The Great Shakespeareans is a new series for The Shakespeare Standard that tells the story of the men and women who have done so much to promote and popularise Shakespeare’s work in the 400 years since his death, from writers and actors to critics and composers, from Aubrey to Olivier and from Borges to Ellen Terry.
The series begins by examining the first and undoubtedly the greatest Shakespeareans of all: John Heminges and Henry Condell, Shakespeare’s friends and fellow players, who effectively saved Shakespeare for the world.
I will never forget my first encounter with John Heminges and Henry Condell, or rather with their legacy. It was more than 20 years ago and I was working every summer day and night to pay for the Masters Degree in Shakespeare Studies that I was about to undertake at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford on Avon. Far from Stratford, in fact near the Guild Hall in central London, I came across the memorial to them both, which, entirely typically (as I was about to learn), was not a statue of the two men at all but instead a bust of Shakespeare himself, underneath which the dedication declared that Heminges and Condell were responsible for the publication of the famous First Folio (the first complete, or nearly complete, collection of Shakespeare’s plays) in 1623. It quotes the two men themselves, who self-effacingly declared:
“We have but collected them…and done an office to the dead…without ambition either of self-profit or fame, but only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare.”
It was those last two words, “our Shakespeare”, that most intrigued me. As I came to study and eventually write about Heminges and Condell, I discovered that they had more right to claim Shakespeare for themselves – as “our Shakespeare” – than anyone else, and that in turn Shakespeare owed them an enormous debt. That was because without the First Folio, which they painstakingly edited for seven years after Shakespeare’s death, many of Shakespeare’s plays, including masterpieces such as Macbeth, The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra, would not have survived at all, and the plays that would have survived without them would only have done so in a horribly bowdlerized (even bastardized) form. Quite simply, Heminges and Condell were the men who saved Shakespeare.
Having spent nearly five years researching and writing a screenplay about Heminges and Condell, I can personally vouch for the fact that very little is known for certain about them. Heminges (1556-1630) was the older man by 20 years (Condell’s dates are 1576-1627) and so it is tempting to speculate that their relationship with each other may have been the exceedingly common one at the time of “master and apprentice”. Heminges hailed from Worcestershire but had been dispatched to London at a very young age (he was probably only about 11 or 12) to be apprenticed himself to a Grocer, and he eventually became a freeman of the Grocers’ Company when he was about 30. Having been an apprentice himself, Heminges may have taken the much younger Condell (who is thought to have come originally from the east of England, possibly East Anglia) under his wing, and the two men, despite the gulf in age between them, obviously became close friends, with Condell following Heminges into business and the two of them even working alongside each other as “sidesmen” or ushers (directing people to their seats) in their local church at St Mary Aldermanbury.
Of course, at some point the two men would have gone into the theatre business together and eventually met Shakespeare, whose friendship with them both was to prove the defining relationship of their lives. In fact, it is not too fanciful to call it the most important friendship in human history, because of what resulted from it.
Heminges and Condell were actors by the early 1590s and it is likely that they met Shakespeare when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (which would eventually become the King’s Men in 1601, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England) was formed from the remnants of other theatrical companies by Lord Hunsdon, the man responsible for court revels. One can imagine a careful selection process for the new company, with the finest actor (Richard Burbage), the finest writer (Shakespeare, certainly after Christopher Marlowe’s death the year before) and perhaps the finest company manager and administrator (Heminges and Condell, who may have put the financial and organisational skills they had acquired in the grocery trade to good use in the stage trade) forming a kind of Elizabethan “super-company” that was equally at home performing on Bankside for the masses and at court performing for Queen Elizabeth herself.
However Heminges and Condell met Shakespeare, it is plausible to speculate that, once the initial introductions were over and each man asked the others how they had become actors, Shakespeare and Heminges would have discovered that they had something remarkable in common. It has long been thought that Shakespeare may have initially escaped Stratford by taking the role (both on and off stage) of another actor who had been killed in a tavern brawl while his company toured the Midlands. John Heminges enjoyed a similar initiation into the theatre, effectively taking the life and the wife of William Knell, an actor who was killed in a brawl by another actor, and whose young widow Heminges married.
From that first meeting (and perhaps that first astonishing discovery that Heminges and Shakespeare had both filled another man’s shoes to take their first steps on the stage), Heminges, Condell and Shakespeare, along with Burbage, formed what might be called “the original Fab Four” (or, at the very least, “the Elizabethan Fab Four”). There were many people involved in a theatrical company such as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, but these four friends and colleagues were the nucleus of what would become the greatest theatre company in Elizabethan London and, ultimately, the greatest theatre company in history.
Heminges and Condell would have accompanied Shakespeare as he made his dizzying rise from penniless player to famous playwright. In fact, they did not just accompany him; they were intimately involved with, if not absolutely instrumental in, some of the most momentous changes in the professional life of Shakespeare and his company. When the Lord Chamberlain’s men literally upped sticks (and everything else that wasn’t nailed down) to leave their original home in Shoreditch for a new site on the banks of the River Thames (beside the bear-pits and brothels which, along with the theatre, formed the great triumvirate of Elizabethan entertainment), it is almost certain that Heminges helped to secure the lease for the land that ultimately housed The Globe theatre, by making a deal with a neighbour of his, Nicholas Brend, who had inherited the land but had no use for it himself. When the Globe ultimately burned down more than a decade later, in an almost perfectly cyclical act of closure it was Heminges and Condell who, along with Burbage, bought out Shakespeare’s share in their company, allowing him finally to return permanently to Stratford, the town he had left more than a quarter of a century earlier.
It is tempting to speculate on the other, less spectacular contributions that Heminges and Condell made to Shakespeare’s development as a playwright. At the very least, as effectively the managers of the company (Heminges in particular is noted as having a senior role in the company when it became the King’s own company in the early 1600s), they would almost certainly have done everything in their power to let Shakespeare get on with his precious writing while they handled the day-to-day business of running a successful theatre company: making costumes; buying props; and overseeing the employment of a couple of dozen actors (who ranged from gnarled veterans to the young apprentices who played the bulk of the female roles in the men-only world of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage).
Of course, it is their involvement with Shakespeare after he quit the stage, indeed after he died, that makes Heminges and Condell the first and undeniably the greatest Shakespeareans. When Shakespeare died suddenly in the spring of 1616 (perhaps, as Stratford legend has it, from contracting a fever after a heavy drinking bout with fellow poets Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton), his supremacy in the global pantheon was far from secure, principally because of the parlous state of his plays. Because there was effectively no copyright law at the time Shakespeare was writing, throughout his career in London he was actively deterred from publishing his plays, because a rival company (and there were many in London) could simply have bought copies and staged their own productions. However, after Shakespeare’s sudden death, Heminges and Condell, perhaps inspired by Ben Jonson’s publication of his collected “Works” earlier in 1616, took it upon themselves to oversee the collection, editing and printing of all of Shakespeare’s plays (or at least as many as they could find and confirm were written by Shakespeare). Although they were actors and not editors, who prior to publishing the First Folio had probably only overseen the publication of playbills (posters), they threw themselves into the task, spending a total of seven years to ensure that they produced a book worthy of Shakespeare. In doing so, they published a book that is arguably the most important ever published by anyone and certainly the most important in any art-form.
In producing the First Folio, Heminges and Condell may have been repaying a decades-old debt to Shakespeare. They were obviously talented actors and successful businessmen, but it was their friend Will’s genius that had ultimately transformed their own fortunes. Consequently, when he remembered them, along with Burbage, in his will (they are the last people mentioned in his will, and identified as “friends and fellows”) and asked that they buy “mourning rings” with the money he bequeathed them, they obviously felt that the donning of a skull-shaped ring (a common Elizabethan mode of mourning) was utterly insufficient. Instead, they decided that they would dedicate much of the rest of their lives to publishing Shakespeare’s plays, in the process preserving them for eternity and guaranteeing themselves their own tiny piece of immortality, at least among fellow lovers and devotees of Shakespeare. The fact is that, as Stanley Wells put it in the superb 1980s Oxford Edition of Shakespeare that he edited, we all owe Heminges and Condell a great debt – indeed, an unpayable one – because without them there would be no Shakespeare, or at least not the Shakespeare that we know and universally admire today.