Folios, Quartos, and The Experiment of Printing Shakespeare

A Guest Post from Cassidy Cash –

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the good doctor pieces together a human being from essentially, old parts. His science experiment of taking random pieces and putting them together gives way to new life. When modern editors of Shakespeare put together the copy of his plays you are reading today, their efforts were equally a experimental.

While not creating new life, editors of Shakespeare certainly gave longevity, scope, and reach to one of the greatest literary minds of our time. But did they preserve the authenticity of the play? Is what we read today really what Shakespeare said?

The obvious answer is no, since at face value we can recognize the modernized spelling of the words in a 21st century version of Shakespeare to be quite different from the way Shakespeare wrote and spoke in 17th century England.

But the differences are more significant than spelling. Looking specifically at Shakespeare’s King Lear, there are hundreds of textual variations between the 4 original versions of that play, even though the plays were printed within 20 years of each other, each by contemporaries of Shakespeare himself.

In Hamlet, there are significant changes to what are now considered iconic phrases. In the 1623 First Folio version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the famous soliloquy speech reads:

To be, or not to be: that is the question (3.1.56-65)

However, in the earlier, 1603 quarto version, it read:

To be or not to be. Aye, there’s the point
To die to sleep, is that all? Aye all

From just this one example, you can see that it’s hardly the same statement, and that the differences produce severely divergent implications. So which one is really Shakespeare? This question has plagued editors for centuries.

In fact, so severe are the differences that when John Heminge and Henry Condell produced the 1623 First Folio, they were adamant in their defense of their collectes work, calling the earlier quartos fraudulent.

Heminge and Condell were friends of Shakespeare, performing in his company, and producing the First Folio in Shakespeare’s honor. Therefore, their accusations were received with great seriousness, casting the quartos into almost permanent disrepute.

The quarto versions of Shakespeare’s plays were published prior to his retirement from theater in 1611, and widely discredited after the 1623 First Folio was released. The quartos would continue to be held in contempt under claims of being falsely obtained right into the 20th century, when a more in depth look at the publishing industry in Elizabethan England led scholars to conclude that far from all of the quartos being illegitimate, instead all but ten could be considered valid copies of Shakespeare’s plays.

So what is the difference between a quarto and a folio? And can we read our modern copies with confidence that we are reading Shakespeare?

Folios and Quartos were types of books in Shakespeare’s time. The differences between the two were the way the pages were folded, the size of the finished product, and page numbers. But all in all, they are both kinds of books. Words printed on paper and bound for reader to consume. When editors compiled either quartos or folios of Shakespeare’s plays they did so through two key methods:

Performers of the play would recount what had been said on stage.
Audience members often wrote down what they had seen presented.

As anyone remotely familiar with evidence, crime scenes, and personal testimony, will tell you: what someone thinks they saw or heard can often vary widely from the actual fact.

It was no different for cataloging Shakespeare. When it came to personal testimony about what had transpired on stage, actors, audience members, and even the aristocracy who had written home to report on the plays they attended while visiting England, all varied in their retelling of the same event.

Which is why Heminge and Condell were able to make such a strong case against the quartos and in favor of their First Folio as the first authorized publication of Shakespeare. Very much indeed depended on reputation.

Other publishing forces at work included a strong government control over publishing houses as well as the incentive among rival playhouses to release the play of a rival company in book form so as to make it less attractive on stage (much like people telling spoilers on Facebook about the latest Game of Thrones episode you haven’t seen yet can diminish your enjoyment of the episode, so Elizabethans tried to ruin rival companies by releasing the play as a type of spoiler.)

Therefore, the copies of the Shakespeare play that you pick up at a bookstore, on amazon, or from your local library will contain textual variations from the original play, which are designed to take into account modern spelling and language.

Additionally, editors are charged with knowing the history of the play itself, and the many versions available of that play, so they can select the passages and phrases, which are considered the most accurate. It gets even trickier when the play is translated out of English into other languages.

Despair not, dear reader! When you are picking through the Arden Shakespeare, Norton Shakespeare, or Folger Shakespeare, you can feel confident that not only did an editor work very hard to make sure they preserved the real Shakespeare for you, but the very experimental feel you find in the many variations is quite authentic, having been going on since Shakespeare first put his ideas onto prompt-books for his players in the first place.

As intelligent and culturally astute as we know Shakespeare to have been, it’s conceivable that he planned for a future literary Dr. Frankenstein to piece together his works, and the resulting textual experimentation with his plays having carried on for centuries is what Shakespeare intended after all.

About the Author

Cassidy Cash is That Shakespeare Girl. Cassidy believes that in order to successfully master Shakespeare’s plays, understanding the history of William Shakespeare the man is essential. She writes for a vibrant community of Shakespeareans at her blog and produces weekly episodes for her YouTube channel, Did Shakespeare. Connect with Cassidy at her website www.cassidycash.com or on Twitter @ThatShakespeare