Rise of Shakespeare II: Shakespeare's New Texts

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Popular new editions: While 18th-century audiences enjoyed watching changed versions of Shakespeare’s plays (see “Shakespeare’s new plays”), 18th-century readers snapped up “authoritative” editions of Shakespeare’s works, most published by Jacob Tonson, who owned the Folio copyright. In these editions, for the first time, editors attempted to recover the version of each play that they thought Shakespeare intended. They worked from the new – logical – assumption that the changes of past editions, from the Folios on, had generally moved further away from Shakespeare’s drafts. They therefore began to base their new texts on the copies of plays published in Shakespeare’s time – which had not been assembled by “editors” in the modern sense of the word (see “Shakespeare’s Folios”) – and on each other’s editions.

Learning how to historicize: In deciding what was “authentically” Shakespearean, editors were hampered by their beliefs about Shakespeare and their growing, but limited knowledge of his world. Editors often assumed that content they found unappealing could not be Shakespearean, when often it simply meant that Shakespeare’s aesthetic was different from theirs or that the words he used had changed in meaning over the intervening years.

Editors slowly felt their way toward textual decisions based on historical understanding rather than on their sense that what was “best” (as each saw it) must be Shakespeare. Over the course of the 18th century, editors increasingly drew on document-based knowledge about Shakespeare and about the linguistic and literary conventions and publishing conditions of his time to determine the most Shakespearean texts. Their work in fact drove larger cultural interest in searching out the earliest Shakespeare editions and life records. This period saw the recovery of many of the Shakespearean quartos, which often presented radically different versions of individual plays, fodder for additional editorial debates and alternatives. Still, even as they learned about earlier forms of the English language and the conditions of playing in Shakespeare’s time, editors’ decisions about Shakespearean wording often involved guesswork, instinct, and strong belief in transhistorical evaluations of literary content and style.

Ongoing editorial questions: Our still-growing parade of Shakespeare editions shows that the number of possible versions of Shakespeare’s works is limitless. While modern editors employ up-to-date research on textual criticism to establish texts for readers, they too must make many choices about wording that cannot be proven to be Shakespeare’s own preference. Moreover, while some scholars argue that Shakespeare wrote his plays for print as well as for the stage, we have no record of his direct involvement in publication. Even if he thought about print publication, Shakespeare wrote for performance first, and his plays would accordingly change between performances and in revivals to attract audiences. In that sense, there can be no truly definitive versions of his plays. 

The images in this section contain examples of 18th-century editions, showing how 18th-century editors learned to produce texts that were both readable and that more closely resembled versions of the plays from Shakespeare’s time. Here you may see images from Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition, the first to standardize the format of the plays to make them more reader-friendly and to include some Shakespeare biography and critical remarks. Alexander Pope’s 1723-1725 edition gestures toward textual collation but also reveals how an editor’s biases might shape content and the reader’s experience. In 1733, Lewis Theobald took strides in working with quartos and assessing changes in the English language to recover Shakespearean wording. Samuel Johnson’s 1765 edition was known for its brilliant preface and editorial remarks. Edmund Malone’s 1790 edition took new scholarly strides in assessing the evidence for interpretive and editorial assumptions.

We also include a few images from a very different 20th-century edition as an interesting comparison and contrast to the 18th-century editions that shows how editorial problems and guesses persist to this day.

Rise of Shakespeare II: Shakespeare's New Texts