Global inspiration: How World’s Fairs gave us Shakespeare’s Globe

12 May 2017

History | Literature

As a development editor at Adam Matthew, I have had the pleasure of working on some fascinating resources from their earliest days. One such project was our World’s Fairs: A Global History of Expositions resource, which is a veritable treasure trove of documents, objects and oral histories that offer a unique insight into the fascinating phenomenon that is world’s fairs; another is our exciting partnership with Shakespeare’s Globe archive.

While undergoing some background research for the Globe project, I discovered a delightful link between Shakespeare’s Globe and world’s fairs, which further supports the assertion by many of my colleagues here at Adam Matthew that nigh-on all subjects can be linked to world’s fairs in some way! 

Shakespeare’s Globe’s remarkable founder was the American actor, director and producer Sam Wanamaker. It was his vision and determination that ensured Shakespeare’s Globe once again became a spectacle on London’s South Bank skyline. One might ask how or why an American actor developed such a passion for creating a replica Globe in London, where no one else had thought to do so since the last incarnation was destroyed in 1642 as a result of the English Civil War. Amazingly, the answer to this question is world’s fairs. 

Sam was born in Chicago in 1919. While he was still growing up, the Windy City was to host a key exposition in the history of world’s fairs. The Century of Progress International Exposition in 1933 and 1934 was held in the heyday of American world’s fairs; it received over 40 million visitors and, unlike many of these events, it even made a profit! Sam went to visit the exposition and it was there, in the ‘Merrie England’ exhibition, that his imagination was captured by a Globe theatre replica. 

Foreign exhibits - villages, [1933-1934], © University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections

Shown here, at the bottom of the souvenir brochure above, we can only imagine the sort of impact this building might have had on the imagination of a young teenage boy with a passion for acting. Renaissance theatre was also staged within this Globe replica, including productions of Macbeth, As You Like It, and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus.

Foreign exhibits - villages, [1933-1934], © University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections

As if this wasn't coincidence enough, it seems Sam had a second encounter with a Globe theatre replica, and where else but at another world’s fair. The Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland, Ohio, (1936-37) was a much smaller event, but nevertheless had a larger impact on Sam’s lifelong fascination with the Globe. 

 

The 1937 Great Lakes Exposition souvenir book, [1937], © Hagley Museum and Library

 

Official Great Lakes Exposition view book, 1936, © Special Collections Research Center, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno

The Great Lakes Exposition also had a replica Globe Theatre, complete with Shakespearean performances (seen on the left in the first image, and up close in the image just above). It was built by the British government and could be found alongside a life-sized imagining of Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop. Not only did Sam visit this reconstruction, he even acted in it. This was the first time Sam had performed Shakespeare and, although reports suggest the replica was a fairly low-budget effort, the experience was enough to sow the seed that eventually gave the world the latest incarnation of Shakespeare’s Globe. Thank you, Sam – and thank you, world’s fairs! 

Sam Wanamaker with a model of Shakespeare's Globe theatre. Photograph by Brian Rybolt. © Shakespeare's Globe.

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World’s Fairs: A Global History of Expositions is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license.

You can read more about our Shakespeare’s Globe collection here.

About the Author

Claudine Nightingale

Claudine Nightingale

I work as a Senior Development Editor at Adam Matthew. Since January 2014, I have developed a wide range of projects, including our fantastic theatre titles 'Shakespeare in Performance' and 'Eighteenth Century Drama'.