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The Earliest Texts & the Unstable Script

Roughly half of Shakespeare's plays were printed in individual quarto editions before thirty-six of the plays were printed together in the First Folio in 1623. Several quarto plays vary significantly from the version of the same play printed in the Folio. Many scholars have devoted their careers to determining the relationship between the quarto texts and the First Folio: are they early drafts, acting versions, versions used while touring, or separate works? The earliest versions of the plays in this exhibition—Othello, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream—each reveal a different relationship to the Folio text.

Shakespeare. Plays. 1623. London, 1623

Compare the Romeo and Juliet "potion" scene in the First Folio, pictured above, with the same scene from the first quarto, pictured right. This first quarto of Romeo and Juliet has been called a “Bad Quarto” because it is nearly 800 lines shorter than the First Folio version. These pages show Juliet’s famous “potion” soliloquy, which is only half as long as the version of the same speech in the Folio. This page also includes the intriguing stage direction, “She falls upon her bed within the curtains,” which does not appear in the Folio. The First Folio's version of the same scene runs forty-five lines long.


Pictured at right are early quartos of the four plays examined in this exhibition. These early texts give us evidence that theater practicioners have always played with and adapted texts.



Next: Restoration and 18th Century Shakespeare
Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. London, 1597

Shakespeare. A Midsommer nights dreame. London, 1600

Shakespeare. Othello. London, 1622

Shakespeare. King Richard III. London, 1597 

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