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Visscher’s View of London

The Globe theater is visible in this engraving by Claes Visscher, first issued in 1616.

A long horizontal view that has creases in two places and a tear from top to bottom in another. It shows the skyline of London on the far bank, the river full of boats dominating the middle and a small view of the near bank of the river. Buildings and other landmarks are labeled in text that is too small to read here.
Claes Visscher. Londinum florentissima Britanniae urbs. Engraving, ca. 1625. GA795.L6 V5 1625 Cage

Shakespeare was associated with several London theaters, but the playhouse with which he is most closely linked was the Globe, visible in the foreground of this view of London by the Amsterdam engraver Claes Visscher. The first version of Visscher’s engraving was issued in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death; the Folger’s copy is one of only two known copies of the second version.

Visscher was probably never in London himself; he was likely working off of previously published images, probably from around 1600.

For many years, Visscher’s View of London was crucial to theories about the Globe’s construction. More recently, it has been shown to be inaccurate in many respects; the Globe, for example, is now thought to have been a many-sided polygon, not the tower-like octagon shown here. But the view still offers a useful look at early seventeenth-century London as it may have appeared before the Great Fire of 1666.

In the early 1600s, the city probably looked much as it did when Shakespeare first arrived in about the late 1580s—a large, bustling metropolis with the River Thames as its main thoroughfare, and small boats for hire like taxicabs on modern city streets. Among the many labeled churches here is old Saint Paul’s Cathedral, later destroyed in the fire and replaced by the familiar domed structure by Christopher Wren. Along the north bank of the river, stairs led to the houses of the great families.

The Globe, as well as other theaters, was located on the south bank of the river, outside the jurisdiction of the city. Already, the influence of the Protestants known as Puritans was being felt, and the city fathers were unfriendly to stage productions.

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