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The Globe Theatre was the Elizabethan playhouse in which the plays of poet and dramatist William Shakespeare were performed. Constructed in 1599 in Southwark, the original theatre was destroyed by fire in 1613, before being rebuilt and later demolished once again. The Globe Theatre today was based on these original incarnations. As well as a vivid reminder of the secular pleasures enjoyed by people throughout many centuries of the arts, Shakespeare’s plays were themselves deeply humanist in content, rooted in the triumphs and tribulations of human beings. Philosopher George Santayana wrote that Shakespeare ‘chose to leave his heroes and himself in the presence of life and death with no other philosophy than that which the profane world can suggest and understand’. In other words, suggested prominent US humanist Corliss Lamont, his was ‘a species of Humanism’. For humanists, life is not about seeking wisdom in holy books, but about holding the pen and being the playwrights of our own stories.

For hundreds of years, Shakespeare’s works have provided inspiration to people across the globe, as well as within the theatre of that name, and he used the metaphor of the stage to illustrate the experience of life itself. In As You Like It (believed to have been the play which opened the Globe in 1599), the character of Jacques delivers the monologue generally known as ‘the seven ages of man’, beginning with the immortal lines: ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely Players’:

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His Acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

This illustration was by illustrator and Shakespearean authority C. Walter Hodges, held in the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library. You can also view a drawing of the Globe by West London Ethical Society member William Poel as part of Bristol University’s ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. Poel, a Shakespeare enthusiast who staged performances at the humanist Ethical Church during the 1910s and 1920s, hoped to build a replica of the theatre. His drawing was in fact used during the reconstruction of the Globe in the 1990s.

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