Early printed editions of Shakespeare’s plays are some of the most valuable literary possessions. Quartos, a cheap way of printing, were the first publications of Shakespeare’s plays, created during the early 17th century while the author was still living. The existing quartos today are kept heavily guarded, under lock and key in some of the world’s greatest rare books libraries. Now, those quartos will be accessible to everyone online.
The Shakespeare Quartos Archive has begun to reproduce the plays online. Currently here are 32 different copies of Hamlet available on the site. The goal is to eventually have at least one copy of every Shakespeare play that was printed in quarto. The project is funded by the UK Joint Information Systems Committee and the US National Endowment for the Humanities.
It is especially interesting to compare these early versions of Shakespeare’s (arguably) most famous work, since there are several differences between them. Shakespearean scholar Gabriel Egan explains:
“I’m interested in the small differences between the copies of a single edition arising because printers would stop the press during a run, make corrections to the type, restart the press and then mix the corrected with the uncorrected sheets,” he explains.
One of the most significant differences is the placement of Hamlet‘s famed “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The speech is central to the development of the character, yet its timing varies between editions. Even though Hamlet is one of the most well-known literary works in the world, there is no definitive script. Now, anyone can have access to these first editions and make their own judgments.
The Guardian: Shakespeare Goes Digital
The Shakespeare Quartos Archive
Darcy Zacharias, CC ’10