Travel Guide | United Kingdom

Experiencing Shakespeare at The Globe Theatre

to See or Not to See – It’s not even a question.

By Sarah Bennett, Muhlenberg College

The first time I saw a Shakespearian play was in elementary school. It was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and although I didn’t understand all of the language, and was no doubt lost during several parts of it, I was completely enthralled by it. I remember being wrapped up in the performance, feeling sorry for Helena and Hermia, laughing at Nick Bottom as he wheeled around sporting a donkey’s head, and waiting expectantly for the next time Titania and the rest of her fairy crew would emerge wearing their beautiful, ethereal costumes.

A word to the wise: If you’re going to try to get an 8-year-old girl hooked on Shakespeare, start with the play with lots of magic and fairies.

My parents must have known about this little tip, because once I saw that first production, I was irrevocably converted into a Shakespeare fan. I scouted out performances whenever I could, going to every Shakespeare in the Park production and even traveling to the famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival. By the time I arrived in London for my study abroad program, I was dying to see an actual Shakespearian production at The Globe!

I went with my friends and bought five pound yard tickets – yes, only five pounds – to see Macbeth. The tickets were cheap because we had to stand for the whole production – but honestly, I think we had the best seats in the house. We were standing right in front of the stage, so close that we could literally reach out and touch the actors. One of my friends even referred to it as the splash zone since we were dangerously close to getting splattered with fake blood during the gorier scenes.

Macbeth at Shakespeare's The Globe Theatre in London image

My friend and I standing in the pit as we wait for the play to begin

The play itself was amazing. Everything from the acting to the staging to the traditional Elizabethan costumes was incredible. I could keep writing about why I enjoyed the performance, but I’m sure I lost some of you as soon as you saw Shakespeare’s name. I know not everyone shared my childhood fascination with the playwright, and that plenty of people still associate The Bard with the tortures of writing their ninth-grade, Sparknotes-inspired essay on Romeo and Juliet. Still, if you’re in London, you need to go see a play at The Globe.

If you’re a theater fan, you won’t need any more convincing. But, if you’re planning to opt out because you don’t like Shakespeare, here’s my argument for you:

You say: No thanks, I just don’t understand the language.

I say: This is one of the most common reasons why people opt not to read a Shakespearian play. And, there’s definitely merit to this argument. Between Shakespeare’s Old English diction, extended metaphors, and iambic pentameter, the modern reader has plenty of things to work through before deciphering the meaning. Plus, it probably doesn’t help that whenever Shakespeare couldn’t find a word to describe what he was saying, he simply made one up. (Did you know we owe the word ‘swag’ to him?)

However, you’ve probably already heard that Shakespeare is meant to be heard, not read. When you hear the words spoken aloud, you can hear the rhythm and the inflections of the lines and better understand the meanings behind them. Plus, you’ll be able to understand what’s being said through the actors’ corresponding actions. This was particularly true of the actors at The Globe, whose performances were so strong and clear that the audience was never confused as to what was going on. When Lady Macbeth performed her famous “Out, damned spot” monologue, we saw her desperate agitation in her stricken face and the way she wrung her hands, just as much as we did through her words.

You say: Okay, so I can understand it. It doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy it. Shakespeare’s too stuffy.

I say: When people think about Shakespeare today, they often picture an austere audience made up of society’s most prim and proper, politely applauding at the appropriate times. Of course, in Shakespeare’s time, that’s not how the plays were received at all. The groundlings, or the people who stood in the yard, were often the same people who sought entertainment in neighboring bear-baiting rings. They wanted to see action when they went to theater, and if they weren’t properly entertained, they would jeer and throw rotten fruit at the performers.

While the audience wasn’t quite so rowdy at the performance I saw, they were still very lively. Unlike in a traditional theater, where the audience sits in darkness, everything and everyone at The Globe was visible. You could hear and see each other’s reactions and build off of them. In fact, standing elbow-to-elbow, laughing and gasping along with everyone else in the pit, it felt more like being at a concert than at a play.

You say: Well, even if it isn’t stuffy and uptight, I still wouldn’t enjoy it. The plays have been done a million times before; they’re old news.

I say: It’s true that Shakespeare’s plays have been put on for centuries. Yet somehow, they never lose their appeal. One of the reasons for this is the timelessness of their themes – while you might not be plotting to kill the king in order to usurp his position, you can still recognize the play’s overarching themes of greed, grief, and remorse. Many directors choose to do modern adaptations in order to emphasize the play’s ageless appeal. They replace Elizabethan clothing with J. Crew, swords with guns, and castles with New York City penthouses. While these adaptations can be interesting and entertaining, it can be even more of a challenge to do a Shakespearian production in its original form. There’s more pressure on the actors and the director, namely, because it’s been done before.

The Globe’s production of Macbeth was completely traditional, and yet, they managed to make it seem fresh and new. The actors were so talented that it seemed as if they were living in the moment instead of reciting memorized lines. Nothing seemed trite or repetitive, and even the most famous monologues were performed as if for the first time. It didn’t matter if you knew the plot of the play; the audience gasped when Macbeth emerged with the bloody daggers, and recoiled when the deceased Banquo appeared on stage. The director also made some interesting choices, such as having the witches perform their famous “double, double, toil and trouble” chant as a song.

Seeing a Shakespearian play at The Globe has always been high on my English Major’s Bucket List, and I’m happy to finally be able to check it off. I’d recommend it to anyone visiting London, whether or not he’s a fan of the playwright. It’s a unique experience that you can’t miss. I know, I know, things in London are expensive, and you need to save your money. But, with yard tickets selling for a ridiculously low cost, you can’t even use that as an excuse.

Tickets are five pounds. Skip the morning latte for a couple of days. It’ll be worth it.

…On the other hand, if you’re already convinced that you’ll love The Globe and want to hear even more about Shakespeare, stay tuned for another blog post on my upcoming trip to his birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon!

Sarah Bennett

Muhlenberg College | 9 stories

Sarah Bennett graduated from Muhlenberg College in May with a double major in English and media and communications. She spent her fall semester studying abroad in London, making her inner English major and Shakespeare nerd pretty pleased - or as her British roommates said, chuffed to bits. She loves writing, good books, theater, and travel.

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