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Warning: My speculations are in italics. The rest is accepted historical fact.

On St. Peter and Paul Day, 1613, during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (or All Is True), the Globe theater caught fire and burned to the ground. The fire was allegedly started accidentally, by a cannon salute to Henry VIII. But was it an accident? There are several lines of evidence pointing to arson: the profitability of the fire, the theatricality of the fire, lines in the play that referred to the fire, the continuation of the cannon motif from Hamlet, and political/religious symbolism connecting Henry VIII and his divorce, Pope’s Day, Blackfriars, St. Dominic, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

How could Shakespeare and the other Globe shareholders have profited from the fire? Fire insurance had not yet been invented, nor was there a complicated income tax code to motivate a tax write-off. To find the financial motive for the destruction of the Globe, we must look back to its birth:

On the night before St. Thomas a Beckett’s Day in 1598, Shakespeare and his fellow players assembled at the Theatre and "armed themselves with divers manye unlawfull and offensive weapons, as namelye swordes daggers billes axes and a verye ryoutous outragious and forcyble manner...did...pull downe the sayd Theater...And having so done did then also in most forcyble and ryotous manner take and carrye awaye from thence all the wood and timber thereof unto the Banckside [the south side of the Thames]...and there erected a new playe howse with the sayd Timber and wood." The new theater, built from the Theatre’s wood, was called the Globe (All the world’s a stage). The above description of the Theatre’s deconstruction was quoted from Giles Alleyn, the irate owner of the land on which the Theatre had stood. Back in 1576 James Burbage had purchased a twenty-one-year lease on that land from Alleyn and built the Theatre, the first theater ever built in England. The building and lease had been inherited by Burbage’s son, Richard, who became the leading actor and shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s acting company. When the lease expired, Alleyn, perhaps because of complaints that the Theatre was a magnet for prostitutes and cutpurses, refused to renew it. So Burbage and his fellow actors, with fine dramatic flair, simply picked up their theater and moved it to a new site. Unfortunately, the new site was also leased and the lease was due to expire in 1613, so once again Shakespeare’s company had to deal with a landlord who was reluctant to renew their lease.

This time Shakespeare and his fellow-players did not want to move. The Globe was in a very profitable location, so profitable that they may have wanted to tear down their theater and build a larger one on the same site, as a nearby rival theater company had already done. But they probably didn’t want to re-use the wood because the Globe was built on marshy ground (flanked with a ditch and forced out of a marsh - Ben Jonson) which, over the past fifteen years, had probably rotted the wood (your water is a sore decayer). If they didn’t want to re-use the wood, the most economical means to demolish the old Globe would be to burn it. But if their landlord knew that they were deliberately burning the old Globe to clear the site for a larger Globe, he surely would have held out for much more money on the lease renewal. So the Globe burned down "accidentally," allowing the players to argue that the lease renewal was less valuable. Shortly after the fire, the landlord finally agreed to a new lease.

During the months they were rebuilding the Globe, Shakespeare’s company would have lost considerable revenue if they had not had some other place to stage their plays. By luck (or good planning), they already had an alternate theater ready by the time of the fire. Back in 1596, when he was haggling with his first landlord over the renewal of the lease for the Theatre’s land, Richard Burbage had purchased part of the former Blackfriars Monastery. His original plan had been to move the company to Blackfiars after his Theatre lease expired. However, the other residents of Blackfriars (including even Lord Hunsden, the patron of the Chamberlain’s Men) circulated a petition objecting to a theater in their neighborhood. But by 1608 attitudes had changed and Shakespeare’s company (now called the King’s Men) had finally started using their Blackfriars theater during winter seasons. Thus, when the Globe burned down in 1613, they probably resumed operations the very next day at Blackfriars.

Having decided to torch the Globe, the King’s Men could have done it in the dead of night, with no witnesses. But that would have gone against their show business instincts. They wanted an audience. So, they would have chosen to start the fire in the middle of a play. Of course they would want to avoid roasting their audience -- that would be bad for business. They needed to create the illusion of a fire, evacuate the audience, and then start the real fire. Perhaps they would start with a smokepot hidden in the rafters.

From a letter written by Sir Henry Wotton (formerly a spy for Essex) on July 2, 1613:

The King’s players had a new play, called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII, which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty....Now, King Henry making a masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain chambers being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being at first but an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran around like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds.

This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric; wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale. [This Bud’s for you!]

Since the original name of the play was All Is True, I wonder if this was the origin of the chant, "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"

According to legend, one man in the audience was taking notes in order to publish a pirated edition of the play. He dutifully recorded everything he heard up to and including the moment when the actor playing Cardinal Wolsey cried out, "The theater’s afire!" Recall that Wotton said the fire was thought to be "at first but an idle smoke." If indeed the players were trying to fake a fire with smokepots, the illusion failed -- they had to reinforce it with words to make the audience take flight.

If the initial smoke had been from a real fire, it would have been remarkable that, even after a delayed evacuation, no one was injured. As for the fellow with the hot pants, why didn’t his shirt burn? How many comedies since then have featured a man with burning pants? How many comedians have doused flames with booze? This incident has all the earmarks of a well-rehearsed stunt. When he was back inside the theater, the man (perhaps a little-known or well-disguised actor) could have soaked his shirt and pants with water, then strapped on a dry false bottom stuffed with straw. Then, with phony fanny aflame, he dashed outside, where a waiting confederate quenched his bogus butt with bottled beer, delighting the distracted multitude, while inside the real Global warming was beginning.

The actor playing Cardinal Wolsey may have ad libbed "The theater’s afire!" But there are some prescient lines in the script which seem to be lightly veiled references to the fire. About forty lines after the cannon salute which allegedly ignited the Globe, Henry VIII first takes notice of Anne Boleyn (Bullen), a lady-in-waiting to his wife:

KING, (HENRY VIII, 1,4,91)
My Lord Chamberlain,
Prithee come hither. What fair lady’s that?
An’t please your Grace, Sir Thomas Bullen’s daughter --
The Viscount Rochford -- one of her Highness’ women.
By heaven, she is a dainty one. Sweet heart,
I were unmannerly to take you out
And not to kiss you. A health gentlemen!
Let it go round. [As the flames "ran around like a train."]
Sir Thomas Lovell, is the banker ready
I’ th’ privy chamber? [Perhaps the King’s Men had already arranged the financing for rebuilding the Globe.]
Yes, my lord.
Your Grace,
I fear, with dancing is a little heated.
I fear, too much.
There’s fresher air, my lord,
In the next chamber.

Heated too much indeed. For Henry VIII (the play), the next chamber would be the theater in Blackfriars, in the very room where Henry VIII had divorced Catherine in order marry Anne Boleyn, thus beginning the divorce of England from the Catholic Church.

When I first read that the Globe had burned down during a performance of Henry VIII, , I had no reason to believe that the Globe fire was anything less than a financial disaster for Shakespeare. Yet I was immediately certain that it was arson. Why? For two very strong reasons. First, as I explained in a previous chapter, I believed that Shakespeare had taken a vow to write a series of provocative histories of English kings, culminating in an inflammatory history of Henry VIII. He had begun his career with this series of histories, but I wondered why he waited until the very end of his career to complete the series with an apparently cool and bland Henry VIII. Secondly, I had discovered that in Hamlet, the King metaphorically slaughtered himself with his own cannon, fired in salute, just as in Henry VIII the playhouse was destroyed by a cannon salute to Henry VIII. The Globe fire was the missing piece in the puzzle. The completed puzzle showed Shakespeare’s lifelong struggle to reconcile his Catholic faith with his love for the theater.

The king shall drink to Hamlet's better breath,
And in the cup an unionshallhethrow
Richer than that which four successive kings
In Denmark's crown have worn. Give me the cups;
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without,
The cannons to the heavens, the heavens to earth
'Now the king drinks to Hamlet!'

(A crown in the cup? What were they drinking? Corona beer? Or maybe Royal Crown cola? Or Konigsburg (sic) beer -- German for King's Town -- King's Hamlet? They would have been wiser to stick to good old Bud, King of Beers.)

The above speech gives us a hint that the king's drinking, with the accompaniment of cannon fire, might be a metaphor for the king's attachment to his kingdom (and in the cup an union). The metaphor is strengthened when we recall the following from Act I:

[A flourish of trumpets and ordnance shot off, from within.]
HORATIO, 1,4,7
What does this mean my lord?
The king doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail and the swaggering upspring reels,
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
Is it a custom?
Ay, marry, is't.
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honor'd in the breach than the observance.

Hamlet does not want to join his forefathers' union.

"Four successive kings" might also refer to Kings James I, II, III, and IV of Scotland, who all died violent deaths. The current King of Scots, James VI did not want to join his four fathers’ union.

In the play's very first occurrence of this metaphor, Hamlet seemed to recognize the self-destructive nature of a king's union with his kingdom. He invoked the metaphor as a curse against Claudius, a wish that Claudius might destroy himself:

No jocund health that Denmark drinks today,
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the king's rouse the heavens shall bruit again,
Re-speaking earthly thunder. Come away.
O! that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew;
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter.

If Cloud-ius was an actual cloud he could rain himself away (melt into dew), or, when he fired his cannon at the clouds, he would indeed be slaughtering himself. The Everlasting has fixed His canon against self-slaughter, but that will not prevent Claudius from fixing (aiming) his own metaphorical cannon at himself. In the end, this curse is carried out:

HAMLET,5,2,329 Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane, Drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother. LAERTES He is justly serv'd. It is a poison temper'd by himself.

Thus the metaphors of camel, cloud, cannon, and cup embrace both the essential flaw of Claudius's character and the means of his consequent self-destruction.

The range of the cannon motif extends beyond Hamlet, impacting the life of James VI of Scotland. What was Hamlet to James VI or he to Hamlet? I covered that in detail in a previous chapter, but for now, let’s review the impact of cannons on James VI and his family. His great-great-great grandfather, James II, was killed by his own cannon, when it exploded. The bride of James VI, Princess Anne of Denmark, while attempting to cross the North Sea to marry James, saw eight sailors crushed to death by a loose cannon on her storm-tossed-ship.

The cannon was also a motif in William Shakespeare’s life. He obtained a family coat-of-arms that showed a falcon shaking a spear. What does that have to do with cannons? "Falcon" was the name of a type of cannon in common use in the sixteenth century. But perhaps the most important cannon in Shakespeare’s world was the one with which he destroyed his Globe:

CLAUDIUS,#,#,# Come, Gertrude, we'll call up our wisest friends; And let them know both what we mean to do, And what's untimely done: so, haply, slander, Whose whisper o'er the world's diameter, As level as the cannon to his blank Transports his poison'd shot, may miss our name, And hit the woundless air.

Blackfriars was symbolic of the English Reformation in another way, because of another coincidence. Blackfriars had been the principal English monastery of the Domincan order of monks, which had been founded about four hundred years before the English Reformation by Saint Dominic. At a time when the Catholic Church was massacring heretics, Dominic advocated the reconciliation of heretics through "persuasion and discussion rather than threats and belligerence" (Kristin E. White, A Guide to the Saints). This was not the approach of Phillip II in 1588 when he sent the Spanish Armada to restore England to Catholicism by strong hand and terms compulsatory. England defeated the Spanish Armada on August 8 -- the feast day of Saint Dominic (and 357 years later, the date the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima). To many English Catholics (perhaps including William Shakespeare) this may have seemed like a sign from God that violence was the wrong way to restore English Catholicism. There was one more coincidence linking St Dominic and the Globe fire: St Dominic was sometimes depicted in art with "a globe, with fire" (White, page 107).

Did Shakespeare dismiss these coincidences as mere chance? Or did he believe they were significant coincidences, causeless consequences?

HORATIO, (HAMLET,5,2,377 ...give order that these bodies High on a stage be placed to the view, And let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world [Globe] How these things came about. So shall you hear Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause, And in this upshot, purposes mistook Fall’n on th’inventors heads: all this can I Truly deliver. [All Is True] FORTINBRAS Let us haste to hear it, And call the noblest to the audience. For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune. I have some rights, of memory in this kingdom, Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me. HORATIO Of that I shall have also cause to speak, And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more. But let this same be presently perform’d Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance On plots and error happen.

I believe Shakespeare had the above lines from Hamlet in mind when he named the Globe’s final play -- All Is True (all this can I truly deliver). He deliberately tied together these coincidences by continuing the cannon motif from Hamlet. This time the king who metaphorically destroyed himself with his own cannon was Henry VIII.

In a letter dated July 4, 1613, Henry Bluett wrote, "On Tuesday last there was acted at the Globe a new play called All is True [the alternate title of Henry VIII], which had been acted not passing two or three times before." From this we can infer that the first performance might have been on June 28, the birthday of Henry VIII. Whether or not Shakespeare had any hidden agenda, it would have been very fitting symbolism to premiere Henry VIII on his birthday. But the fire was not on the day of the first performance -- the Globe fire was on the next day, St Peter’s and St Pauls Day (also known as Pope’s Day). This paralleled on earlier coincidence of consecutive dates: Shakespeare was born on April 23, the day after the anniversary of the coronation of Henry VIII.

KING OF FRANCE, in KING LEAR,, 1,1,235 Is it but this -- a tardiness in nature Which often leaves the history unspoke That it intends to do?....

HAMLET ...the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was, and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theater of others.

HAMLET Do you not come your tardy son to chide, That, laps'd in time and passion, lets go by The important acting of your dread command? O, say!

HAMLET Why, let the stricken deer go weep, The hart ungalled play; For some must watch; while some must sleep: So runs the world away. Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers, if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me, with two provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players, sir? HORATIO Half a share. HAMLET A whole one, I. For thou dost know, o Damen dear, This realm dismantled was Of Jove himself, and now reigns here A very, very - pajock. HORATIO You might have rhymed. HAMLET O good Horatio! I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound. GUILDENSTERN Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you. HAMLET Sir, a whole history. GUILDENSTERN The king, sir - ROSENCRANCE, (HAMLET,4,2,11 I understand you not, my lord. HAMLET I am glad of it. A knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear.

Of all the plays the King’s Men could have chosen for the Globe’s brilliant exit, Henry VIII was the most inflammatory. In 1613, English law prohibited plays from even mentioning any current political or religious controversy. -- and Henry’s divorce eighty years before was still the hottest issue of the day. In 1588, on St. Dominic’s Day (Dominic was the founder of the Blackfriars), England had defeated the Spanish Armada, which Phillip II had dispatched in an attempt to force England back into the Catholic fold. In 1605, Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic dissidents (most of them from the neighborhood of Stratford, Shakespeare’s hometown) had been foiled in an attempt to blow up the king and his entire parliament. Guy Fawkes Day, celebrating that averted disaster, is to this day one of England’ major holidays. On the surface, Henry VIII is a dull display of royal boot-licking. But the incendiary sub-text, if correctly interpreted by the wrong people, could have cost Shakespeare his head. Why would Shakespeare take such a risk? What was he trying to say? And to whom? Henry VIII was Shakespeare’s last play. To understand it, we must look back to Shakespeare’s birth.

LAERTES, (HAMLET, 1,3,18) For he himself is subject to his birth

Internal Links[]

Shakebag, Falstaff, and Woodcock - The Springe (previous article in biography)

Where Truth Is Hid - A Speculative Biography of Shakespeare (main article)

--Ray Eston Smith Jr 00:10, 8 March 2007 (UTC)