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‘My fellows’: John Heminges and Henry Condell

Richard Burbage (1567-1619), John Heminges (1566-1630) and Henry Condell (1576-1627) were colleagues and friends, and in the will Shakespeare refers to them as ‘my fellows’.

Paul Edmondson
Ben Jonson's works
(SR - OS - 80 Jonson) The workes of Benjamin Ionson, principal actors in Sejanus

Shakespeare left Richard Burbage (1567-1619), John Heminges (1566-1630) and Henry Condell (1576-1627) twenty-six shillings and eight pence each (one mark) to buy mourning rings. They were colleagues and friends, and in the will Shakespeare refers to them as ‘my fellows’. All three men had sons named William. Stanley Wells has suggested in Shakespeare for All Time (2002) that perhaps Shakespeare’s bequests formed an informal contract for all three men to oversee the 1623 edition of his collected plays. Burbage died in 1619, and Heminges and Condell became co-editors of what became known as the First Folio

Like Shakespeare, Heminges and Condell acted, invested in businesses, and acquired real estate. They lived in the parish of St Mary’s, Aldermanbury, less than ten minutes walk away from Silver Street where, in 1604 and probably for longer, Shakespeare was lodging with his Hugenot friends the Mountjoys.

John Heminges was baptised in St Peter’s church in Droitwich on 25 November 1566. He was introduced to business early and became an apprentice for nine years with the Grocers’ Company from the age of twelve. On 13 June 1587, the Queen’s Men were acting in Thame, Oxfordshire, when a fight broke out between two of the actors. John Towne killed William Knell. By 1590, Heminges had married Knell’s widow, Rebecca, which suggests a close connection with the acting company from at least 1587.

Condell, ten years younger, was baptised on 5 September 1576 in St Peter Mancroft church, Norwich, then the second biggest city in England. He may have first met John Heminges when Lord Strange’s Men visited in 1593. Or, perhaps Condell was already living in London. Acting troupes regularly performed at the  Bell Savage Inn close to where his uncle, Humphrey Yeomans, lived. In 1596 Condell had the good fortune to marry the wealthy Elizabeth Smart, the only child of her late father, Henry Smart, a gentleman, from whom she had inherited several large houses on the Strand.

Heminges and Rebecca had fourteen children between 1590 and 1613. Burial records suggest that three of these died as infants, so there were always plenty of mouths for a professional Grocer turned theatre practitioner to feed. Condell and Elizabeth had nine children between 1599 and 1614, three of whom survived into adulthood.

From 1594, Heminges, like Shakespeare, was a co-founder and shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Like Shakespeare, Heminges was a founding shareholder of the Globe from 1599. Condell was a sharer in the company by 1603 and bought shares in the Globe around 1605.  In 1608, both men invested in the Blackfriars Theatre from which time, like Shakespeare, they could expect to earn around £200 a year from their shares in the company and the theatres. By buying up the shares of their deceased colleagues, Heminges and Condell eventually owned half of the Globe Theatre between them. Like Shakespeare, both were titled gentlemen. Condell is referred to as ‘gent.’ in 1603; Heminges was formally granted a coat of arms in 1629. 

Fourth Folio
Heminges and Condell's note "To the Great Variety of Readers" in the Fourth Folio, 1685 (first produced in the First Folio, 1623.

Both men acted with Shakespeare in Ben Jonson’ s Every Man in his Humour(1599) and Sejanus (1603-4). Heminges and Condell were present when the Globe burned down on 29 June 1613 during a performance of All is True (Henry VIII). A ballad circulating within a day of the disaster mentions:

The reprobates though drunk on Monday,
Prayed for the Fool and Henry Condye. 
We know that Heminges stuttered because the ballad records:
Then with swoll’n eyes, like drunken Flemings,
Distressèd stood old stuttering Heminges. (Wells 2006, p. 242)

Or perhaps he was only stuttering with shock to see the Globe on fire.

Heminges’s most important off-stage role was in the business arrangements for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men. He received payments for performances at court.  Importantly, Heminges’s status as a Grocer allowed him to take boy apprentices into the theatre company where they could be trained as actors. From 1595, he bound into service at least ten boys aged between eight and twelve years old.

It is worth bearing in mind the number of times that Shakespeare, Heminges, and Condell appeared at Court with the rest of their acting company. Overall the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed around 170 times at Court before Elizabeth I and James I in Shakespeare’s lifetime; around 290 times in Condell’s, and around 320 in Heminges’s lifetimes, before Elizabeth, James, and Charles I.

Neither Heminges nor Condell bequeathed as much cash as Shakespeare did (around £360), but all three of these King’s Men were used to operating and interacting at the highest possible social levels. Shakespeare leaving them mourning rings – an inserted bequest in the latest draft of his will as it has come down to us – is a fitting and intimate thought from their old Stratford-upon-Avon friend.

By Paul Edmondson and based on: Paul Edmondson, ‘John Heminges and Henry Condell’ in The Shakespeare Circle: An AlternativeBiography, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells (Cambridge, 2015).

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