As this was written, England was sweltering through a heat wave – nowhere close to the record-breaking temperatures in 2003, but easily within the context of the hottest decade on record. What does this have to do with Shakespeare’s Globe, you ask, other than insuring balmy weather for the groundlings? Despite everything that has changed over the centuries between Shakespeare’s time and ours, weather provided unexpected challenges then, and continues to do so today. It could be a feature of the open air performances, but while today, the unwary audience member might suffer heatstroke, Shakespeare’s company dreaded performing outside during the cold winters, and eventually built themselves an indoor playhouse – a reproduction of which will open as the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in January 2014!
One particularly cold year was 1599, the year that the Chamberlain’s Men dismantled the Burbages’ Theatre in Shoreditch, moved the timber across the Thames, and rebuilt it as the Globe, in Southwark. The winter of 1598/99 was one of five years during the 1500s when the Thames froze over, so the rumour that the timber was hauled over the river in the dead of the night might have some basis in reality; unless fresh evidence turns up, however, historians may never be able to confirm or deny the tantalizing possibility of such an adventure. It’s helpful to keep in mind that the sun sets at 3:58 pm on December 28, so the ‘dead of night’ may well have been just before tea time! The unusually cold weather reflects the deteriorating climate of a period known to historical climatologists as the ‘Little Ice Age’, characterized by cooler than average temperatures and increases in extreme weather events (the Thames, for example, would go on to freeze ten times during the 1600s).
The cold winter continued for months, defying almanac predictions of ‘goodly pleasant weather’ by the new moon in April, and led into a frosty and expensive spring for the Chamberlain’s Men. Each successive below-zero spell kept the ground frozen and prevented labourers from breaking the ground to excavate the new theatre’s foundations. March, April, and May were all dry, but cold; warmer weather only arrived in May. It must have felt like the elements conspired against the Men, as English chronicler John Stow reports that on Whitsunday (May 27, Julian calendar), there was “great rain, and high waters, the like of long time had not been seen.” An overflowing Thames would flow downhill from its southern riverbank, right towards the Globe’s construction site. Years later, there would be ditches to the north and south of the theatre, to drain off such undesirable waters, but the extreme weather events of 1599 meant that the Chamberlain’s Men didn’t occupy their new dwelling until July. Centuries later, we have the Thames Barrier to protect us, but with the right combination of spring meltwater and high tides, the Thames still comes perilously close to flowing through the streets of London.
A little bit about me
I am a PhD student with the Text and Event in Early Modern Europe program, examining the way religious people in the 16th century referred to nature and the weather in Strasbourg and the Alsace. The Little Ice Age was deepening its hold on Europe during the 16th century, causing unreliable material conditions while religious and political turmoil ebbed and abated. The role between environmental conditions and cultural development is complex, and I hope to illuminate one side of it with my research. A Free Imperial City in the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg was host to first and second generation Protestants like Martin Bucer and John Calvin, Anabaptists such as martyr Michael Sattler, and many loyal Catholics, such as Jacob Wimpheling, who were horrified by the religious revolution underway. I am exploring how these prominent thinkers spoke about the natural world, and how their views were religiously conceptualized.
Protestantism radically changed how English people related to English nature, as Alexandra Walsham details in her recent work The Reformation of the Landscape; a new ‘geography of the sacred’ was established, with new concepts for nature manifesting in new place-names, new expectations of the environment, and different conceptual possibilities for nature. William Shakespeare created his oeuvre in a new world, although he never left England. My research looks into the very beginnings of Protestantism, seeking to understand changes at the root of the Christian worldview.