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New Light on the Globe Theater

It may seem impossible that anything new about Shakespeare or his theater could be discovered at this time of day, yet new light can be thrown on the Globe Theater through the pursuit of a neglected subject, the history of the classical art of memory.

The Roman orators used a mnemonic device to help them to memorize their speeches; the technique is described by Cicero and other ancient writers. The user of the classical art of memory began by memorizing places in a building; on these places he memorized images to remind him of the points of his speech. As he gave his speech the orator moved in imagination through his memory building, inwardly seeing the images on the places. The order of the places ensured him that he kept to the order of his points. The images reminded him of those points. The technique relied on strong powers of visualization and on the laws of association, which were fully understood by the ancients. The authorities say that your own house may be used as a memory system, or streets and public buildings, such as theaters. And if you do not know enough of such real places to imprint on your memory, you may invent imaginary buildings to house the contents of memory. Such imaginary buildings were called fictitious places, to distinguish them from real places, memorized in real buildings.

Like the other arts of antiquity, the classical art of memory was handed down in the European tradition. In the Middle Ages it had its Gothic period, when churches, cathedrals, abbeys, were used as memory systems. In the Renaissance, neo-classical influences pervaded the memory architecture and imagery. One of the most famous memory systems of the Renaissance was the Memory Theater of Giulio Camillo, who set out to imprint on memory the whole cosmos, both the world of nature and the world of man. He formed a universal Memory Theater which was an adaptation of the Roman theater as described by Vitruvius. This remarkable effort, which was connected with tendencies in the Renaissance Hermetic movement, excited great interest in the sixteenth century.

In the early seventeenth century the fashion for theater memory systems reached England.

The cut here reproduced from the Mnemonica of John Willis represents one of a series of what Willis calls Memory Theaters. He divided each of these constructions into a number of memory places, marked on the cut by letters of the alphabet. If the cut is a reflection of any real building, it is of course not a whole theater but a stage—a stage closed at the sides to form a memory room.

Willis’s system is an example of the use of the classical art of memory in a perfectly straightforward way, as a mnemonic technique. But in the following year, 1619, the Hermetic philosopher Robert Fludd published a most elaborate theater memory system in which he aimed, like Giulio Camillo, at a universal memory. This is the curious source from which evidence can be drawn about the Globe Theater.

THE FIRST PAGE of Fludd’s treatise on the art of memory, here reproduced, shows a man with a large “eye of imagination” in his head, with which he is looking inwardly at his memory system. He sees the wall of a memory room divided into five places, each containing an image. Fludd nowhere mentions or explains these images in his text, but they obviously illustrate the principles of the classical art of memory, which uses places and images.

Fludd expounds his Hermetic philosophy in a vast work in many volumes with very long titles, the gist of which can be reduced to that of the running title, Utriusque Cosmi…Historia, or The History of Both Worlds. These two worlds are the great world of the universe or the Macrocosm, and the little world of Man or the Microcosm. The first volume, on the Macrocosm, was published in two parts in 1617 and 1618. The second volume, on the Microcosm, was published in 1619. It is in the second volume that the treatise on the art of memory occurs, for this is an art proper to the Microcosm, through which Man can reflect and hold in memory the Great World.

Though their author was living in England, these great tomes were published in Germany, by the firm of Johann Theodore De Bry, at Oppenheim; they are lavishly illustrated with engravings. The illustration of his works was very important to Fludd for hieroglyphic diagrams of great complexity were necessary for the exposition of his philosophy. He must somehow have conveyed to the engraver in Germany detailed sketches and instructions for the illustrations. Channels of communication between the De Bry firm and England had been established by the elder De Bry (Theodore De Bry) who visited England in 1587 to collect materials for his publications of voyages of discovery, amongst which was the America, with engravings after the drawings of John White. The De Bry firm was thus accustomed to procuring sketches in England for engraved illustrations. And we know that, in the case of the De Bry publication of Fludd’s works, the author was satisfied that the illustrations carried out his intentions. When taunted by Dr. William Foster for having his books printed beyond the seas, with the insinuation that this was because “Our Universities and Our Reverend Bishops (God bee thanked) are more cautelous than to allow the printing of Magical books here,” Fludd indignantly replied that “I sent them beyond the seas because our home-borne Printers demanded five hundred pounds to print the first volume and to find the cuts in copper; but beyond the seas it was printed at no cost of mine, and that as I would wish.” It thus seems probable that detailed sketches were available to the engraver, since Fludd was satisfied with his performance as accurately representing his wishes. Can we therefore rely on the engraving of a theater in the memory system as representing a sketch of a real theater in London? I believe that we can.

THE FIRST PART of the History of the Macrocosm (1617) was dedicated to James I in most ecstatic terms. Fludd was at this time very anxious to secure the support of James against his enemies. There is in the British Museum a manuscript Declaration addressed to the King by Fludd, in which he earnestly defends himself as an innocent follower of divine and ancient philosophies, appends testimonials from foreign scholars about the value of his writings, and mentions the dedication of the Macrocosm to James. Fludd’s strong wish to interest James in his ideas and to secure his support at this time is important to bear in mind in connection with the theater in the memory system. The original Globe Theater was burned down in 1613 but was at once rebuilt on the same foundations and on the same lines as its predecessor. James I, who had taken Shakespeare’s company of players under his protection (the Lord Chamberlain’s Company which now became the King’s Men), took an interest in the rebuilding of the theater of his own company of players and contributed a considerable sum towards the cost. The second Globe was rather particularly associated with the King, and the second Globe would still have been in its state of fresh magnificence in 1619, the date at which Fludd’s theater memory system was published. If Fludd alludes in it to a real theater, as he states that he does, what could be more suitable than the second Globe, the most famous of the London theaters and the one in which the King he wished to ingratiate was particularly interested?

In his treatise on the art of memory, Fludd devotes a whole chapter to a polemic against the use of fictitious or imaginary buildings in memory systems; only real buildings, he says, are to be used in the art of memory. The definitions and arguments about real and fictitious places were constantly repeated in treatises on the classical art of memory and Fludd in treating this theme is in a well-worn tradition. All the more striking, therefore, is his insistence that the use of fictitious places is not to be allowed, as though he wishes to emphasize that his memory system uses a real, not a fictitious theater. And in the text above the engraving of the theater in his system he specifies that by a theater he means “a public theater in which comedies and tragedies are acted.” The great wooden theaters of London were technically known as “public theaters.” Everything seems to suggest that Fludd intended to use a real public theater in his memory system and in view of his wish to attract and interest James I the most likely public theater for him to have used would be the second Globe.

Practically the only visual evidence hitherto available about the interior of an Elizabethan or Jacobean theater is provided by the famous De Witt sketch of the Swan Theater.

The features shown in this sketch are too familiar to need comment, and have been the basis of all reconstructions of the Globe. I must however emphasize one point. In these theaters the outer stage was open and uncovered, but the inner stage had a covering which projected from the tiring house wall and was supported by two columns, or “posts” as they were called. It is known that the underside of this covering was painted to represent the heavens. The two columns or posts supporting the inner stage cover, the underside of which was painted with the heavens, can be seen in the sketch of the Swan. Imagine that you are standing on the stage of the Swan between the posts. If you look up you will see the ceiling painted with the heavens, but you will not see the upper story above it, because you are under the heavens. If you look straight ahead you will see that part of the tiring house wall which was under the heavens. I believe that what Fludd can show us is a view of the stage of the Globe taken from just such a position, under the heavens.

Reproduced here are two consecutive pages from Robert Fludd’s description of his memory system. On the left-hand page, we see the familiar sight of the Zodiac and its signs; within it are seven circles representing the spheres of the planets. This is what Fludd calls the “round” part of his art, which uses the heavens as a memory system. With this system Fludd uses “memory theaters” in which he proposes to memorize all the contents of the world of nature and of man through gearing them to the stars. The process does not admit of rational explanation though obscure efforts of this kind are not uncommon in the Renaissance. This is one of those Hermetic, astrally organized systems of the type which Giulio Camillo had made popular.

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