First Folio - title page The Complete Works

Thirty-eight plays, four narrative poems, and a hundred and fifty four sonnets have been attributed to William Shakespeare. There are few contemporary references, and no extant manuscripts. The majority of the plays that comprise the Shakespearean canon were first published either anonymously or postumously ascribed to the author seven years after his death.

Fair is Foul Papers
Much to the undying frustration of scholars, there are no original Shakespearean manuscripts, no surviving copies of Shakespeare's plays written in his own hand. In textual analysis, such unadulterated copies are commonly referred to as "foul papers." All posterity has are the remnants, the extant, published editions, passed through the hands of countless actors, theatre managers, transcribers, proofreaders, and printers.

Whose line is it anyway?
Generally, Elizabethan actors in production did not receive full copies of the text, just "cue-scripts," which contained only their lines and cues. This was designed in part to prevent unauthorized distribution and/or publication of the plays. Sixteenth century England had begun to enforce a form of copyright law through the Stationers' Register, but the system was far from perfect, being more concerned with the rights of the publisher rather than author. Shakespeare did not own the rights to his plays; his theatre company, comprised of actors did. They monitored the publication of his plays. Occasionally, either to capitalize on the success of a particular production or to rebut an unauthorized publication, a theatre company would release its own "official" quarto edition, as was the case for Romeo and Juliet in 1599.

Hey brother, can you spare a quarto?
In Elizabethan times, the modern-day equivalent to a paperback book was the "quarto": cheaply mass-produced, and designed for a popular readership. The designation refers to the manner in which the book's pages were folded, pressed into quarters. The quality of a quarto edition varies on an individual basis, and is subject to interpretation. Scholars must determine whether or not they believe the text in question represents an accurate representation of Shakespeare's vision, or a corruption thereof. Some scholars speculate that many Shakespearean quartos are fraudulent, pirated editions, memorially reconstructed by a plant in the audience, or an actor with a small part in the production. Texts that are suspected to have been compromised in this manner are referred to as "bad quartos." "Reliable" versions are called "good quartos." While bad quartos have traditionally been met with derision, some theorists see value in their variations, problematic as they may be. Often bad quartos include stage directions not found in authorized editions, suggesting that they are authentic "acting versions," a curious, scholastic distinction.

Titus Andronicus Interesting play, who's the author?
In 1594, the first Shakespearean quarto was published. The bloody box office smash,Titus Andronicus, was so popular with audiences that it eventually merited three successive printings. Today, the only extant contemporaneous drawing of a Shakespearean production is of Titus Andronicus. At the time of its debut, Titus Andronicus was a defining success for the young playwright. Unfortunately, the public did not know his name. Shakespeare's first publication as a playwright is anonymous.

The (Complete?) Complete Works
Seven years after William Shakespeare's death, Henry Condell and John Heminge, actors and shareholders in the Globe Playhouse, compiled and published what is commonly considered to be the definitive collection of the author's work. Known as the First Folio, because its "leaves" or pages ("folio" means "leaf" in Latin) were folded only once, the volume contains eighteen plays that had never before seen print, including most notably Twelfth Night, Macbeth and The Tempest. Among its Prefatory Remarks are dedications to the author, the most famous by contemporary Ben Jonson who exclaimed, "He was not of an age, but for all time!" When it was published in 1623, the First Folio sold for about a pound, approximately fifty dollars today. Of the initial one thousand printed, two hundred and forty still survive.

First Folio - list of plays To be or not to be, ay there's the point
Modern editors face many challenges when they publish one of Shakespeare's plays. They must consult not only the First Folio, but any quartos that may be in existence, for some, including Hamlet and King Lear, include lines not found in the First Folio. An editor must also decide on how to modernize punctuation and spelling, as early English in its printed form was very much a study in progress.

Shakespeare on the Web
Copies of all of Shakespeare's works are freely found on the internet, but the reader is cautioned against errors, both literal and interpretational. The original electronic source for most servers is the Complete Moby(tm) Shakespeare, which is freely available online and placed in the public domain. The BEST and most frequented sites continue to be MIT's Shakespeare Homepage and Matty Farrow's Complete Works Site at the University of Sydney (this site also has a really useful search engine). In addition, has the highly readable Oxford Edition of the Complete Works.

For an online facsimile of the First Folio, check out the University of Pennsylvania's Furness Library. It can be a little hard to navigate, and the pictures are slow to load, but this is a fabulous site. For a transcript of the First Folio (and an all-around good site), click on the University of Victoria's Internet Shakespeare Editions.

For those who still prefer to read Shakespeare the good, old-fashioned way (i.e. on paper), this site recommends the Arden editions, with runner-up nods to the Riverside, Penguin and Oxford. For the novice Shakespearean, check out the Folger versions first. They are the easiest to read, with definitions and pictures on almost every page. Click on to purchase any of these online, or, better yet, support your local neighborhood bookstore.

Other Useful Links:

The Early Modern English Dictionaries Database (EMEDD) Renaissance Word Meaning
Shakespearean Prompt-Books of the Seventeenth Century University of Virginia
The Shakespeare Apocrypha Disputed Works Ascribed to Shakespeare
An Online Guide to Shakespeare the Neologist Shakespeare's Contributions to the English Language