Our modern life and culture is filled with the words of William Shakespeare, from famous speeches such as Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be,” to words he apparently created—or recorded for the first time—such as “boisterous,” “cudgel,” and “peevish.” But in Shakespeare’s own day, the preservation of any playwright’s words was a hit-or-miss process.
A very popular playwright like Shakespeare might see his plays published in inexpensive, cheaply produced editions called quartos, with or without his permission. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s 38 surviving plays first appeared as separate quartos in his lifetime.
After Shakespeare’s death, some of his former colleagues published the 1623 First Folio, a collection of 36 of his plays. The First Folio is our only source for eighteen plays, including Macbeth, which would otherwise be lost. Its texts for the other plays often vary from the quartos, requiring editors to choose among these sources in editing Shakespeare’s plays.
Quartos and the First Folio | Comparing the Texts | Henry Folger and the First Folio
The New Folger Shakespeare Library edition of the plays, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, includes a thorough contemporary re-editing of all of Shakespeare’s plays.