Publication of Shakespeare's Plays

By Adrienne Baer

Quartos and Folios

Only eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays made it into publication while Shakespeare was alive. The eighteen were published as quartos, which were small, unbound books, sold for a low price. Some of the quartos were popular as books during Shakespeare’s life, but most were not. In 1623, a compilation of Shakespeare’s works was published as a folio, titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. Folios had a larger page size than the quartos. It “offered thirty-six of the thirty-eight plays now thought to have been written by Shakespeare,” as well as eighteen new plays (xliii). This version is known as the First Folio and was regarded as more serious literature than the quartos.

Heminge and Condell

John Heminge and Henry Condell, two actors in the King’s Men, took credit for compiling Shakespeare’s plays into the First Folio, claiming that they had seen his papers while working with him. The duo discredited the quartos, commending the quality of the First Folio. A closer look at the First Folio reveals that four plays were practically reprinted from quartos, four were reprinted from manuscripts written in the hand of Ralph Crane, a professional scribe, and one was from unidentifiable origins. Therefore, modern editors must treat the claims of Heminge and Condell with doubt. Some have fabricated different reasons to account for disparities between the quartos and the First Folio. Certain editors “speculated that these questionable texts were produced when someone in the audience took notes from the plays’ dialogue during performances and then employed ‘hack poets’ to fill out the notes” (xlv). Many believe that the quartos are directly from Shakespeare’s paper but there is no true evidence to support this.

Folger's Library

Henry Clay Folger founded the Folger Shakespeare Library, where 75 of the estimate 230 copies of the First Folio are held. Additionally, he collected many quartos, for example three copies of Love’s Labor’s Lost. Many scholars have learned a great deal about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century printing. Folger also collected later editions of the First Folio and the first edition by the first editor of Shakespeare, Nicholas Rowe.

Works Cited


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Joiseyshowaa. "The Stacks at Austria National Library." Flickr. Yahoo!, 09 Aug. 2010. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/30201239@N00/4874702533>


Ragnarsson, Jon. "Old Book." Flickr. Yahoo!, 02 Jan. 2008. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/50534569@N00/2159843888>


Shakespeare, William, Barbara A. Mowat, and Paul Werstine. Hamlet. New York: Washington Square, 1992. Print.