Shakespeare’s Plays


Above: Front page of the First Folio.

William Shakespeare (born 23 April 1564) died on his birthday in 1616. This year, therefore, we celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death. As far as we know, Shakespeare’s life was a busy one. Once he had started writing plays, he no sooner seems to have written one before he was starting the next one. It should be remembered that, in those days, to make a second copy of a play it was necessary to sit down and copy it all out by hand. Due to the obvious problems that entailed, few copies were ever made of his plays – or anything else!

You may have never given the subject much thought but the very reason that we have a complete set of Shakespeare’s plays is all due to two men whose names are not really well-known today. This article is as much a celebration of their lives as it is a celebration of the original author’s death. The two men worked with Shakespeare, as fellow actors, and knew the bard very well indeed.


Above: Site of the church of St Mary, Aldermanbury, now turned into a garden. The church that Hemminge and Condell knew was destroyed in the Great Fire (1666). It was rebuilt by Christopher Wren but was reduced to rubble during the Second World War. The stonework from the bombed church was shipped to Fulton, Missouri, USA, and it was re-erected as a memorial to Winston Churchill.


Above: A new monument to Hemminge and Condell was erected in the churchyard of St Mary, Aldermanbury.

Henry Condell, associate of Shakespeare, (fl 1597, died 1627). It is believed that he was born in a village near Norwich. Condell was definitely in London by 24 October 1596, when he married, at St Laurence Pountney, in the City of London. The couple settled in the parish of St Mary, Aldermanbury, where we know that Condell was a churchwarden. Condell became an actor within the Lord Chamberlain’s and King’s companies, where he seems to have had a high status. Some time around 1599 Condell became chief proprietor at the Globe Theatre on Bankside, along with his friend John Hemminge.

According the inscription on the memorial to Hemminge and Condell – in the churchyard of St Mary, Aldermary – ‘Henry Condell lived in the parish upwards of 30 years. He had 9 children, 8 of whom were baptised here and 6 buried. He was buried here 29 December 1627 and his wife was also buried here.’

John Hemminge, associate of Shakespeare, (fl 1588, died 1630). According to the memorial in the churchyard of St Mary, Aldermary, ‘John Hemminge lived in the parish upwards of 42 years and in which he was married. He had 14 children, 13 of whom were baptised, 4 buried and one married here. He was buried here 12 October 1630, his wife was also buried here.’

Heminge remained active in the Grocers’ Company alongside his theatrical activities. In fact the two sometimes intertwined. On 13 December 1608 he was admitted as one of the ten seacoal-meters (citizens appointed to measure the coal imported into the City by sea) for the City of London. Shortly afterwards he took on John Jackson as his deputy. Both Heminge and John Jackson later acted as trustees for William Shakespeare when he purchased the Blackfriars Gatehouse in 1613.

Little more than half of Shakespeare’s plays were published during his lifetime and there is no evidence that the author was responsible for having them published. Seven years after Shakespeare’s death, John Heminge and Henry Condell collected the unpublished plays and, in 1623, issued them, along with the others, in a single volume – usually known as the ‘First Folio’. At some time after that, all the original manuscripts of the plays were lost in a fire which means that if these two men had not taken the trouble to publish the plays everything that we call ’Shakespeare’ would have been lost for ever.

Heminge was mentioned in Shakespeare’s will, along with Richard Burbage and Henry Condell, each being bequeathed 26 shillings and eight pence to buy mourning rings in his memory. Burbage died before the publication of the First Folio, but Heminge and Condell acted ostensibly as co-editors and mentioned in their epistle to ‘the great Variety of Readers’ the ‘care, and paine’ they took to collect the works, since the author had not ‘liv’d to have set forth, and overseen his owne writings’. Their editorial efforts were vital to preserving a number of Shakespeare’s plays, some of which might have been lost otherwise.

From what has been said, it will be seen that everything we hold great about the works of William Shakespeare might have been lost to the world had it not been for the painstaking, thorough work of two of his friends who thus ensured that all the plays were eventually published several years after his death.


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2 Responses to Shakespeare’s Plays

  1. clavdivs26 says:

    Thank you for this, Adrian! I never knew, or even thought about, this side of things (Shakespeare’s plays being collected and published – saved from obscurity) and, consequently, the importance of Shakespeare’s two friends, John and Henry. Thank you, too, for answering my question so eloquent and ‘information’ rich-ly. :^D It is muchly appreciated. I’ve gone and posted a link to your blog entry today to that Susan Wakefield ( who broached the subject, in the first place.


  2. Thanks for you kind comments. This article and the one on Wednesday were prepared some weeks ago – ready for this anniversary. Shakespeare has a particular interest for me. Having attended a grammar school that was founded in Elizabethan times, the school play every year was always one written by an Elizabethan playwright. You could say that I was ‘brought up’ on Shakespeare (also Thomas Dekker and Christopher Marlow).


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