This wooden O: the history of our unique shape
How the structure of our un-circular circle became an arena for radical experimentation
Did you know? ‘This wooden O’ is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry V, a reference to the shape of the Globe playhouse itself: a round theatre constructed out of oak.
…But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
— Henry V, Prologue
The presence of these lines long made scholars believe that Henry V was one of the first, if not the first, play written for and performed in the new Globe playhouse in 1599. Scholars now think it less likely that it was the very first play, but the prologue may well have been re-written to celebrate the new playhouse.
There were several ‘wooden O’s on the theatre scene in Shakespeare’s day. The Globe itself was constructed out of materials reclaimed from an older playhouse called the Theatre, which was also round. The Globe’s neighbouring playhouse, the Rose, was also round. We thought that the Curtain playhouse in Shoreditch was circular as well, but very recent excavations have revealed that in fact, it was most likely a rectangle.
The Globe was not a perfect circle. It was actually a multi-sided polygon… though scholars don’t agree on exactly how many sides it had. Our Globe has 20 sides, which seemed most accurate to our scholars and architects based on existing information, including a portion of the foundation of the original Globe. But this perspective is not universally accepted: New Zealand’s Pop-Up Globe, for example, is a reconstruction that has 16 sides.
As you may have heard spoken on our stage last summer, the prologue of Henry V celebrates the impossible imaginative power of the playhouse. It therefore describes not only the physical location of the Globe playhouse, but evokes an imaginative space where anything is possible with play, players, and audience working together.