Photograph by George Goodman, taken from www.flickr.com
The British Library has recently digitised a number of its famous collections of rare books including the Shakespeare Quartos. On the Shakespeare webpages you will find the British Library’s 93 copies of William Shakespeare’s 21 plays printed before the Puritan Parliament closed the English theatres in 1642. The texts started to be printed in 1594 beginning with Titus Andronicus which appeared as a small pamphlet (known as a quarto). The Quartos are important because none of Shakespeare’s manuscripts survives which means that the printed text is the only source that can be used to determine what he originally wrote. The Quartos date from his time; some of them preserve the working drafts (foul drafts) and some the fair copies. Others are believed to record versions remembered by the actors who performed the plays; these versions provide scholars with an idea of how the plays were staged at the time. In the texts section of the site you can view individual texts or compare different versions of the same play.
On this site it is possible to compare earlier and later versions of the texts and view them side-by-side. When comparing two versions of Hamlet we learn that Shakespeare’s earlier rendering of what would become one of his most famous quotations had little force when he first wrote it.
The first “bad” 1603 quarto of Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 1 reads:
‘To be, or not to be, I there’s the point’
while the second “good” quarto of 1605 reads:
‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’
The website has a wealth of other information about Shakespeare including background on his life, links to essays by scholars on the quartos, bibliographies and links to other digitised Shakespeare collections.