William Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 and destroyed by a fire in 1613 before being rebuilt in 1614. At the time the Bankside neighbourhood in Southwark was at the heart of London’s seedy theatre district, although the theatre was demolished in 1644 when the neighbourhood was no longer the focus of London’s entertainment district.
In 1970 the American actor Sam Wanamaker purchased the land near the site of the original Globe Theatre and formed the Shakespeare Globe Trust with the intention of building an exact replica of Shakespeare’s Theatre. Three years after his death in 1994, Wanamaker’s dream was realised when the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was reopened.
The theatre was built after much study of floor plans, illustrations and descriptions of the original theatre and was built using traditional construction techniques of the Elizabethan period. Although a fairly recent reconstruction, it resembles an authentic 16th-century timber-framed building constructed from English oak with authentic mortise and tenon joints and it is the first – and only – building in London to gain building permission for a traditional thatched roof since the 1666 Great Fire of London.
The Globe takes great effort to accurately portray an authentic Shakespeare theatre experience with ‘groundlings’ comprising almost half the audience and many shows being performed without the aid of audio-visual support with live music performed with period instruments.
Because the Globe is an open-air theatre, it is often not possible to have performances at the Shakespeare’s Globe during winter; however, the adjacent Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – modelled on a Jacobean-era indoor theatre – allows the company to host performances all year round.
Visiting Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
A visit to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre involves an exhibition space with displays about the theatre and also a tour of the theatre. It is also possible to tour the adjacent Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and, depending on the season, you may be able to purchase tickets for a performance at one of the two theatres.
The exhibition has interesting displays about the history of the Globe and Sam Wanamaker’s vision in rebuilding the theatre as well as displays about the role of the theatre during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. It is possible to visit the exhibition before or after the theatre tour.
Tours of Shakespeare’s Globe run every day (except 24–25 December) but tours don’t run during performances, which means that tours finish around midday during the Globe’s season to allow for the matinee performance.
There are also tours of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, although these are not as popular and they don’t run every day.
Guided tours of both Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse each take around 40 minutes. Tours are in English only with information sheets available in simplified Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese. Russian and Spanish.
The exhibition is accompanied by an audio guide (included as part of your admission charge), which is available in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian and Spanish. Although the audio guide has around an hour of content, most people only spend half this long looking at the exhibition.
Shakespeare’s Globe is a popular attraction and it can get busy between March and August. The quietest period during this time is usually the first tours of the day.
Travellers with a London Pass get free entry to the exhibition at the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the pass also includes the Globe Theatre tour but it does not cover tours of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Watching a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
The Shakespeare’s Globe performance season runs from mid-April to mid-October, outside this season plays are performed at the adjacent Sam Wanamaker Theatre.
If you’re visiting during the season it is highly recommended to take in a performance. A play at the Globe Theatre is very unlike any contemporary Shakespeare performance with much of the audience in the cheap ‘groundling’ space, standing at the front of the stage.
‘Groundling’ tickets are the cheapest (usually only £5) and offer the best view of the stage. They’re also the most authentic way to experience a performance at the Globe. However, you will be standing for at least two hours (and you’re not allowed to bring anything to sit on).
Seats in the gallery usually start at around £22, but can often cost double that depending on the play and the seat.
Outside the Globe season, the same company performs at the adjacent Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. There you will get the same calibre of acting, a more comfortable seat and it will be an authentic Jacobean theatre experience (as opposed to an Elizabethan theatre experience), but it simply isn’t the same experience as watching a play at the Globe Theatre.