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The following is an imagined account from the life of John Heminges who was a good friend and fellow actor of William Shakespeare. Together with Henry Condell, he edited Shakespeare's First Folio, published in 1623.


It was the burning down of the Globe that broke his spirit. He loved that place. He’d helped to put it up, after that exciting time when we all got together to lug the timbers of the Theatre across the river and make a new playhouse out of them close to the Rose and under the very eyes of our old rival Philip Henslowe. Will’s greatest triumphs had been there. Henry V, with himself as the Chorus; Hamlet – I’ll never forget the first time we did that, Dick Burbage at the top of his form, everyone else in the company giving it their all. And I wasn’t bad as Polonius, if I may say so. After that, what a run of parts for Dick Burbage – Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Leontes, Coriolanus – just one triumph after another. 

Will took it all very modestly, just going on doing his bit for the company, popping off to Stratford when he could, to see his family and look after his business interests there. And of course getting on with a new play whenever he could find a bit of peace and quiet. Mind you, towards the end he lost a bit of his popular appeal. Sometimes you’d have thought he was writing for himself – that Cymbeline – not much for the groundlings there. So we got handsome young John Fletcher and clever Tom Middleton in to help him out. Still, he never gave up, till that terrible summer day when we are playing All Is True and a stupid apprentice pointed a cannon in the wrong direction and the thatch caught fire.

When we first saw the smoke we tried to keep the play going but before long everyone was screaming, rushing out of the doors as fast as they could. It’s a miracle no one was burned to death – just one lad has his breeches set on fire, but someone had the presence of mind to drench him with a bottle of beer they had handy. I rushed out, I don’t mind telling you, even though the lads were making fun of me for stuttering. Will seemed all right at first, but broke down when he saw the devastation – blackened timbers, precious costumes stained, valuable musical instruments charred and, worst of all, some of our precious prompt books burned to a cinder. We tried to comfort him, and he kept on working, but after that his heart wasn’t really in it and he did no serious writing for the last two or three years of his life. Henry Condell, Dick Burbage and I rode up to Stratford and we started to plan a collection of his plays, to rival Ben’s. Dick died, too, in 1619, but Henry and I soldiered on till at last, at the end of 1623, there it was – Master William Shakespeare: His Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies! We took a copy up to Stratford for the family, and I’ve never been so proud in all my life!

Cast: Michael Dobson, University of Birmingham

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