We have been taught to love and cherish William Shakespeare so much that it seems crazy that anyone could make corrections to his originals. These adaptations would probably be called “unfaithful,” of “free adaptation,” or to be more radical, anything but Shakespeare. Any alteration is unforgivable by today’s standards. But, what if there were no originals?
That’s exactly the point here. Even though we talk about originals, none of the manuscript versions of the play survive nowadays. Not one. There’s simply no way of knowing what Shakespeare actually wrote down, edited, re-wrote, or altered. There’s just no authorized version.
We do, however, have printed versions of his plays, which is where all the books of Shakespeare’s plays derive from. Some of his plays, like Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, were published in what are now called Quarto versions. (Quartos were small books usually reserved for a single work). We can probably measure Shakespeare’s popularity within his own lifetime by how many of these plays were published, and how many reprints each of them had. In short, there were many.
But not all of Shakespeare’s plays were published in Quarto format, so how do we know them? Seven years after Shakespeare’s death, his friends and colleagues got together and published 36 of his plays, called the First Folio. It was a huge book and testament to his never-ending popularity. It’s thanks to the Folio that we know plays like Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, and others, of which there are no quarto versions (that we know of).
The Folio also claims that these plays were “published according to their true original copies.” What does that even mean? The answer is found inside the Folio itself, where Henry Condell and John Heminges, the publishers, claim that “stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors.” Whereas what they offer were Shakespeare’s plays “cured, and perfect of their limbs; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he conceived them.” This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not.
What Condell and Heminges refer to are the quarto versions of the plays, which they denounce as fake. It very well could be that these earlier publications of Shakespeare’s plays were actual pirate versions, or versions published by people who didn’t have the manuscript. So how did they publish them without an original? Easy. They would go hear the play at one of the shows and learn it by heart, after which they would write down, and they would be ready for publication. Mistakes were probably inevitable, which is why Condell and Heminges call them maimed and deformed. But does that mean the quarto versions aren’t true or original? Maybe. But it could also be that Condell and Heminges were trying real hard to market their product as the best around.
So what is the big deal?
Among the most problematic of these cases are two of Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragedies: Hamlet and King Lear. King Lear is found in three versions, The Tragedy of King Lear and The History of King Lear , one found in the Folio, and two quartos, but sometimes these versions don’t match; they contain words, verses, scenes or even characters that do not include the others, and vice versa. All of this means that editors have to either pick which version they like the best, or make a new version out of the bits and pieces they like. Which means the version you have at home… is fake. It doesn’t exist. Shakespeare didn’t actually write that version.
Let’s say you wish to go with either one of the versions of Hamlet. You could take the easy way out and go with the Folio version, but why should one of these versions be more Shakespeare than the rest? Hamlet’s case is specially enlightening, since the most famous quote in the entire Shakespeare canon isn’t even the same in all of its versions. The Folio version says:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:/Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles, /And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep No more;
But the First Quarto versions says:
To be, or not to be, Ay there’s the point,/To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:/No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes,/For in that dream of death, when we awake,/And borne before an everlasting Judge,
How could we have never known about this? It just means that one of these versions was preferred by someone at some point, and everyone else just went along with it. The First Quarto gets such a bad rep that it’s called the “bad quarto.”
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