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The Publication of Shakespeare's Plays: From the Folger Shakespeare Editions

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

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Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays found their way into print during the playwright’s lifetime, but there is nothing to suggest that he took any interest in their publication. These eighteen appeared separately in editions in quarto or, in the case of Henry VI, Part 3, octavo format. The quarto pages are not much larger than a modern mass-market paperback book, and the octavo pages are even smaller; these little books were sold unbound for a few pence. The earliest of the quartos that still survive were printed in 1594, the year that both Titus Andronicus and a version of the play now called Henry VI, Part 2 became available. While almost every one of these early quartos displays on its title page the name of the acting company that performed the play, only about half provide the name of the playwright, Shakespeare. The first quarto edition to bear the name Shakespeare on its title page is Love’s Labor’s Lost of 1598. A few of the quartos were popular with the book-buying public of Shakespeare’s lifetime; for example, quarto Richard II went through five editions between 1597 and 1615. But most of the quartos were far from best sellers; Love’s Labor’s Lost (1598), for instance, was not reprinted in quarto until 1631. After Shakespeare’s death, two more of his plays appeared in quarto format: Othello in 1622 and The Two Noble Kinsmen, coauthored with John Fletcher, in 1634.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was published. This printing offered readers in a single book thirty-six of the thirty-eight plays now thought to have been written by Shakespeare, including eighteen that had never been printed before. And it offered them in a style that was then reserved for serious literature and scholarship. The plays were arranged in double columns on pages nearly a foot high. This large page size is called “folio,” as opposed to the smaller “quarto,” and the 1623 volume is usually called the Shakespeare First Folio. It is reputed to have sold for the lordly price of a pound. (One copy at the Folger Shakespeare Library is marked fifteen shillings—that is, three-quarters of a pound.)

In a preface to the First Folio entitled “To the great Variety of Readers,” two of Shakespeare’s former fellow actors in the King’s Men, John Heminge and Henry Condell, wrote that they themselves had collected their dead companion’s plays. They suggested that they had seen his own papers: “we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.” The title page of the Folio declared that the plays within it had been printed “according to the True Original Copies.” Comparing the Folio to the quartos, Heminge and Condell disparaged the quartos, advising their readers that “before you were abused with divers stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors.” Many Shakespeareans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries believed Heminge and Condell and regarded the Folio plays as superior to anything in the quartos.

Once we begin to examine the Folio plays in detail, it becomes less easy to take at face value the word of Heminge and Condell about the superiority of the Folio texts. For example, of the first nine plays in the Folio (one-quarter of the entire collection), four were essentially reprinted from earlier quarto printings that Heminge and Condell had disparaged, and four have now been identified as printed from copies written in the hand of a professional scribe of the 1620s named Ralph Crane; the ninth, The Comedy of Errors, was apparently also printed from a manuscript, but one whose origin cannot be readily identified. Evidently, then, eight of the first nine plays in the First Folio were not printed, in spite of what the Folio title page announces, “according to the True Original Copies,” or Shakespeare’s own papers, and the source of the ninth is unknown. Since today’s editors have been forced to treat Heminge and Condell’s pronouncements with skepticism, they must choose whether to base their own editions upon quartos or the Folio on grounds other than Heminge and Condell’s story of where the quarto and Folio versions originated.

Editors have often fashioned their own narratives to explain what lies behind the quartos and Folio. They have said that Heminge and Condell meant to criticize only a few of the early quartos, the ones that offer much shorter and sometimes quite different, often garbled, versions of plays. Among the examples of these are the 1600 quarto of Henry V (the Folio offers a much fuller version) or the 1603 Hamlet quarto. (In 1604 a different, much longer form of the play got into print as a quarto.) Early twentieth-century editors speculated that these questionable texts were produced when someone in the audience took notes from the plays’ dialogue during performances and then employed “hack poets” to fill out the notes. The poor results were then sold to a publisher and presented in print as Shakespeare’s plays. More recently this story has given way to another in which the shorter versions are said to be re-creations from memory of Shakespeare’s plays by actors who wanted to stage them in the provinces but lacked manuscript copies. Most of the quartos offer much better texts than these so-called bad quartos. Indeed, in most of the quartos we find texts that are at least equal to or better than what is printed in the Folio. Many Shakespeare enthusiasts persuaded themselves that most of the quartos were set into type directly from Shakespeare’s own papers, although there is nothing on which to base this conclusion except the desire for it to be true. Thus speculation continues about how the Shakespeare plays got to be printed. All that we have are the printed texts.

The book collector who was most successful in bringing together copies of the quartos and the First Folio was Henry Clay Folger, founder of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. While it is estimated that there survive around the world only about 230 copies of the First Folio, Mr. Folger was able to acquire more than seventy-five copies, as well as a large number of fragments, for the library that bears his name. He also amassed a substantial number of quartos. For example, only fourteen copies of the First Quarto of Love’s Labor’s Lost are known to exist, and three are at the Folger Shakespeare Library. As a consequence of Mr. Folger’s labors, scholars visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library have been able to learn a great deal about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century printing and, particularly, about the printing of Shakespeare’s plays. And Mr. Folger did not stop at the First Folio, but collected many copies of later editions of Shakespeare, beginning with the Second Folio (1632), the Third (1663–64), and the Fourth (1685). Each of these later folios was based on its immediate predecessor and was edited anonymously. The first editor of Shakespeare whose name we know was Nicholas Rowe, whose first edition came out in 1709. Mr. Folger collected this edition and many, many more by Rowe’s successors, and the collecting and scholarship continue.

Further Reading

Blayney, Peter W. M. The First Folio of Shakespeare. Hanover, Md.: Folger, 1991.

Blayney’s accessible account of the printing and later life of the First Folio—an amply illustrated catalogue to a 1991 Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition—analyzes the mechanical production of the First Folio, describing how the Folio was made, by whom and for whom, how much it cost, and its ups and downs (or, rather, downs and ups) since its printing in 1623.

Hinman, Charlton. The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

This facsimile presents a photographic reproduction of an “ideal” copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare; Hinman attempts to represent each page in its most fully corrected state. This second edition includes an important new introduction by Peter W. M. Blayney.

Hinman, Charlton. The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

In the most arduous study of a single book ever undertaken, Hinman attempts to reconstruct how the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623 was set into type and run off the press, sheet by sheet. He also provides almost all the known variations in readings from copy to copy.

Werstine, Paul. Early Modern Playhouse Manuscripts and the Editing of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Werstine examines in detail nearly two dozen texts associated with the playhouses in and around Shakespeare’s time, conducting the examination against the background of the two idealized forms of manuscript that have governed the editing of Shakespeare from the twentieth into the twenty-first century—Shakespeare’s so-called foul papers and the so-called promptbooks of his plays. By comparing the two extant texts of John Fletcher’s Bonduca, one in manuscript and the other printed in 1647, Werstine shows that the term “foul papers” that is found in a note in the Bonduca manuscript does not refer, as editors have believed, to a species of messy authorial manuscript but is instead simply a designation for a manuscript, whatever its features, that has served as the copy from which another manuscript has been made. By surveying twenty-one texts with theatrical markup, he demonstrates that the playhouses used a wide variety of different kinds of manuscripts and printed texts but did not use the highly regularized promptbooks of the eighteenth-century theaters and later. His presentation of the peculiarities of playhouse texts provides an empirical basis for inferring the nature of the manuscripts that lie behind printed Shakespeare plays.