(This contribution written by my cousin Fred Hebbert some time in 2011)

To prevent pirating on the stage, Shakespeare was against his plays being printed. But disloyal actors would know their parts as well as some of the others, or spectators working as a team would scribble during a play, and so a printed body of work covering 18 of his 39 plays, called the Quartos, came into being before his death in 1616. The Quartos reveal possible changes by Shakespeare through the years as his plays, and players, evolved.

The content of the Quarto’s are, ultimately, to be compared against the 1623 First Folio, edited into 36 plays by members of his former company.Without the First Folio, plays not in the Quartos would have been lost (including MacBeth, Anthony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest).


Actors had only their own parts written down, the complete version of a play was the ‘prompt book’. It is to be assumed that the editors had many surviving prompt books at their disposal in compiling the First Folio, though it is to be remembered Shakespeare revised his plays continuously and they might not have been the latest. Three plays were omitted including Cardenio (with plot borrowed from Don Quixote, but without the knight, last seen in any form in the 1850’s) and Love’s Labour’s Won, of which nothing has survived but references to it in the political censor’s register. Scholars also attribute a small part of ‘Sir Thomas More’, a play banned by the censor, and (hastily?) rewritten by several hands after QE I’s death. In any event, Shakespeare clearly ‘fixed’ his passage without knowing the rest of the play. I can imagine the conversation with the serial litigant:

BURBAGE: The speech, Master Shakespeare, where’s my speech? We open on the morrow.
SHAKES: I’m expected at the Court of Requests within the hour-
BURBAGE: God’s bod, Will, who are you suing NOW?

I think ‘Thomas More’ might be the only sample (other than signatures) that we have of Shakespeare’s handwriting.

The job of Shakespeare scholars is to make sense of the many Quarto versions against the First Folio, and to make changes where they think the Quarto more valid.

There are twenty-four original prints of the First Folio in private institutions in the UK and 53 in private hands. There are nearly two hundred more in the rest of the world, mostly in the USA, but also in virtually every major country from France to China and Japan. Many of them have handwritten comments made  by owners at that time: (‘Least in making’ written under Shakespeare’s name implying that he had small parts because he was responsible for making the play(?), as well as revealing comments on stage business in performance, and the readers like or dislike of scenes).

Shakespeare, of course, kept some of his best lines for his bit-part player, as in the Chorus: ‘Imagine in this wooden O the vasty fields of France.’

I wondered how close the First Folio was to my modern version of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. Below is the opening of The Tempest; there is little change except in exclamation marks. What is amazing is how the language has not changed in 400 years, whereas Chaucer, 200 years earlier, is virtually unreadable.

A tempeftuous noife of Thunder and Lightning heard: Enter a Ship.mafter, and a Botefwaine. A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard. Enter [severally] a Shipmaster and a Boatswain

Mafter. Bote-fwain.Botef. Heere Mafter. What cheere?
Maft. Good, speak to th’ mariners. Fall too’t yarely, or we run our felues a ground. Beftirre, beftirre.
Master Boatswain!Boatswain Here Master. What cheer?
Master Good, speak to th’ mariners. Fall to’t yarely, or we run ourselves aground. Bestir, bestir!

 A Quarto of 1605 differs from the Folio of 1623 in only the bracketed part below:

To sleep, perchance to dreame; I, there’s the rub,
For in that sleepe of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
must give us pause…
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus conscience does make cowards (of us all);

-giving some assurance of authenticity. Others differ considerably:

To be or not to be, I, there’s the point,
To die, to sleepe, I is that all? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an everlasting judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned,
the undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile and the accursed damn’d. 

Of course it’s always possible that this last is Shakespeare’s version before Bacon/Marlowe/Earl of Oxford (choose one) fixed it.