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Publishing in Elizabethan England

During Shakespeare's lifetime Elizabethan playwrights cared little about seeing their work in print. Only the rare drama was actually intended to be read as well as performed. Writers would usually sell their plays to the theatrical company which staged the performances, and if the company committed a particular play to paper, it would create only one copy - the official copy - in the form of a prompt-book.

A prompt-book was a transcript of the play used during performances, cluttered with stage directions, instructions for sound effects, and the names of the actors. If a play was printed for a reading audience, it was often without the author's consent. Unprincipled publishers would steal the prompt-book, and sell copies for about fivepence apiece. "In March 1599, the theatrical manager Philip Henslowe endeavoured to induce a publisher who had secured a playhouse copy of the comedy Patient Grissell, by Dekker, Chettle, and Haughton, to abandon the publication of it by offering him a bribe. The publication was suspended until 1603. Many times in subsequent years the Lord Chamberlain, in behalf of the acting companies warned the Stationers' Company against 'procuring publishing and printing plays by means whereof not only they [the actors] themselves had much prejudice, but the books much corruption, to the injury and disgrace of the authors" (Lee 548).

In 1604, in fear that his work would be pirated, John Marston hesitantly published his comedy, The Malcontent, and summarized the Elizabethan attitude toward publication when he wrote, "Only one thing afflicts me, to think that scenes, invented merely to be spoken, should be enforcively published to read."

Shakespeare's Quartos

Before the publication of the First Folio in 1623, nineteen of the thirty-seven plays in Shakespeare's canon had appeared in quarto format. With the exception of Othello (1622), all of the quartos were published prior to the date of Shakespeare's retirement from the theatre in about 1611. It is unlikely that Shakespeare was involved directly with the printing of any of his plays, although it should be noted that two of his poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were almost certainly printed under his direct supervision.

The plays printed originally in quarto format were branded fraudulent by the editors of the First Folio, Heminge and Condell, who wrote in the Preface to their collection that fans of Shakespeare's works had been cheated by "diverse stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds of injurious imposters that expos'd them." They believed that most of the quartos in circulation had been either stolen outright by unscrupulous printers who plagiarized the official prompt-books belonging to Shakespeare and his company or they had been horribly reconstructed from the memory of people who had seen the plays performed. Heminge and Condell were right to be concerned about the integrity of Shakespeare's great works. The flaws in some of the quartos are wretched. Take for example the opening of Hamlet's famous soliloquy: "To be, or not to be: that is the question" (3.1.56-65). In the quarto version of 1603 we have, "To be or not to be. Aye, there's the point/To die to sleep, is that all? Aye all." Please click here to see the entire soliloquy in Q1.

Heminge and Condell's accusations were taken very seriously, and early scholars believed without question that the First Folio was the only authoritative Shakespearean manuscript, and that "all of the quartos were poor texts, dishonestly obtained without the consent of the company for which Shakespeare was writing" (Holzknecht 355). Thus, the quartos were relegated to the heap of pirated material.

However, in the late nineteenth century the academic community began to challenge the claims made by the editors of the First Folio and reassess the validity of the quartos. "Led by the late A. W. Pollard, whose 'Shakespeare Folios and Quartos' (1909) and 'Shakespeare's Fight with the Pirates and the Problems of the Transmission of His Text' (1917, revised 1920) are fundamental studies, they began an investigation of publishing contradictions in Shakespeare's day and a more thorough examination of the quartos and folios themselves. As a result, the modern belief is that, far from being the ruling practice in the Elizabethan book-mart, piracy was exceptional, and that Elizabethan printers, taken as a whole, were neither exceptionally stupid nor exceptionally dishonest" (Holzknecht 355).

It is now believed that only ten of the quartos are corrupt or unauthorized: The Troublesome Reign of King John, The Taming of a Shrew, King Henry VI, Parts II and III, Romeo and Juliet (the 1597 quarto), The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V, Hamlet, King Lear, and Pericles. The remaining plays are classified as "good" or authentic quartos. Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are unique in that they were published twice each in quarto format and the earlier quartos of the two are considered "bad" while the latter two are now considered "good" quartos.

The First Folio

By the time John Heminge and Henry Condell were ready to collect Shakespeare's works into a single volume, the Elizabethan disdain for plays as reading material was waning. The general population was beginning to consume published plays with increasing voracity, and some notable authors were taking great pains to polish their plays for a reading audience.

In 1616, Ben Jonson issued a folio volume of nine of his works, called The Workes of Beniamin Jonson. Although some of Jonson's fellow playwrights ridiculed his decision to publish his writings, Jonson's collection granted a new status of respectability to the drama in print, and became an inspirational archetype for Heminge and Condell's 1623 folio volume of Shakespeare's collected plays. Heminge and Condell had been Shakespeare's fellow actors in the Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men). They intended, as outlined in the Preface to the First Folio, to compile Shakespeare's work "without ambition either of self-profit or fame, only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare."

They included thirty-six plays ¹ in the First Folio under the headings Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, and, in addition to preparing and correcting the bad quartos by comparing them to the authoritative prompt-copies, they introduced to the Elizabethan readers plays that were previously unpublished in quarto form, including, All's Well that Ends Well, As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra, The Comedy of Errors, Cymbeline, Coriolanus, Henry VIII, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Winter's Tale, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Heminge and Condell desired to make the First Folio as handsome as possible, so they added special touches throughout the collection. They decided upon the Droeshout Portrait for the title page, and on the page opposite the picture they chose ten lines by Ben Jonson, praising the lifelike exactness of the portrait. They also took pains to include a list of twenty-six "Names of the Principal Actors in all these plays", and a table of contents. They dedicated the Folio to the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, and inserted four sets of verses on Shakespeare by Jonson, Hugh Holland, Leonard Digges, and an enigmatic figure who went by "I.M", possibly English writer and translator, James Mabbe (note that capitals "I" and "J" were the same in the Elizabethan alphabet). Please click here to view the entire preface to the First Folio with explanatory notes.

Just what is a quarto?

Quarto - A quarto is a book in which eight pages are printed on a single sheet which is folded twice to form four leaves. The average quarto contains about one hundred pages, and is about 6 3/4 x 8 1/2 inches in size.

Folio - A folio is a book in which each sheet is folded over only once through the middle, forming two leaves (or four pages). The First Folio has 454 leaves, approximately 8 1/2 x 13 3/8 inches in size.

Apocrypha - The term apocrypha is given to the collection of twelve plays that some scholars believe to be Shakespeare's, but are not officially part of the current canon of works because no real proof of authenticity has ever been brought forth. Here are the names of the twelve apocryphal plays: Locrine, The London Prodigal, The Puritan, Thomas, Lord Cromwell, Sir John Oldcastle, Arden of Feversham, A Yorkshire Tragedy, The Birth of Merlin, Edward III, Fair Em, Mucedorus, and The Merry Devil of Edmonton.

¹ Although Troilus and Cressida is not included in the First Folio's table of contents, the text is in the First Folio, bringing the total to thirty-six plays.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare in Print. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2004. < >.
Child, Harold. English Drama to 1642. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. An Encyclopedia in Eighteen Volumes. 2000. (04/04/00).
Holzknecht, Karl Julius. The backgrounds of Shakespeare's plays. New York: American Book Co., 1950.
Lee, Sidney. A life of William Shakespeare. London: Smith, 1898.

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Old printing press. From The Triumphs of the Printing Press. Walter Gerrold.