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TOPIC: Elizabethan publishing practices

Elizabethan publishing practices 11 years 3 months ago #38

  • William Shakespeare
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A note on Elizabethan publishing practices

Publishing plays in Shakespeare's day was a much different industry than it is today. First, there was no such thing as copywright law, which led to a great deal of piracy. Second, plays were written to be played, not read, and because of the rampant piracy, it was in a theater company's interest to keep the play within the walls of the theater, keeping it as close to its owners at all times, rather than exposing it to theft. Third, publishing a play is expensive.

When things did get published, it was usually in one of two forms, folio, or quarto. A folio is a piece of printing paper folded in half once, forming two leaves, four pages, or a book composed of such pages. A quarto utilized the same sized paper but folded in half twice, creating eight pages. Folios were generally longer books, quartos shorter. English, being a relatively new language, had no standard for spelling, so often you will find the same word spelled three different ways on a single page. Also, typesetting was all done by hand, leading to a number of typographical errors, misreading of hand-written manuscripts, and substitutions for letters (i.e.: if the letter 'w' was particularly popular on a page, and the typsetter ran out of 'w's, he might employ two 'v's--vv).

When you put these things together, you get a lot of variables. Pirates looking to cash in on a popular play might pay actors to recall as many lines as possible from the play, and fill in the blanks themselves. Then take that to the printer, and you get what is known as a 'Bad Quarto.' Or, the theater company might want to cash in on the success of a play and hand the original manuscript (known as 'foul papers') or the playhouse copy (known as 'fair papers') to the printer, and you get what is known as a 'Good Quarto.' Or, the surviving partners in a successful theatrical enterprise wish to publish a collection of their resident playwright's plays, hand whatever they have (foul and fair papers alike) to the printer, and you get a Folio. Perhaps a bad quarto hits the streets, and the company is insulted by the forgery, and corrects it by printing a good quarto, or in today's terms, a second edition. There is the added bonus, of course, that there is no way for us to know for absolute certain what a playwright wrote, what was pirated, what was corrected by the playwright, or what is a combination of all those factors.

Because, of course, this all happened some four hundred years ago. Occasionally, a playwright became popular enough to warrant productions of his plays well after his death. Scholars and producers would emend texts to read as they believed they should, modernizing spelling and punctuation, and changing words they believed to be errors. The folios and quartos would be corrected for typos, and updated, each time getting a little further away from the source. These new and improved copies would then be the basis for the next generation of scholars, and on and on, ad infinitum.

The Shakespeare you read today in the Arden or Penguin (or whatever) editions has been severely edited. Some of the more scholarly texts will give you the differences between their edition and what has come before, but many will not. As a reader, most of these changes are for the better. As a theatrical artist, many of these changes take us further from the authors intent than we might like to go. Since we do not have the original manuscripts, the original published editions are as close as we have to the real thing. It is never a bad idea to look at them for a different take on the text. They might give you a new insight into the play.

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