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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Happy Birthday John Heminges!


John Heminges, one of Shakespeare's oldest friends in the theatre, was born 25 November 1556.



Was Heminges the world's first Polonius?
Heminges, it would seem, knew Shakespeare from the very start. Heminges -- with Augustine Philips and Henry Condell -- belonged to Lord Strange's Men, which many believe was the first company which employed Shakespeare.

It is fun to think of what Shakespeare was like as he "auditioned" for the company, and how the other more seasoned actors, like Heminges, reacted to the young upstart.

I like to imagine that they got along famously from the very beginning, because Shakespeare truly belonged to the theatre.

This would be the late 1580's to early 1590's, when Shakespeare was just starting out -- writing in his early, and quite popular plays -- and acting in them.

From about 1594, Heminges, Philips, Condell and Shakespeare would go on to join the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died, King James took the throne -- and the Lord Chamberlain's Men became the King's Men.

Shakespeare left the King's Men around 1612-1613 and died in 1616. In his lifetime, he never took any interest in publishing his own plays. While he lived, he only ever published his epic poems Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece.

In the period after Shakespeare died, Heminges -- together with Henry Condell -- edited Shakespeare's plays and published them in the First Folio in 1623.





Without this book, without their work, we would hardly know Shakespeare.

We don't know which roles Heminges performed in Shakespeare's plays. There is a suggestion that he played Falstaff, but I think it was Will Kemp who performed that role. From what I have read, it seems that Heminges was a "tragedian."

For my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice I had to decide which roles he would have performed. It was not easy to figure out, who played what role.

Richard Burbage was the star. He created the roles of Hamlet, Richard III, Shylock etc. Will Kemp was the funny man. But what was Heminges's purpose -- how did he fit in?


Richard Burbage

I think he was the straight man. I think he was the actor who played the stiff and uptight men -- but he knowingly played them for laughs.

For Merchant, I was confident that he played Antonio. As I have written before, this is a terrifically funny play, and Heminges as Antonio has some of the funniest gags.


Jeremy Irons as Antonio and Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice film (2004)
For Richard III, I think he played more than one part -- and I think it is most likely that he played Brakenbury, Buckingham and the Second Citizen. I contend that Shakespeare re-wrote much of the play to make it funnier and edgier, and a lot of Heminges's dialogue in these roles serves to make that newer and fresher Richard III work.

For Hamlet, I think he was Polonius -- the stiffest of stiffs. But he also serves as the target of so many of Hamlet's jokes and insults. This is a critical role, with a great deal of nuance. I think Shakespeare turned to Heminges, arguably the most experienced actor he had in his arsenal, to pull it off.


Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius with David Tennant as Hamlet, in 2009

If he did in fact perform these roles, then it was an indication that the real John Heminges was a very versatile actor, and I discovered that his roles have some of the most humorous bits. He must have been a terribly funny man, who could insert humor into any role, even the most dramatic.

I like to think that Shakespeare and his fellow actors Richard Burbage, Augustine Philips, Henry Condell and most certainly John Heminges, were the very best of friends -- a band of brothers who fought on the stages in London to bring light to a very dark time.

Finally, without John Heminges we would not have Shakespeare's plays today, and for that he deserves our eternal gratitude.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


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