A Spark of Defiance Gave the World Shakespeare
By June 25, 2023– Published on
England, a tiny island nation, has a habit of changing the game.
Once upon a time, it was but a distant outpost of the mighty Roman Empire, a reluctant recipient of grand aqueducts, urban infrastructure, and toga parties. But all parties end, and when Rome packed up in the 5th century AD, England was left with the hangover. But the Romans left behind more than bathhouses and Latin graffiti; they left the tendrils of the Catholic Church, which would influence England’s destiny for centuries to come.
Until… a thousand (or so) years later, when King Henry VIII, unhappy in both marriage and religion, decided to break up with the Pope (and his wife) in one fell swoop, sparking what we now call the Protestant Reformation of England.
The Roman Catholic Pope had historically sat as the head of the Church of England. When King Henry broke ties, it left a void of power, one that he was happy to fill, and he proclaimed himself the new head of the Church of England.
This wildly offended the Catholic monks, and many refused to accept a monarch as the head of the Church. King Henry’s response was the public execution of eighteen such monks - with a full sensational process - they were hung, but taken down before death, to have abdomens sliced, guts withdrawn, and limbs chopped off.
Forgive the graphic description, but this… is the story of us. You will find the same story in the history of every continent on Earth. We all have the potential for blazingly creative violence.
Even this reformation was not enough for one segment of the new protestants of England, a group we now call the Puritans. Their desire for a Puritan England led to the first major surge of emigration to New England in the Northeastern United States.
But let's rewind a minute and introduce another player, a man named William Shakespeare, who will become the main character of this week's essay.
Shakespeare found himself caught in the middle of this religious tug of war when the government, swayed by Puritan influence, shut down the London playhouse - known as The Theatre - this was the venue where all of Shakespeare's most famous works at that time had been played.
The government had become convinced that The Theatre was a dangerous influence, capable of inciting disorder or rebellion. Theatres attracted large, mixed-class audiences, and the content of the plays often included political and social commentary. During a consolidation in power, such as the Protestant Reformation, dissent could not be tolerated.
With The Theatre shut down, Shakespeare found himself out of work. He saw the battle for the arts as lost, and penned a letter of retirement, making plans to leave London for the country. At this point in his career, he had not yet written his most influential pieces, including Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello.
But right before Shakespeare accepted his fate, a fellow actor and entrepreneur, Richard Burbage, sparked a plan of defiance, and this daring act of civil disobedience changed the course of literary history.
Plays were banned in London but were not banned outside the city limits. To the authorities, this seemed irrelevant because outside of London, no theatres had been built.
Building a new theatre at the time was not an option - England's population boom from the decade prior had inflated timber prices beyond what even a successful playwright could afford.
So late one evening in the night before Christmas of 1598, a group of men quietly snuck onto the grounds of the shuttered Theatre in central London. Armed with hammers and pry bars, they swiftly and silently dismantled the theatre and smuggled the timber to a secret location outside of the city.
After securing a lease on private land right outside London’s walls, they rebuilt the structure, naming it The Globe Theatre - a literal deconstruction and reconstruction of The Theatre in London.
This new theatre was owned by a company of men, with each one, including Shakespeare, becoming a “house-holder” - the term that predates shareholder. Through their collective strategic influence, they were able to negotiate protection from the London Government.
If in hindsight, this story seems like a battle for the arts. At the time, it was much bigger than that. It was a battle for the right to share ideas and stories, to express controversial ideas, and in effect, to speak freely.
In a time when Church leaders were being publicly executed for defying the King's orders, the brazen acts of these men cannot be overstated.
Shakespeares’ Globe Theatre still stands today, reminding us of the power of stepping onto the stage of history - and daring to rewrite the script.
I am an investor, writer, podcast host and athlete. Each week, I share an essay on human behaviour and the psychology of decision-making. If you enjoy my writing, please forward it to a friend!
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