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Many of Shakespeare’s earliest printed plays do not have his name on the title page. More than half of his plays were first printed in quarto form—a small, relatively inexpensive book—and most of those printed before 1600 do not have his name on the title page. The absence of his name is not an indication that the author is unknown, but rather that Shakespeare’s name was not a selling point. Title pages worked both to identify the text and, since books were typically bought unbound, to advertise it. For these early works, the enticement to buy a play comes more from the acting company that performed it than the playwright who wrote it.


In 1623, Shakespeare’s plays were posthumously gathered together and printed as a folio—a large, prestigious format with pages measuring approximately fourteen by nine inches. It is clear from looking at the title page of this collection, dominated by Martin Droeshout’s portrait of the author, that Shakespeare’s reputation was the primary selling point. Indeed, Shakespeare is figured as living on in this book; as Ben Jonson’s dedicatory poem on the facing page exhorts, “looke / Not on his Picture, but his Booke.” There were approximately 750 copies printed of the First Folio, about 240 of which exist today; the Folger collection includes around 80 (the exact number is difficult to determine, as the collection includes both complete copies and fragments).


Promptbooks—working scripts used by theatre professionals—remind us that while the Folio presents the plays as texts to be read, they are also scripts that are cut, rearranged, and adapted for the stage. This promptbook for David Garrick’s 1772-73 production of Hamlet shows the extensive changes the actor-manager made to the script. Taking the standard text of the day (a 1747 edition by John Hughes and Robert Wilks), Garrick marked passages to be deleted and pasted in his notes for various alternate endings to the play. The result is a new book of Hamlet, one which reflects both Garrick’s personal relationship to the play and the prevailing theatrical practices of the day.


Studying these books not only lets us read Shakespeare's plays, it helps us learn about how different cultures valued the plays and their author.

Shakespeare. Titus Andronicus. London, 1594

Shakespeare. Plays. 1623. London, 1623

William Shakespeare. Hamlet. 1747, David Garrick promptbook, 1773.

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