Quartos.org - Shakespeare's quartos online for review and comparison
April 12, 2014 8:59 AM   Subscribe

The earliest Shakespeare quartos are over four hundred years old and constitute the rarest, most fragile body of printed literature available to Shakespeare scholars. Sold unbound and often read to pieces, they are among the most ephemeral books of the age and survive in relatively low numbers. In the absence of surviving manuscripts, the quartos offer the earliest known evidence of what Shakespeare might actually have written, and what appeared on the early modern English stage. Only about half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed in quarto during his lifetime (1564–1616), and before the first printed collection of his plays, the First Folio of 1623. They are living artifacts telling the story of how Shakespeare's Hamlet, Henry V, King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Romeo and Juliet, to name just a few, first circulated in print.... Due to their rarity and fragility, the earliest quartos are often not accessible to those who need to study them. Today, six institutions in the United Kingdom and United States stand out as the main repositories of the pre-1642 quartos.... Through this international collaboration, many of the earliest Shakespeare quartos are now freely available for in-depth study to students of Shakespeare across the globe. You can read, compare, read annotations and overlay copies at Quartos.org.
posted by filthy light thief (20 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
There are more things on the internet, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
posted by wabbittwax at 9:23 AM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Many years ago I bought a printed edition of the first quarto (the so-called 'bad quarto') of Hamlet. It's really wildly different from the folio edition we all know and love. And in fascinating ways too. Mind you, the price printed on its dust jacket was over $100, so it's more than a little amazing that people can now look at so much of the original source material for free. There is no downside.
posted by wabbittwax at 9:29 AM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mrs. starvingartist says she used that site extensively when writing her MLitt thesis last year. Reports are that it is a pretty cool site.
posted by starvingartist at 9:42 AM on April 12, 2014

Theories abound about the quality of the folio vis a vis the quartos. Recently, while working on Troilus and Cressida, I came across a slat who theorizes that some of the folio versions were the unedited scripts, which is to say they were never performed on stage in Shakespeare's life as they were recorded in the folio. According to this theory, some of the quartos give us better insight into how the plays were actually performed.

Of course, the long standing theory that some of them are poor transcriptions from a single audience member's or minor actor's memory could also be true.

Either way, the quartos are essential albeit sometimes maddening and this is a great resource.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:38 AM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ha! I'm at the Shakespeare Association of America annual meeting right now, so this is unusually apt. Probably should stop hiding out in my hotel room reading Metafilter and actually, like, go to the final session ...
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:30 PM on April 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

The theory that the plays were transcribed by an audience member or minor actor have been discredited by a lot of scholars. You try sitting in a theater with paper and pencil and writing down, as accurately as possible, all the things being said by a company of actors speaking Shakespearean English. It's pretty damn hard.
posted by starvingartist at 2:09 PM on April 12, 2014

They've indeed been discredited which is not to say 100% disproven. We have no idea what actually happened, just theories.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:30 PM on April 12, 2014

starvingartist: "all the things being said by a company of actors speaking Shakespearean English."

even though it's your mother tongue...
posted by chavenet at 3:21 PM on April 12, 2014

The Shakespeare Quartos Archive expands the British Library's "Shakespeare in Quarto" website into an online collection reproducing at least one copy of every edition of William Shakespeare’s plays printed in quarto before the theatres closed in 1642. Joined to this resource is a prototype of an interactive interface and toolset aimed at facilitating scholarly research, performance studies, and new pedagogical applications derived from detailed examination and comparison of the quartos...

This is undeniably neat and wonderful, but am I the only one wondering what the heck took them so long? Why did it take until 2014 for "at least one copy of every edition of William Shakespeare's plays printed in quarto" to show up on the internet in a form accessible to scholars? I have just a layperson's love of Shakespeare, and know nothing of any technical challenges involved, but I'm really surprised this hadn't happened before now.
posted by mediareport at 3:59 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

(ok, now I'm feeling dumb; this didn't just happen this year, did it?)
posted by mediareport at 4:01 PM on April 12, 2014

Looks like they started with Hamlet in 2009 and are slowly working their way through them all.
posted by mediareport at 4:05 PM on April 12, 2014

> "The theory that the plays were transcribed by an audience member or minor actor have been discredited by a lot of scholars. You try sitting in a theater with paper and pencil and writing down, as accurately as possible ..."

But that's only the case if you're talking about an audience member. A minor actor would have had a cue sheet with their own lines, and would have heard the play over and over and over and over. (I worked sound effects for a long run of Little Shop of Horrors once. I never saw the script even once, but I could have jotted down something reasonably accurate, although not perfect, while it was still fresh in my mind. And I bet I still know the lyrics to every single song ...)

This is not to say that memorial reconstruction is necessarily what happened, but the theory is not nearly as far-fetched as you've implied.
posted by kyrademon at 4:13 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Every time we get one of these threads about valuable historical resources coming online, I say the same thing about how glad I am to see them. It's so fantastic to live in a future where we have free and unfettered access to documents that used to be locked up in libraries (for good reasons, if only because they're so fragile) or only available in limited and expensive print editions.
posted by immlass at 5:55 PM on April 12, 2014

A point of clarification, this is more than having access to rare documents via Google Books or Archive.org, but this site provides additional features, such as annotations, and actually overlay one copy on another with user-defined transparencies and the ability to position each edition as you see fit.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:47 PM on April 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mediareport -- they're very fragile and valuable books, and digitizing them is possibly going to damage them, so yeah, it'll take a while. Permission and access would be the hardest part. I work at the Folger from time to time: to get access to the ordinary stuff you need to be a prof or a vouched-for grad student, and even then you need documentation that you're working on a project that requires access to the library itself. To use the rarer documents and volumes you need advance notice and special permission (promptbooks, for instance, must be booked in advance). The Shakespeare quartos and folios are kept in a vault and are never, ever, ever handled. The Huntington and the BL have very similar policies.

Kyrademon's comment is more or less how memorial reconstruction is theorized: you get one or two players who have memorized their minor parts, which they provide verbatim, and then together they reconstruct the speeches of the major parts. It's not perfect, but it's also not impossible, especially if it's refined over several visits.

And Joey Michaels -- I always thought it was the other way about: the Folios were the playscripts the company had been working with for decades, slimmed down and added to by workshopping via performance. Orgel thinks this way about Lear, for example.

I'm missing the SAA this year, for the first time in about a decade: cancer treatments and MRIs are a sucky substitute for the best conference of the year.
posted by jrochest at 11:29 PM on April 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I believe the source of the theory I cited was Bill Bryson's recent book on Shakespeare. I'll try to remember to look it up when I'm back at my library tomorrow.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:07 AM on April 13, 2014

How many academics and authors are involved in the Shakespeare industry? It amazes me how the interest in and output of new work concerned with the chap continues - perhaps even grows - when the amount of new primary material to work on is vanishing small (when was the last genuinely new discovery of import?).

It's glorious, of course, and I wish I had more time and motivation to be intellectually engaged myself, but there's so much going on right now ("Devoting your life to the test tube, eh, Devonian?" said an English teacher at my school, when he learned I was doing maths, physics, chemistry, etc, at A-level. He said it witheringly enough to desiccate a melon).

It's also glorious that so much primary material is becoming available freely online, even if it is increasingly scary that there'll be an online Library of Alexandria moment and we'll lose the lot. What price a robot Wayback Machine on the moon?
posted by Devonian at 5:30 AM on April 13, 2014

Devonian: What price a robot Wayback Machine on the moon?

Well, it's not the moon, but the Internet Archive is mirrored at The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and I'm sure Quartos.org is mirrored a few times, maybe even completely by the six different institutions, if not other sites, as their digital resources are of significant (educational) value.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:30 PM on April 13, 2014

Shakespeare's scholar tramp - "In a small series of sheds in Sussex an 19th-century joker and eccentric hoarded the evidence that reconciles Shakespeare the playwright with Shakespeare the man. Charles Nicholl uncovers a remarkable story"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:35 AM on April 14, 2014

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