Publishing Shakespeare

When William Shakespeare died in 1616, only about half of his plays had ever been printed, in small one-play editions. Another 18 plays are known today only because they are included in the 1623 First Folio, the first collected edition of the plays.

In 1709, Nicholas Rowe became the first modern editor of Shakespeare's plays, making the text more accessible through tools such as lists of characters and act and scene divisions. Editors in every age—including the present—have addressed a variety of questions, including how to make sense of conflicting early versions of the plays. Other publishers have taken the text in new directions, from foreign-language editions to graphic novels.

Poems | Early quartos | The First Folio | Later editions | A variety of forms

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The openings poems of Shakespeare's Sonnets

The openings poems of Shakespeare's Sonnets

Item Title: 
[Sonnets] Shake-speares sonnets. Neuer before imprinted.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22353
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1609

Poems

In 1593 and 1594, William Shakespeare, already established as a playwright, published two long poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece.

The poems, which reflected the classical fashion of the time, were very successful. Venus and Adonis went through nine editions in Shakespeare's lifetime and Lucrece (often known as The Rape of Lucrece) went through five. Both poems were originally published as quarto editions.

Shakespeare's sonnets were first published together in 1609 as a quarto, athough they were probably written much earlier. The sonnets, far more popular today than the epic poems, are still published both individually and as a group.

You can find a full digitization of the 1609 sonnets in our digital image collection, as well as the 1599 octavo edition of Venus and Adonis and a quarto of the 1594 Rape of Lucrece.

What is a quarto?

A quarto is a small book, made by folding printed sheets twice to create four double-sided leaves or eight pages. When they were not bound, quartos were less sturdy than large books and could be damaged or discarded, making them scarce today. Learn more about quartos in DIY Quarto, which includes a virtual printing house. (Shakespeare's worksparticularly his poemswere also sometimes published as octavo editions, small books made by folding printed sheets three times to create eight double-sided leaves or 16 pages.)

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1594 quarto of Titus Andronicus

1594 quarto of Titus Andronicus

Item Title: 
[Titus Andronicus] The most lamentable Romaine tragedie of Titus Andronicus As it was plaide by the right honourable the Earle of Darbie, Earle of Pembrooke, and Earle of Sussex their seruants.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22328
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1594

The early quartos

During his lifetime, about half of Shakespeare's plays were printed as one-play quartos.

Some of the quarto texts closely match the wording of the same play in later quartos and the First Folio, but others vary drastically, offering different early versions of the same play.

The first quartos of Shakespeare's plays appeared in 1594 and included Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI, Part 2 (as it is now titled). Some plays, such as Richard III and Henry IV, Part 1, appeared in multiple quarto editions, showing their popularity.

Many of the earliest quartos, like Titus Andronicus, shown here, do not include Shakespeare's name but highlight instead the acting company that first performed the play.

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The First Folio of William Shakespeare

The First Folio of William Shakespeare

Item Title: 
Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies
Item Call Number: 
STC 22273 Fo.1 no.05
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1623

The First Folio

Seven years after Shakespeare's death, John Heminge and Henry Condell, his friends and colleagues in the King's Men acting company, collected almost all of his plays in a folio edition, now called the First Folio.

A folio is a large book in which printed sheets are folded in half only once, creating two double-sided leaves or four pages. Folios were more expensive and far more prestigious than quartos. Shakespeare's friendly rival Ben Jonson had previously published his own plays with his poems in a folio format book. The 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare, however, is the earliest folio consisting only of an author's plays.

The First Folio groups the plays for the first time into comedies, histories, and tragedies, and it includes the Martin Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare, generally considered an image close to nature because it was approved by those who knew him. There are 36 plays in the First Folio. Among them are preserved 18 plays that had never been printed before and might otherwise have been lost: All’s Well That Ends WellAntony and CleopatraAs You Like It, The Comedy of ErrorsCoriolanusCymbeline, Henry VI, Part 1Henry VIIIJulius CaesarKing JohnMacbethMeasure for MeasureThe Taming of the ShrewThe TempestTimon of AthensTwelfth NightThe Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Winter’s Tale.

Learn more about the First Folio

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frontispiece and title page of Rowe's 1709 edition

frontispiece and title page of Rowe's 1709 edition

Item Title: 
[Plays. 1709] The works of Mr. William Shakespear : in six volumes : adorn’d with cuts / revis’d and corrected, with an account of the life and writings of the author, by N. Rowe, Esq.
Item Call Number: 
PR2752 1709a copy 2 v.1 Sh.Col.
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
[1709]

The First Folio sold well enough that it was followed in 1632, nine years later, by the Second Folio, then in 1663 by the Third Folio and in 1685 by the Fourth Folio. The latter two added many new plays, most of which are not today considered to be by Shakespeare. Quarto editions of the plays continued to be produced as well. Those published in the late 1600s, after the restoration of the English monarchy, include drastic changes and "improvements" reflecting the preferences of that time.

Shakespeare's plays, as printed in the First Folio and the early quartos, presented a challenge to later editors, in part because of the great variations between some quartos and the First Folio. In 1709, Nicholas Rowe, the first editor of Shakespeare's plays in the modern sense, added act and scene divisions to every play, introduced exits and entrances based on the sense of the text, and included lists of the characters, or dramatis personae. Following Rowe, a long line of major editors produced editions of the plays that reflected the scholarship and thinking of their time.

Today, major print editions of the plays include the Arden, Riverside, Oxford, and Cambridge editions, as well as the current Folger editions, the most commonly used in American classrooms. The Folger Shakespeare Library offers Folger editions of the plays in print or digital formats, including downloadable, searchable Folger Digital Texts, which are available for free, and the Luminary Shakespeare apps. We also offer fully realized Folger Theatre audio recordings of some of the plays.

A variety of forms

Editions of Shakespeare, from miniature volumes in traveling cases to large illustrated tomes, proliferated during the 19th century. It was even possible to read Shakespeare in "parts"—paper editions that were published serially. In the 19th and early 20th century, school primers, including the McGuffey Readers, included small excerpts from the plays for recitation. Classroom editions of the plays appeared as English literature became a standard school subject. Shakespeare has been translated and published in dozens of languages, both as separate plays and as collected works. The plays have also contributed text, plot, and characters to a variety of comic books and graphic novels.