It's the new black.
When the Globe Theatre burned down four hundred years ago on June 29, 1613, no one died. According to the letters of English author and diplomat Henry Wotton who was in attendance that night, no one was killed when a set-piece cannon shot through the thatched roof of the theatre, setting the beams and the ridge ablaze—though one man was burned severely, only to have the fire extinguished from his breeches with the ale that overflowed with abundance from the vendors at the parameter of the stage. Henry VIII premiered that night, the last of Shakespeare’s plays to have appeared in the First Folio, and one of his final solo works, with The Two Noble Kinsmen attributed both to the bard and to John Fletcher, another prolific Jacobean playwright. And while the theatre itself was rebuilt a year later, Shakespeare died in 1616, and the Globe closed less than thirty years later, lying dormant until 1997. It exists today, 750 feet from its original foundation, as a performance space and a monument to the man himself and his playing company who called the space their own: Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
It is rather amazing, when you think about it, that we have any record at all of things that happened four hundred years ago. As Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage reminds us, we know virtually nothing certain about the man himself, quoting one scholar as saying, “every Shakespeare biography is 5 percent fact and 95 percent conjecture”. His biography is concise—only a little over 200 pages—and uses historical context and primary sources from the time period to illuminate the few confirmed truths about the bard: his christening and death dates notwithstanding, the lack of a paper trail to solidify Shakespeare’s writing process and production introduces gaps of time about which we can only offer assumption. Though the First Folio, organized by colleagues Henry Condell and John Heminges in 1623, collects the plays under the one definitive author, the questionable paper proof—inconclusive at best—leads to wild speculation about the actual confluence of events. Bryson declares, “Although he left nearly a million words of text, we have just fourteen words in his own hand—his name signed six times and the words ‘by me’ on his will. Not a single note or letter or page of manuscript survives.” With this in mind, who is to say the policy of his theatre company with regards to attribution? Was it collaborative and delineated under one name? Scholars have debated these facts for centuries, between the Shakespearean authorship question, the Oxfordian theory, and the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt; authors such as Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere, and Queen Bess herself have been presented as sources of the possible pseudonym “Shakespeare” we know and love.
The burning of the Globe reminds us that the search for history—and the realization of history itself—is never as clear-cut as it may seem. The Henry VIII performed that night, ironically known by its subtitle “All is True”, acts as a love-letter to the late Queen Elizabeth I’s mother, Anne Boelyn, and casually ignores the presence of the four wives of Henry that follow. Parts of the play willfully misinterpret history, or slant it towards Elizabeth’s line. The concept of reinventing history for the favor of those involved was not new, even at this point, but it does make for more consternation when tracing the seemingly untraceable. Revisionist history does not make it easier to know who Shakespeare was, or what he did. And as the author him(or her)self reminds us concerning fallibility, directly from the play performed the fateful night the Globe burned: “but we all are men,/ In our own natures frail, and capable/ Of our flesh”.
The Globe burned on June 29, 1613, this much we know. No one was killed. And the playwright we know as Shakespeare may or may not have been there.