Early texts of Shakespeare's works

Early texts of Shakespeare's works
Comparison of the 'To be, or not to be' soliloquy in the first three editions of Hamlet, showing the varying quality of the text in the Bad Quarto, the Good Quarto and the First Folio

The earliest texts of William Shakespeare's works were published during the 16th and 17th centuries in quarto or folio format. Folios are large, tall volumes; quartos are smaller, roughly half the size (see Book size). The publications of the latter are usually abbreviated to Q1, Q2 etc., where the letter stands for "quarto" and the number for the first, secord, or third edition published.



18 of the 36 plays in the First Folio were printed in separate and individual editions prior to 1623. Pericles (1609) and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1634) also appeared separately before their inclusions in folio collections (the Shakespeare Third Folio and the second Beaumont and Fletcher folio, respectively). All of these were quarto editions, with one exception: The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, the first edition of Henry VI, part 3, was printed in octavo form in 1594. In chronological order, these publications were:

Six of these were classified "bad quartos" by Alfred W. Pollard and other scholars associated with the New Bibliography. Popular plays like 1 Henry IV and Pericles were reprinted in their quarto editions even after the First Folio appeared, sometimes more than once.

Shakespeare's poems were also printed in quarto or octavo form:

Differing from the quartos of the plays, the first editions of Shakespeare's narrative poems are extremely well printed. "Richard Field, Shakespeare's first publisher and printer, was a Stratford man, probably a friend of Shakespeare, and the two produced an excellent text."[1] Shakespeare may have had direct involvement in the publication of the two poems, as Ben Jonson exercised in reference to the publication of his works, but as Shakespeare clearly did not do in connection with his plays.

John Benson published a collected edition of Shakespeare's Poems in 1640; the poems were not added to collections of the plays until the 18th century. (The disputed miscellany The Passionate Pilgrim was only printed in octavo: twice, apparently, in 1599, with an O3 in 1612, all by William Jaggard.)


The additional plays section in the 1664 second impression of the Third Folio.

The folio format was reserved for expensive, prestigious volumes. During Shakespeare's lifetime, stage plays were not generally taken seriously as literature and not considered worthy of being collected into folios, so the plays printed while he was alive were printed as quartos. His poems were never included in his collected works until the eighteenth century.

It was not until 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death, that Ben Jonson defied convention by issuing a folio collection of his own plays and poems. Seven years later the folio volume Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories & Tragedies appeared; this edition is now called the First Folio. It contains 36 plays, 18 of which were printed for the first time. Because Shakespeare was dead, the folio was compiled by John Heminges and Henry Condell (fellow actors in Shakespeare's company), and arranged into comedies, histories and tragedies. The Folio is no more a definitive text than the quartos; many of the plays in the folio omit lines that can be found in quarto versions, and include misprints and textual corruption.

The First Folio was compiled by Heminges and Condell—but it was published by a trio of stationers (booksellers and publishers): William Jaggard, his son Isaac Jaggard, and Edward Blount. (William Aspley and John Smethwick participated in the endeavor as subsidiary partners.) The Jaggards were printers, and did the actual printing of the book. The elder Jaggard has seemed an odd choice to many commentators, given his problematical relationship with the Shakespeare canon: Jaggard issued the suspect collection The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599 and 1612, and in 1619 printed the so-called False Folio, ten pirated or spurious Shakespearean plays, some with false dates and title pages. It is thought that the printing of the First Folio was such an enormous task that the Jaggards' shop was simply needed to get the job done. (William Jaggard was old, infirm, and blind by 1623, and in fact died a month before the First Folio was complete.)[2]

The First Folio was reprinted three times in the 17th century:

The Second Folio appeared in 1632. Isaac Jaggard had died in 1627, and Edward Blount had transferred his rights to stationer Robert Allot in 1630. The Second Folio was published by Allot, William Aspley, Richard Hawkins, Richard Meighen, and John Smethwick, and printed by Thomas Cotes.

The Third Folio was issued in 1663, published by Philip Chetwinde; Chetwinde had married Robert Allot's widow and so obtained the rights to the book. To the second impression of the Third Folio (1664) he added seven plays, including Pericles, Prince of Tyre and six others not now considered authentically Shakespearean: Locrine, The London Prodigal, The Puritan, Sir John Oldcastle, Thomas Lord Cromwell, and A Yorkshire Tragedy. (See: Shakespeare Apocrypha.) The Third Folio is relatively rare, compared to the Second and Fourth, probably because unsold copies were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The Fourth Folio appeared in 1685, published by R. Bentley, E. Brewster, R. Chiswell, and H. Herringman. Like the Third, it contains 43 plays. (Brewster, Chiswell, and Herringman were members of the six-man syndicate that published the third Ben Jonson folio in 1692; Herringman was one of three stationers who issued the second Beaumont and Fletcher folio in 1679.)

The Fourth Folio in turn served as the base for the series of eighteenth-century editions of Shakespeare's plays. Nicholas Rowe used the Fourth Folio text as the foundation of his 1709 edition, and subsequent editors—Pope, Theobald, etc.—both adapted and reacted to Rowe's text in their own editions. (See: Shakespeare's Editors.)

See also


  1. ^ Halliday, p. 513.
  2. ^ Halliday, pp. 169–71, 249–50, 355–6.


External links

  • First Folio—HTML version of this title.
  • First Folio—plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg
  • First Folio—digitally scanned pages from a copy of the first folio
  • Quartos—high resolution scans of the British Library's 93 copies of Shakespeare plays printed in quarto before 1642
  • Quartos—high resolution scans of the 32 copies of Hamlet printed in quarto before 1642 with XML transcriptions

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