Shakespeare, Henry VIII, and the day the Globe burned down

When we say that a theatre performance ‘brought the house down’, we usually don’t mean that literally. But in the case of Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, or as it’s sometimes known, All is True, the phrase really does apply. In a performance in 1613 a stray spark from a cannon ignited a fire that burned the Globe Theatre to the ground. In fact, throughout its chequered history of performance, this play has suffered or enjoyed a variety of different climaxes. All of which makes Laura Jayne Wright (University of Oxford), wonder: just what is the real ending of a work of drama?

On June 29th, 1613, Shakespeare and Fletcher’s new play, Henry VIII, was performed – but not for long. Before the second act was over, the discharging of chamber shots, meant to mark the entrance of the actor playing Henry, set the thatched roof of the Globe playhouse on fire. The building was evacuated; the play was cut short; the performance was left unfinished. Using Henry VIII as a starting point, Laura considers the different ways in which an early modern play can end (or not quite end).

Considering last lines, epilogues spoken at the end of a play, and the sound of applause, her podcast explores asks what happens when the play stops. What do we make of The Taming of the Shrew, a play that may be missing an ending? Or of King Lear, the conclusion of which Shakespeare changed? Or of Romeo and Juliet, the end of which is revealed to us in its opening lines? And what of the conclusion of Henry VIII itself, the conclusion that was not staged in June 1613? In the final scene, Shakespeare and Fletcher look backwards eighty years to the reign of Henry VIII, cutting its Tudor history short with the arrival of a new Elizabethan queen. As Henry kisses his new born child, it seems that all’s well that ends well: but are endings ever so simple?

From snake women to Islamic mythology, the beginnings of sound film to the burning of Shakespeare’s globe, Late Summer Lectures in 2018 explored the theme of ‘Beginnings and Endings’ in literature.

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