Of Shakespeare's Plays
How Shakespeare's Plays Found Print
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2006 and 2011
.......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:
quarto and folio, which are explained below. The plays containing
errors 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 Shakespeare's
plays in a folio edition of more than nine hundred pages that 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
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,
Quarto........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 Crown. 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.