ENGL 204 / ENGL 339
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Problems with Shakespeare's Texts

Shakespeare did not himself publish any of his plays. In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, John Heminges and Henry Condell (Shakespeare's friends and members of his theater company) posthumously published thirty-six of his plays in the so-called "First Folio" (abbreviated as F1a "folio" -- Latin for "leaf" -- is produced when a sheet of paper is folded in half, yielding two leaves or four pages).  Pericles, which is not in the First or Second Folio (1632; abbreviated as F2) but is thought to be Shakespeare's work, was added to the Third Folio (1664; abbreviated as F3 but not significant for the establishment of most Shakespearean texts).  Two additional works, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Sir Thomas More, are thought to be partially by Shakespeare.  Eighteen of the plays in F1 appeared there for the first time in any printed form. The other eighteen had previously appeared in separate quarto editions of a single play (so called because the paper upon which they were printed was folded into quarters, each sheet yielding four leaves or eight pages; quartos are thus usually smaller than folios).  The quarto version (abbreviated as Q; numbered if more than one quarto printing has been preserved) is considered authoritative for all but 7 of the 18 plays preserved in quartos. Some plays in F1 (e.g. Henry V) are thought to have been printed from Shakespeare's hand-written working manuscript of the full play (referred to by scholars as "foul papers," although clearly written); for Henry V, F1 is considered more authoritative than the unreliable quarto version (1600, reprinted in 1602 and 1619). 

Plays were sold by the playwright to the company (i.e., by Shakespeare to the Chamberlain's Men, later called the King's Men), but printed versions became the property of the printers (who bought the manuscript from the theater troupe, the playwright, or an individual who had obtained or reproduced a copy of the text, with or without the authorization of the playwright).  Because there was no such thing as copyright in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, playwrights and theatrical troupes tried to keep their plays out of print.  Without copyright protection, there was no compensation to a troupe and/or playwright if a rival troupe obtained a copy of and produced a play, thereby cutting into the original troupe's audience (and profits).  For this reason (and because copying handwritten scripts was a long and tedious task), individual actors generally received only a copy of their individual lines and cues.  Some of the quarto versions of Shakespeare's plays seem to have been pirated from a single actor's partial script, with other passages reconstructed from memory or invented.  A theater troupe would retain one or more copies of the full text to use as a prompt book; this master copy would be presumably be identical to or close to the "foul papers," Shakespeare's working manuscript of the full play. 

While some of the better quarto versions of the plays were presumably printed with the authorization of Shakespeare's company (possibly because a shortage of cash caused them to sell a script to a publisher), none of Shakespeare's plays were published under his direct supervision. Thus, modern notions of "authenticity" do not apply to either the Shakespearean text or to Elizabethan theatrical practice:  the text of a play could vary from performance to performance, as passages were added, altered or deleted to incorporate references to current events; to please (or so as not to offend) a particular audience; to accommodate a change in the acting personnel, etc.  To a certain extent, the same variability applies today.  A modern production of a Shakespearean play is the result of decisions made by the director and the actors, who may cut or alter lines, speeches or whole scenes to correspond to the director's understanding of the play, to shorten a text, to provide greater clarity, or for some other reason. 

Printing Practices: Some Useful Terms

"Compositor" refers to the person who set the type.  Spelling is used to identify the compositor, as is broken type.  Punctuation was frequently added by compositors.  If there are earlier printed editions, it is possible to judge a compositor's accuracy and so to assess the reliability of his text. 

"Casting off copy" means to estimate how much of a manuscript text may be fitted onto a page of the chosen printed format (quarto or folio) and then to divide up the copy into clearly marked sections.  Casting off was used extensively throughout F1, presumably to save time by allowing simultaneous composition (typesetting) by two or more printers.  If the estimates were incorrect and the compositor ran out of space, he might omit lines or words or print verse as prose

"Cancels" are textual changes in a book already printed.  Sometimes both the initial and revised leaf are included in a book.  This is useful information for scholars because the changes may have been dictated by political or religious censorship or by authorial revision. 

Establishing a Text I: Editorial Decisions

The Shakespearean texts that we read in this class do not correspond exactly to any sixteenth- or seventeenth-century printed versions of the plays, nor are they "authentic" in the modern sense (i.e. a final product viewed as definitive and unchangeable by its author). The modern Shakespearean text is the product of a series of editorial decisions:  which printed form (if more than one exists) should one choose as the base text?  what  changes should be made to that copy? (inclusion of passages found in other printed versions; correction of obvious or less obvious misprints; etc.)  What about act and scene divisions, indications of setting, and stage directions (sparse or lacking in most printed versions)?  How about line numbering?  Modernization of punctuation and spelling?  Just as each production of a Shakespearean play is the result of decisions made by the director and the actors, the editor's text is based upon a series of decisions informed by his or her knowledge of Shakespeare. 

The Base Text for our Readings:
Title and date of composition Preserved in (bold type = preferred base text)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (written 1595-1596):  Q1 (1600), Q2 (1619) and F1 (1623).  Q1 is thought to have been printed from Shakespeare's own manuscript.
Henry V (written 1598-1599): Q1 (1600; rpt. 1602, 1619) and F1 (1623)F1 is thought to have been printed from Shakespeare's own manuscript. 
As You Like It (written 1599-1600):  F1 (1623); no quarto editions.
Hamlet (written 1600-1601):  Q1 (1603), Q2 (1604) and F1 (1623). Q2 is thought to have been printed from Shakespeare's own manuscript. 
Macbeth (written 1605-1606):  F1 (1623); no quarto editions. 
The Tempest (written 1611):  F1 (1623); no quarto editions. 
(For detailed descriptions of the extant texts and an explanation of the decisions made by the editor in establishing the edition, see the "Textual Note" that follows each play in the Signet Classics edition.)

Click here for Establishing a Text II: The Example of Hamlet

Contents of this and all linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1996-2005

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