume.
In 1999, actor Mark Rylance famously strutted his stuff in the lead female role in Antony and Cleopatra, teetering on the brink of the incredible in large platform ‘overshoes’ called chopines. These are on display in the Globe’s exhibition area, along with ‘Cleopatra’s’ delicately hand-embroidered corset and silk skirt (pictured).
In an ironic twist that Shakespeare would surely have appreciated, the Globe has presented all-women performances, too. Before seeing The Tempest, we take a 30-minute guided tour of the theatre itself, our guide recalling six-foot-tall actress Janet McTeer “playing a very swashbuckling Petruchio” in The Taming of the Shrew. Much Ado About Nothing and Richard III, she adds, have also been performed here by all-women casts.
The new Globe was late American actor/director Sam Wanamaker’s dream to resurrect the original Globe Theatre built in 1599 in nearby Park Street. No plans for the original Globe exist, but archaeological excavations of about five per cent of its foundations in 1989 confirmed the dimensions of this 20-sided open-air polygonal building.
Shakespeare’s date of birth is less certain; however, his birthday is traditionally celebrated on 23 April, based on his baptism on 26 April 1564 in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
How to celebrate the birthday bard’s 450th? Get thee to the Globe! Attend a performance, participate in a guided tour of the theatre and wander through the extensive theatre exhibition.
Here are some insights about Shakespeare and his Globe that I gleaned on my visit:
Shakespeare didn’t attend university. Why? Because universities permitted single men only, and Shakespeare married when he was 18.
Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday. Cue Twilight Zone theme music.
The theatre was an excuse for a long smoko. In Shakespeare’s day, plays were performed at 2pm only. “The City opposed the theatres because they drew apprentices away from work,” says the exhibition literature. Playhouses weren’t permitted within London’s walls, so pleasure-seekers would cross the Thames to visit Bankside, where the Globe and other theatres were located alongside pubs and brothels, and the ‘entertainment’ included bear-baiting, bull-baiting and cock-fighting.
Hygiene wasn’t what it is today. The groundlings were commoners who jostled for space in the standing-room-only yard of the Globe, right in front of the stage. They could number 1000 on a hot summer’s day, when they became known as stinkards.
They drank ale at the theatre. When the original Globe burned down in 1613, miraculously there were no fatalities and just one injury: a man’s britches caught fire, which was put out with a bottle of ale.
Shakespeare was meant to be heard, not seen. It seems counterintuitive, but the view of the stage from the premium seats in the gentlemen’s boxes is partly obscured by large oak columns. In Shakespeare’s day, people came to hear the play and the language, so those seats were still considered the best in the house. The Globe’s acoustics are such that actors today don’t use microphones.
All the world’s a stage. This quote from As You Like It rings true at the Globe, which is a universe of sorts, at least for the duration of each play. Above the stage is a trapdoor painted with the sun, moon and zodiac signs, along with mechanical apparatus for lowering the gods through ‘the heavens’.
The third Globe is a first. The first Globe Theatre was the victim of fire; the second succumbed to plague and Puritans. Today’s Globe Theatre – the third – is the first thatched building permitted in London since the Great Fire of 1666.
We quote Shakespeare every day. That’s a “foregone conclusion”.
It’s not the West End. There’s no lock-out at the Globe – you’re free to come and go while the actors are on stage. In Shakespeare’s day, groundlings forked out one penny for standing space in the yard. Today, where else can you attend the theatre in London for five pounds?
Where to see Shakespeare around the globe
London: Shakespeare’s Globe
Stratford-upon-Avon: Royal Shakespeare Company
Cornwall: The Minack Theatre
Australia-wide: Bell Shakespeare