2 August 2012 by Dominic Lenton
Having picked up a copy of James Shapiro's excellent '1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare' after it was recommended by curator Jonathan Bate at the opening of the British Museum's Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition, I was reminded that Britain's hardest working playwright was involved in one of history's most audacious exercises in engineering sleight of hand.
Shapiro uses the events of 28 December 1598 as a prologue that sets the scene for his account of the most significant year in Shakespeare's life. Following a falling out with Giles Allen, landlord of the site in Shoreditch where their former home at the Theatre playhouse stood, the Chamberlain's Men were running out of money as they looked to set up a new home in Southwark, south of the Thames and outside London's city limits.
Having secured a site, Shakespeare and his fellow investors needed materials. The lease on their former home was ambiguous enough about who owned the playhouse built on it that they felt confident enough, particularly with Allen away at his country home for Christmas, to make a smash and grab raid.
Two days after they had been engaged in the very different task of performing for Queen Elizabeth, and armed with 'swords, daggers, bills, axes and such like' borrowed from their props, the Chamberlain's Men set about the job of dismantling the theatre as quickly as possible.
Shakespeare and his fellow thespians probably weren't involved in any heavy lifting, but helped attract a large crowd that gathered, in spite of snow and freezing temperatures. Their main job was to fend off friends of Allen's who turned up to try and prevent the work going ahead.
The carpenters recruited to do the actual task of taking apart the pegged vertical posts and the horizontal sills on which they stood were supervised by Peter Street, a master-builder. He was responsible for a make or break job that had it failed would have probably have led to the demise of the troupe and an uncertain future for Shakespeare.
As darkness fell the valuable timber was loaded up and moved to a riverside warehouse. Popular myth has it being dragged across the frozen Thames to what would be the site of the Globe. That's a good story, but the half ton beams would have been too heavy, and leaving them over winter on a marshy building site would have left them unreconstructable.
Of course, all was well that ended well, and by late summer the following year the Globe was complete. If not for the hard work by Peter Street and his men, how much shorter might the complete works of Shakespeare have been?
Read all about it...
Buy '1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare' at Amazon.
Henry V, part of the BBC's superb 'The Hollow Crown' series of Shaksepeare's history plays, is reputed to have been one of the first works performed at the Globe.
A reconstruction of The Globe was built near to the site of the original in the 1990s.
Edited: 02 August 2012 at 02:25 PM by Dominic Lenton
Posted By: Dominic Lenton @ 02 August 2012 02:19 PM General
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