Of Quartos, Folios and Wherefores

I love it when my coworkers want to talk Shakespeare.  Glad that I’m there to answer their question (because, if I hadn’t been there, would they have found someone else? Or just never asked it?) and also glad that here’s another person who wants to learn more about my favorite subject.

I’m especially pleased when they ask me questions I don’t know the answer to, because I get to post about it and we all get to learn something.

Today’s questions are about the publication of the First Folio, and the Quartos before that.

I consider my copy a work of art.

Q1:  Why was there a market for quartos at all?  We all seem to be in agreement that there was really no market for “casually read the play as literature” like we might do today.  The market for them seems to have been purely Shakespeare’s competitors who were looking for new ideas, to put it generously (to steal his, to put it more realistically).  But how is that a valid model, to go through all the trouble?  If 100 people visit a bookseller but the market for a certain book is only 2 or 3 of those people, wouldn’t it be easier to shop your work around directly to the other theatres?  Why print N copies if only a fraction of N will ever be purchased?

Q2: Before the First Folio, was “collected works” even a thing?  This is an extension of the former question, because if there was no real market for “read the plays as literature”, and the only people who wanted the quartos were competing playwrights and theatre owners, then what in the world would have been the point of making an official, authorized version of the playwright’s entire work and making that available?  Wouldn’t that just enable the problem all the more?

Was the whole idea new?  Did Marlowe or Jonson or Fletcher or anybody else get their complete works published like this?  Or was this the first milestone that said, “Shakespeare was different, Shakespeare’s contribution to the art deserves a memorial effort that has never been done before.”

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8 thoughts on “Of Quartos, Folios and Wherefores

  1. I don't think there's such an agreement about no market. We have multiple printings of some quartos, which means that some stationer thought they could make money selling them, not once, but two or three times. I've got the vague notion that students at the Inns were readers of plays in quarto, but I couldn't back that up.

    Ben Jonson published his first collected works, including stage plays, in 1616, in folio.

  2. >got the vague notion that students at the Inns were readers of plays in quarto, but I couldn't back that up.

    How great would it be to document that! Every time the "Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read" argument comes up I would be all ready to go and shove that right back in certain sanctimonious faces! 🙂

  3. Interesting thought. I would probably place the sanctimonious faces on the other side of the issue–saying that Shakespeare was primarily meant to be read, not performed.

    You've hit upon a vexed issue. Plays were hugely popular in performance; how popular were they in print? And why? It would seem that a playhouse with a hit on its hands would be reluctant to print it–because then anyone could put on that play, not just the playhouse that was the play's owner (generally, playwrights would sell their pays to companies who would then own them–no royalties for the author for multiple performances). But plays in print were so popular that they were sometimes issued in unauthorized editions (Q1 of Hamlet, for example)–because there was a market (or a perceived market) for them. In the case of Hamlet, the playhouse decided to print a corrected version of the play–Q2–to set the record straight.

    But what about plays like Richard III, which went through six quartos in Shakespeare's lifetime. Was it not popular on the stage? Is that why the playhouse allowed its authorized printing?

    Even more vexed is the question of what Shakespeare thought of all this. He saw his first two poems through the press himself, but he may not have been involved in the publication of anything else (notoriously not the sonnets). As shareholder of the company, he would have benefited financially from the playhouse's selling the plays, but he may not have been interested in correcting proofs or providing his best, latest manuscript for the printer.

    Was Shakespeare writing for the stage? Indubitably. Was he also writing for posterity? Did he have one eye on the bookstalls to see how his books were doing? That's considerably less certain.

    Thanks for the interesting question!

    kj (Bardfilm)

  4. "Every time the "Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read" argument comes up I would be all ready to go and shove that right back in certain sanctimonious faces!"

    As to the above, I think you're nitpicking here. The plays were *meant* to be performed. Careful–even cursory–study of their construction reveals this. As to being read, I'd be willing to bet that not one of your so-called "sanctimonious" friends would claim that they *should not* be read AT ALL. But there is far more to be gotten from them when they are spoken aloud, again, as they were *meant* to be.

    And are you suggesting that Shakespeare wrote them as works of literature for publication; that in the writing there was a dual purpose, that he *meant* for them to be sold and read as such? Maybe, but I personally think that's doubtful. Poetry was written for publication–not plays. (Although, it's also interesting to note that poetry was probably spoken out loud more often than read silently–not so curious, in my estimation, with Elizabeth considering herself a poet and in view of her love of theatrics.)This was an age of the Spoken Word. Advancement often resulted from how well one spoke the language everyone revered. IT was THEIRS and they were proud of IT.

    In addition to the information provided by others here, playwrights were not held in high esteem by scholars, to say the least. They earned their living on the boards, not in the book stalls. Any percentage for writing a play came from whatever agreement Shakespeare made with Burbage and Co as a co-owner of the company. They then sold it to a publisher for a one time fee. Physical ownership in terms of the written work and publication quickly–and completely– transferred to the buyer (the printer in these cases). Then it was theirs no longer. His plays were not viewed as "literature" until much later–way past the compilation and publication of the Folio by his compatriots, much of their efforts focused on posterity, as well as making a buck or two.

    As far as we know, any publication of a play would have come as a result of its popularity, or possibly for the purposes of pirating a popular work. How did that happen? They were performed first, as they were *meant* to be. In fact, 18 of the plays never would have been known to us but for their publication for the first time in the Folio by those actor-managers who *performed* them first, and found as their source the fair copies of *performance* scripts.

    Now I'm done nitpicking. 🙂

  5. >bet that not one of your so-called "sanctimonious" friends would claim that they *should not* be read AT ALL.

    Oh you'd be surprised, J. 🙂 As I'm sure you know I monitor Reddit, Quora and other sites where I can get involved in Shakespeare discussion. The question of "What should I read first/next?" comes up quite regularly. And a common answer is, "Don't read them, see them." That drives me banana sandwiches. If someone asks "should I read them" then that's a reasonable answer. But if somebody wants to read them, especally somebody who has started reading them, likes them, and is looking for guidance, who are we to say "Wait, no, stop, you're doing it wrong." I hate that.

    Seeing a performance is seeing someone else's interpretation of the text. See 100 performances and what's it doing? Getting you closer and closer to the text. But the text isn't changing. The text is the constant. Every person on the planet can, at any time, pick up the text and read it. It's not for the faint of heart, no doubt. But if somebody wants to make that journey? I can't understand why people want to ever try to stop them.

  6. ""Wait, no, stop, you're doing it wrong."

    Well, that's just ignorance–or plain stubbornness for the sake of appearing as though they "know" what they're talking about. There is no right or wrong–only better.

    The point is that it's a visceral/communal experience. That's the way the material was conceived and what it was conceived for. It's theatre at its grandest and greatest. *Having* to read it silently as opposed to hearing/seeing it is the lesser option. Having to read the material as a first experience is what turns people off to them in a hurry.
    This week I finished prepping and presenting a performance with eighth graders for an audience of 700 people. You can believe that when Shakespeare is next presented to them in high school, they'll have a different feeling about it than those without the experience of doing it. My suggestion to anyone is that they read it out loud–ALL the parts if they can't find others who want to do it with them. The idea of varying "interpretations" is the not as salient as the hearing of words that were meant to be spoken, even if it's you doing the speaking.

  7. Hi Everyone,

    Here is a possibility, what if the Quartos started out as advertising synopsis of a play to be performed by a stage group and were published to attract investors and backers of the plays to show what a play was about, and used as promotional materials.

    Someone could have purchased a copy to read to small groups to get people to go to the plays, then get a percentage of the ticket price for everyone they brought to the play.

    Also, do you really think the Queen of England would have a play performed for her without first having read a sample of the play, or being given a brief reading of it?

    Think 1600's marketing

    Joe Wocoski
    Shakespeare Word Search Book Author

  8. There's something to that. Many quartos had phrases like "Enacted by the King's Men this Past January, to Great Applause." As such, they were promotional in general about the company or about the theatre though not about the specific play.

    And the Queen (and, later, the King) had someone read the plays for them beforehand—the Master of the Revels! But he read them in manuscript. There would be no point in going to the trouble and expense of printing a few hundred copies of a play just so someone could read it and summarize it for Her Majesty–or for Her Majesty to read it herself.

    Interestingly, the arrangement of the theatres was such that, ostensibly, the companies were really just charging for dress rehearsals in their own theatres; the actual performances were command performances at court.

    —kj (Bardfilm)

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