When William Shakespeare died in 1616, only about half of his plays had ever been printed, in small one-play editions called quartos. Another 18 plays are known today only because they are included in the 1623 First Folio, the first collected edition of the plays.
In 1709, Nicholas Rowe became the first modern editor of Shakespeare's plays, making the text more accessible through tools such as lists of characters and act and scene divisions. Editors in every age—including the present—have addressed a variety of questions, including how to make sense of conflicting early versions of the plays. Other publishers have taken the text in new directions, from foreign-language editions to graphic novels.
In 1593 and 1594, William Shakespeare, already established as a playwright, published two long poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece. The printer, Richard Field, grew up with Shakespeare in Stratford. The poems, which reflected the classical fashion of the time, were very successful. Venus and Adonis went through nine quarto editions in Shakespeare's lifetime and Lucrece (often known as The Rape of Lucrece) went through five.
Shakespeare's sonnets were first published in 1609 as a quarto, though they were probably written much earlier. The sonnets, far more popular today than the epic poems, are still published both individually and as a group. You can find a full digitization of the 1609 sonnets in our digital image collection, as well as the 1593 Venus and Adonis and the 1594 Rape of Lucrece.
A quarto is a book in which each printed sheet is folded twice—in half, and then in half again—to produce four double-sided leaves, or eight pages. Quartos tended to be small books that were used up and sometimes damaged or discarded, thus making them scarce today.
During his lifetime, about half of Shakespeare's plays were printed as one-play quartos. Some of the quarto texts closely match the wording of the same play in later quartos and the First Folio, but others vary drastically, offering different early versions of the same play.
The first quartos of Shakespeare's plays appeared in 1594 and included Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI, Part 2 (as it is now titled). Some plays, such as Richard III and Henry IV , Part 1, appeared in multiple quarto editions, showing their popularity. Many of the earliest of the quartos, like Titus Andronicus, shown here, do not include Shakespeare's name but highlight instead the acting company that first performed the play.
A folio is a large book in which printed sheets are folded in half only once, creating two double-sided leaves, or four pages. Folios were more expensive and far more prestigious than quartos. Seven years after Shakespeare's death, John Heminge and Henry Condell, his friends and colleagues in the King's Men, collected almost all of his plays in a folio edition. Shakespeare's friendly rival Ben Jonson had previously published his own writings, poems included, in a folio. The 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare, however, is the earliest folio consisting only of an author's plays.
The First Folio groups the plays for the first time into comedies, histories, and tragedies, and it includes the Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare, generally considered an authentic image because it was approved by those who knew him. More importantly, the First Folio preserved 18 of Shakespeare's plays that had never been printed before: All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, 1 Henry VI, Henry VIII, Julius Caesar, King John, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Winter’s Tale.
Researchers believe that 750 or fewer copies of the First Folio were printed; 233 survive today, of which 82 are in the Folger collection. Each one is slightly different, partly because proofing took place at the same time as printing. Being able to compare different copies side-by-side has greatly increased our understanding of the volume. A full facsimile of one of the Folger's First Folios (no. 68) can be viewed in our digital image collection.
The First Folio sold well enough that it was followed nine years later by the 1632 Second Folio, full of small corrections, then by the 1663 Third Folio and the 1685 Fourth Folio. The latter two added many new plays, most of which are not today considered to be by Shakespeare. Quarto editions of the plays continued to be produced as well. Those published in the late 1600s, after the restoration of the English monarchy, include drastic changes and "improvements" reflecting the preferences of that time.
Shakespeare's plays, as printed in the First Folio and the early quartos, presented a challenge to later editors, in part because of the great variations between some quartos and the First Folio.
In 1709, Nicholas Rowe, the first editor of Shakespeare's plays in the modern sense, added act and scene divisions to every play, introduced exits and entrances based on the sense of the text, and included lists of the characters, or dramatis personae. Following Rowe, a long line of major editors produced editions of the plays that reflected the scholarship and thinking of their time.
Today, major print editions of the plays include the Arden, Riverside, Oxford, and Cambridge editions, as well as the current Folger editions, the most commonly used in American classrooms. The Folger Shakespeare Library offers Folger editions of the plays in print or digital form, including downloadable, searchable Folger Digital Texts and the Luminary Shakespeare apps. We also offer fully realized Folger Theatre audio recordings of some of the plays.
Editions of Shakespeare, from miniature volumes in traveling cases to large illustrated tomes, proliferated during the 19th century. It was even possible to read Shakespeare in "parts"—paper editions that were published serially. In the 19th and early 20th century, school primers, including the McGuffey Readers, included small excerpts from the plays for recitation. Classroom editions of the plays appeared as English literature became a standard school subject. Shakespeare has been translated and published in dozens of languages, both as separate plays and as collected works. The plays have also contributed text, plot, and characters to a variety of comic books and graphic novels.