Shakespeare’s World is beginning to vibrate in anticipation of next year’s 400th anniversary on 8 November of the publication of the First Folio of the playwright’s (almost) Complete Works. In addition to the marking of the date itself, celebrating the appearance of one of the most consequential and famous books ever produced, the preparations for the Big Day seem to be acknowledging as never before the story of the book’s birth. There’s a story behind the story: in short, the contribution made to the history of publishing and to the wider culture of the world generally of the two actors responsible for the collating and curation of the 18 plays that, without their magnanimous industry, might have been lost to posterity.
The story of John Heminge and Henry Condell is perhaps most succinctly recounted by the memorial erected in their honour more than a century ago in London’s Aldermanbury. One of the panels around its base sums up best both their achievement and their magnanimity in its execution:
“To the memory of John Heminge and Henry Condell / fellow actors and personal friends of Shakespeare / They lived many years in this parish and are buried here / To their disinterested affection the world owes all that it calls Shakespeare / They alone collected his dramatic writings regardless of pecuniary loss and without the hope of any profit gave them to the world / They thus merited the gratitude of mankind.”
Setting aside the many questions raised in considering the curation and production of this toweringly consequential book – what were the protocols for inclusion; what were the allowances for collaborative efforts; how does the story of these actors’ generous industry square with the so-called “authorship question” – there are at least two momentous thought experiments to consider in evaluating their achievement.
The most obvious one is how the world would have been different without those 18 plays that would have joined the vast majority of works produced during the Golden Age of the Elizabethan Theatre, only to disappear into the dustbin of history. Where would we be without those 18 plays, including such household names as Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale? Possibly more interesting is our wonder at the performance history of those plays, and the impact on the cultural history of our world by a few of these plays in particular, where their resonance echoed far beyond their stages?
History scholar James Shapiro puts this question under the spotlight in his book Shakespeare in a Divided America, examining seven of these plays set against key themes of life in that one country. Four of the seven were among the plays rescued for posterity by Heminge and Condell: Macbeth is seen in the context of class warfare and assassination; The Tempest viewed through the prism of immigration; and The Taming of the Shrew against a backdrop of #MeToo and the tribulations of marriage.
His bravura final chapter looks at the production and aftermath of the riotous performance of Julius Caesar in the summer of 2017 in New York City. The portrayal of Caesar as a Donald Trump doppelganger brought out the best and worst of America and its media in considering the implications of public violence and the need for circumspection in being careful what we wish for.
And of course in that play we celebrate too the oratory in the variety of ways in which citizens can be called to action: Friends, Romans, Countrymen . . . Thank you John; thank you Henry.