Most people are not aware of how complicated the issue of the text of Shakespeare’s plays is. When you pick up any modern edition of a Shakespeare play, you are not looking at a text that Shakespeare prepared for publication or that received his stamp of approval. Although he may very well have intended to publish his plays, there is no evidence of his having supervised the printing of any of them. Many of the texts we depend on today appeared for the first time in the famous First Folio in 1623—that is, seven years after Shakespeare’s death; he certainly never proofread the First Folio. Thus all modern editions of Shakespeare are necessarily editorial reconstructions of the plays’ texts, drawing upon centuries of scholarship and endless revision of the details. Any editor must make hundreds of decisions in preparing a Shakespeare play for publication and that means that these details vary significantly from edition to edition. Modern editors, not Shakespeare, are responsible for many details in the texts we read today: the spelling, the punctuation, the lineation, the division into acts and scenes, the stage directions, the indications of the speakers, often the word choices. This is an unfortunate situation but it is a fact.
Most people are surprised to learn that there are not even standard line numbers in Shakespeare editions. Because of the alternation between prose and verse in most of Shakespeare’s plays, even the line numbers vary from edition to edition (though usually not by much)—no agreement has ever been reached to standardize the line numbers. That means that interpreters of Shakespeare’s plays must be careful not to attribute certain aspects of the texts to authorial intention, when in fact they are the work of modern editors. For example, any attempt to find meaning in the number of lines in a particular passage would be dubious. And before making an interpretation hinge on a single word in the text, one should check to see if that word is the invention of a modern editor (this can be done by consulting the textual apparatus in any good Shakespeare edition or by comparing different editions).
In short, without becoming a full-fledged textual scholar, anyone studying Shakespeare seriously is obliged to become aware of the textual problems with his plays. Any good edition will explain the textual status of a particular play and one quickly learns what terms such as “folio” and “bad or good quarto” mean. Scholars even legitimately disagree over which plays should be included in a “complete” edition of Shakespeare, and there are still disputes about the authorship of individual plays. For example, Pericles was not included by Shakespeare’s contemporaries in the First Folio and it is difficult to believe that he wrote the first two acts of the play (they are so badly written). Most scholars agree that Shakespeare did not write the whole of Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen; John Fletcher was almost certainly his collaborator on these two plays. Scholarly debates continue as to whether Thomas Middleton contributed portions to Macbeth or Timon of Athens.
Some plays appear to have come down to us in good texts; Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest are cases in point (although even here there are some textual difficulties and conundrums). But in some cases the textual situation is extremely complicated and makes it impossible to settle on a single definitive text of the play. Unfortunately this is true of two of Shakespeare’s greatest plays: Hamlet and King Lear. In both cases, these plays have come down to us in two texts that carry authority but differ substantially, making interpretation of these plays especially difficult. Without allowing the complex textual situation to paralyze us as interpreters, we need to be aware of how it does set limits to what can be done in Shakespeare interpretations.
Under these circumstances, there is obviously no standard edition of Shakespeare’s plays and it is impossible to say that any one edition is the best. Three of the better single-volume editions are listed below; these editions have well-edited texts (though with many differences in details, due to different editorial principles and judgments); they have good general introductions, as well as good introductions to individual plays; and they have good supplementary material, including textual apparatus and extensive bibliographies:
- David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997)
- G. Blakemore Evans, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974)
- Stephen Greenblatt, ed., The Norton Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997)
There are many series that issue Shakespeare’s plays in individual volumes; many people like the Arden series. The lecture series on this site uses the Signet editions of the plays; this series has many pedagogical advantages, including useful notes and background material; the individual volumes are also relatively inexpensive.
Readers may conveniently consult the earliest texts we have of Shakespeare’s plays in various facsimile editions. Two of the most important and best are:
- Charlton Hinman, ed., The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968)
- Michael J. B. Allen and Kenneth Muir, eds., Shakespeare’s Plays in Quarto (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981)
Looking at the “originals” of the texts we have of Shakespeare’s plays can be a sobering experience and in some cases can be quite a shock. Incidentally, “returning to the originals” is no solution to the textual problem. The quarto and folio texts cannot stand as they are. They contain many manifest errors that cry out for emendation and correction.