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Of Shakespeare's Plays
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How Shakespeare's Plays Found Print
By Michael J. Cummings © 2003
Revised in 2006, 2011, and 2016
William Shakespeare and other authors of his time wrote their plays for theater performances rather than publication. To print and sell a play in book form was to give rival acting troupes and theateragoers access to the script, thereby diminishing its potential to profit from stage performances.
Nevertheless, unscrupulous publishers sometimes bought copies of plays from equally unscrupulous actors who had obtained a handwritten copy of the play or had written it down from memory. Occasionally, a publisher attended a play and copied the script himself while actors performed their parts. For example, publisher John Danter, hoping to make money by selling Romeo and Juliet, used notes taken during a 1597 performance of the play to piece together a copy of it for public sale.
These methods of acquiring a copy often resulted in the publication of scripts with many errors. To preserve the integrity of a play, the acting company that owned the script sometimes made its own arrangements to publish the text. Consequently, different printed versions of the play—some accurate, some inaccurate—were in circulation. Shakespeare's poetry also appeared in different versions. In at least one instance, a printer even published poems of other authors under Shakespeare's name in hopes of capitalizing on the magic of his byline.
The Quarto and Folio Formats
There were two publishing formats for Shakespeare's works: quarto and folio. The difference between them was size. A quarto page was about 9½ inches wide and 12 inches high; a folio page was much larger: 12 inches wide and 19 inches high.
The printing paper for both formats was folded once to create four pages. To visualize the pages, lay a sheet of typing paper before you. Place the lower edge against the top edge and crease the paper across. Next, place the folded sheet before you so that the crease is on the left. The rectangular page you are looking at is the first page. Flip it to the left and the sheet will open onto the second and third pages. Flip the third page to the left and you will see the fourth page. The crease will now be on the right.
Next, imagine that you fold other sheets of paper the same way for a book with sixty-four pages. You would have sixteen folded sheets of paper in all. You would then open all of them and place the second folded sheet on the first, the third sheet on the second, the fourth sheet on the third, and so on. In this arrangement, the page numbers would be as follows.
First folded sheet: 1 and 2; 63 and 64.
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The plays containing errors (as explained in paragraph 3) generally were in quarto form, although some good copies were published in this format.
In 1623, friends and admirers of Shakespeare compiled a reasonably authentic collection of thirty-six of Shakespeare's plays in a folio edition of more than nine hundred pages. This collection was entitled Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. To what extent the original manuscripts of the plays had been edited is uncertain. The printer and publisher was William Jaggard, assisted by his son Isaac. This edition became known as The First Folio. Because of the presumed authenticity of this collection, later publishers used it to print copies of the plays. Other folios were printed in 1632, 1663 and 1685. In 1664, a second printing of the 1663 folio included the first publication of Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
The Publishing Industry
The publishing industry operated under the control of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, a trade organization which the government established and supervised in order to guard against printing subversive books or books unduly critical of the government. If a play met government standards—that is, if it did not attempt to inflame the people against the Crown—a publisher could print and sell the play.
Over the centuries, publishers of Shakespeare's works used both quarto and folio texts to prepare new editions of his works edited to reflect spelling and punctuation rules current at the time. They also made other editing changes. Today, the most popular editions of Shakespeare—such as The Riverside Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare, and The Arden Shakespeare—generally contain nearly identical texts of his works. However, close reading of them will reveal some slight variations in wording and punctuation, as well as in the interpretation of difficult passages.