When William Shakespeare died in 1616, only about half of his plays had ever been printed, in small one-play editions. 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 poems, which reflected the classical fashion of the time, were very successful. Venus and Adonis went through nine editions in Shakespeare’s lifetime and Lucrece (often known as The Rape of Lucrece) went through five. Both poems were originally published as quarto editions.
Shakespeare’s sonnets were first published together in 1609 as a quarto, although 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.
The early quartos
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 quartos, like Titus Andronicus, do not include Shakespeare’s name but highlight instead the acting company that first performed the play.
What is a quarto?
A quarto is a small book, made by folding printed sheets twice to create four double-sided leaves or eight pages. When they were not bound, quartos were less sturdy than large books and could be damaged or discarded, making them scarce today.
Shakespeare’s works—particularly his poems—were also sometimes published as octavo editions, small books made by folding printed sheets three times to create eight double-sided leaves or 16 pages.
Learn more about quartos in DIY Quarto, which includes a virtual printing house.
The First Folio
Seven years after Shakespeare’s death, John Heminge and Henry Condell, his friends and colleagues in the King’s Men acting company, collected almost all of his plays in a folio edition, now called the First Folio.
The First Folio groups the plays for the first time into comedies, histories, and tragedies. It also includes the Martin Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare, generally considered an image close to nature because it was approved by those who knew him. Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, 18 had never been printed before and might otherwise have been lost.
Quartos vs. folios
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. Shakespeare’s friendly rival Ben Jonson had previously published his own plays with his poems in a folio format book. The 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare, however, is the earliest folio consisting only of an author’s plays.
The First Folio sold well enough that it was followed in 1632, nine years later, by the Second Folio, then in 1663 by the Third Folio and in 1685 by the 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.
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.