Oh sorrow, pitiful sorrow: the burning of Shakespeare’s Globe


The Globe in flames. By C Walter Hodges

The Globe Theatre, that most famous building, burned to the ground on 29 June 1613. It had stood for only 14 years.

It would have been front page news, if newspapers had existed then: at least five separate accounts of the event have survived. The fullest was written in a letter by Sir Henry Wotton to Sir Edmund Bacon a few days later on 2 July. A performance of Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII was taking place, perhaps the first performance. This, ironically, is one of the few performances of a Shakespeare play during his lifetime that we can be absolutely sure of.  The play “was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting on the stage: the knights of the order with their Georges and garters, the guards with their embroidered coats and the like…” In the scene in which King Henry came in disguise to Cardinal Wolsey’s house, when “certain chambers [were] shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff wherewith one of them was stopped did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive on the show, it kindled inwardly and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw and a few forsaken cloaks. Only one man had his breeches set on fire that would perhaps have broiled him if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale”.

The remains must still have been smoking when the amusing ballad A Sonnett upon the pittiful burneinge of the Globe Playhouse in London was printed the next day. It consists of eight verses, each one ending with the refrain punning on the alternative title for Henry VIII, “All is true”.  “Oh sorrow, pittifull sorrow, and yett all this is true”. Here are two verses:
No shower his raine did there downe force
In all that Sunn-shine weather,
To save that great renowned howse;
Nor thou, O ale-house, neither.
Had itt begunne belowe, sans doubte,
Their wives for feare had pissed itt out.
Oh sorrow, pittifull sorrow, and yet all this is true.

 Bee warned, yow stage-strutters all,
Least yow again be catched,
And such a burneing doe befall,
As to them whose howse was thatched;
Forbeare your whoreing, breeding biles,
And laye up that expence for tiles.
Oh sorrow, pittifull sorrow, and yet all this is true.

While no lives were lost it’s tantalising to think how many playscripts and other documents might have been lost when the theatre burned down. In 1621 when the same thing happened to the Fortune Theatre, John Chamberlain reported in a letter that the players’s costumes and prompt books were lost in the fire. Several other theatres had been used by Shakespeare’s company: they played at the Curtain and The Theatre north of the river, and they also had an indoor theatre, The Blackfriars. But the Globe was their own, a hugely successful theatre where the public saw and heard Shakespeare’s plays performed, and where Shakespeare’s reputation as a popular writer was cemented. When rebuilt, reopening on the same site almost exactly a year later the company had taken the advice of the ballad-maker and paid for a tiled roof.

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One Response to Oh sorrow, pitiful sorrow: the burning of Shakespeare’s Globe

  1. Alan Butland says:

    And to complete the story. . . The new Globe opened in 1614 and was built ‘fairer than before.’ It was closed by Parliament in 1642 and was demolished in 1644 to make way for tenements.

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