Nope – this isn’t another article questioning whether someone else wrote Shakespeare and he has been given the credit. This is about the extent to which the words of Shakespeare’s plays as we read them today are the same as those written and performed four hundred years ago.

Another thing I learnt from the FutureLearn course, Shakespeare: Print and Performance, is that when it comes to Shakespeare’s plays there is no single definitive source text. Early modern playwrights didn’t sit down, write a play, then send it off to the printer for publication. They wrote a version used by actors to perform the play. The route those words took to the printer is far from straightforward.

Even the description above is an over-simplification. Let’s start with the exact words that Shakespeare penned himself. These are found in authorial manuscripts – the written word of the author. However, even when found these may not be authoritative in terms of what was then performed. Scholars describe them as either foul copies or fair copies. Foul copies are early drafts. They include the complete play, but it’s not usually the same as the final version you’d have seen on stage. They tend to have a lot of revisions, notes, crossings-out, etc. Fair copies are coherent and legible and were ready for further copies to be made from.

Of course, there were no photocopiers at the time. A scribe would copy the manuscript. Some theatres had their own professional scribes. Sometimes one would be found in a local copy house. The scribe would produce a scribal manuscript from the fair copy – a final draft that the Master of Revels had to review. He was the theatre censor, whose job was to review all new plays before they were performed. Authors would sometimes have to revise their play at his request.

A bookkeeper would then produce a prompt book. Scene and act divisions would be added, stage directions were edited to ensure they were clear, and consistency throughout of things like character names would be checked.

The prompt book was then broken down into parts. Each actor received their part –  a few pages which listed their lines only (along with the preceding few words – their cue).

Here’s the problem… Copyright didn’t exist as we know it today and publishers could (and did) publish plays as books without any involvement from the author. They could get hold of any of the versions listed above, and would sometimes even transcribe plays (generally not very well) from live performances. This led to some garbled versions being published.

And here’s a bit more jargon… You’ll hear printed versions referred to as quartos and folios. The difference is simply in the size. A quarto was a format where standard sized sheets of paper were folded into four and cut. With a folio they were only folded in half, so folios were twice as big in terms of page area. Quartos were cheaper, folios more expensive – a little like paperbacks and hardbacks today.

Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays were published in quarto format before the publication of the First Folio, which collected his works together and is agreed to be a decent copy. Further quartos and folios continued to follow.

Hamlet is an example of a play that has a bad quarto – an early printed version that differs substantially to later versions which are believed to originate from authorial manuscripts. It’s shorter by several hundred lines and some characters’ names are different. There’s a general consensus that it’s not the most accurate reflection of the play as it would have been performed.

Cases where a quarto is agreed to be ‘bad’ are straightforward. In other cases, there are competing versions where it’s less obvious which is ‘correct’. Many plays had a couple of quarto editions prior to the publication of the First Folio, including multiple’good’ quartos.

King Lear is a classic example. The Second Quarto was called The History of King Lear (1608), while the First Folio included The Tragedy of King Lear (1623). The quarto is missing about 100 lines that are in the folio, but has 300 lines that aren’t in the folio. There are linguistic differences throughout, and the emphasis is on the historical monarchy story, whereas the folio version is a tragedy in the truest sense, focusing on the personal human drama.

Which version is ‘correct’? Were both performed? Did Shakespeare deliberately write two versions with different emphases for different audiences? Scholars believe that Shakespeare did revise King Lear for a revival performance in 1610 (after the publication of the Second Quarto). It’s thought that this later version is the one that made it into the First Folio.

Now, imagine you’re the editor of one of the modern editions of Shakespeare (Arden, Oxford, New Cambridge…) and you’re asked to print King Lear. Where do you start?

Modern editors have to look at the various quartos and folios available and make decisions on which to use. They’ll typically decide on one version as their base text and then compare every difference in each line between that and the other versions. Sometimes they’ll amend their base text because a line is ‘better’ in another version. The most common editorial approach is conflation, where ‘missing’ lines from other versions are added, so long as they make sense. Their goal is to present a text that they believe is closest to Shakespeare’s original intention.

In the case of King Lear, the Oxford Shakespeare publish both the history and the tragedy version though, as the differences are so fundamental.

So, just think… All those Shakespeare quotes you were forced to memorise at school may not have been his exact or original choice of words at all.


Image credit: Sonnet 46 1609, lightened (Folger Shakespeare Library)