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  • Writer's pictureKirk Jenkins

Bad Quarto, Naughty Quarto!!

It’s been said that three individuals have been the subject of more books than anyone else in history: Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare.[1]

Okay, so after all these books: how many plays did William Shakespeare write – either solo, as part of a team of playwrights or as what Hollywood would today call a “script doctor” – in his career?

Or another question: read me the entire text of a Shakespeare play. Not what it says in your copy of the Complete Works – what Shakespeare’s final manuscript would say, if we had any (which we don’t).[2]

Here are the answers. (1) We don’t know; and (2) we don’t know.

This may seem strange, given that Shakespeare’s been dead for over 400 years and has been, shall we say, rather exhaustively studied.

I had intended to make this first post a summary of the first play Shakespeare ever wrote, which at least according to the New Oxford Shakespeare – although others disagree – was Two Gentlemen of Verona.

But even that’s a problem. See, there are roughly a dozen plays out there which were definitely performed and in most cases published in the late 1580s and early 1590s. The majority opinion in the scholarly world says they all are written by “Anonymous.”[3] The theory goes that Shakespeare shamelessly helped himself to them all,[4] made more-or-less extensive changes, and then put them on as his own work.

And we ain’t talkin’ Cymbeline here. The list includes King Lear, Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew.

There are a lot of problems with this theory. Starting with the fact that, at least as far as I know, there’s no contemporary evidence of anybody, either publicly or privately, calling Shakespeare out as having plagiarized some of his best plays.

And it’s not like Shakespeare was exactly immune during his career from allegations of plagiarism from his competitors.

And not only did nobody breathe the “P Word” at the time in relation to these specific plays – there are at least a few contemporary editions of the Anonymous plays with an author listed: William Shakespeare.

Thus the minority theory: maybe all these people knew what they were talking about and the Anonymous plays were earlier versions written by Shakespeare himself of the canon plays we know from the First Folio.

Ah, but even then there’s a problem. All of these plays differ considerably from what we find in the First Folio. So what are they, anyway?

Which brings us to the controversial subject of “memorial reconstruction.” Some argue – some scholars even label the question “settled” – that somebody, maybe an actor, maybe an audience member – went to the publisher and essentially dictated these versions from memory. In other words, what we would call today “pirated” copies.

Given the texts of most of these plays, make that very shaky memory.[5]

The minority in this debate argues that there’s zero contemporary evidence supporting memorial reconstruction.[6] Some point to a comment in the First Folio preface materials about the public being abused with pirated versions of the plays – but others point out that the First Folio was published in 1623, and these versions were coming out in the late 1580s and early 1590s – before a lot of people buying expensive books in 1623 were born (remember, this is Elizabethan life span we’re talkin’ about).

And then there’s a more practical issue. Cheap quartos – in modern terms, basically cheap paperbacks – were openly sold at the booksellers’ stalls in heavily trafficked parts of London. We know from his plays that Shakespeare read voraciously, and thus, although we’ve only tentatively identified a small number of volumes from it, he must have owned at least a small library. So wouldn’t he have seen these quartos on sale – some with his name on them – and been, shall we say, just a wee bit perturbed – unless he knew he’d written them himself?

So, even though, to my knowledge, there are no performances of any of these versions preserved on DVDs – and thus, we can’t transition to reviews once we look at the plays – let’s start with Mr. (or Ms. – wouldn’t that be cool?) Anonymous’ work. We begin next time with Thomas of Woodstock, which was performed as early as 1582. Or as some scholars in the minority camp call it - Richard II, Part 1.


[1] Personally, I’m not sure how you’d even go about computing such a thing, but that’s what I’ve heard anyhow.

[2] Well, sort of. Several handwriting experts have concluded that a short manuscript of a scene from the apocryphal play Sir Thomas More is in Shakespeare’s handwriting. Others insist that one or more of the apocryphal plays survive in Shakespeare’s handwriting. At least a few experts have argued that Shakespeare’s will was handwritten by the Bard himself. But with the possible exception of the Sir Thomas More excerpt, it’s probably fair to say that none of these three is a majority view in the scholarly community.

[3] Prolific writer. A solid majority of the plays performed during the Elizabethan and Jacobean era were by the “Anonymous” person.

[4] What’s the old expression – “hacks steal, geniuses borrow as a homage to another artist”?

[5] Pirated versions of Shakespeare’s plays are called in the scholarship “bad quartos.”

[6] The preeminent scholar, it seems to me, in the minority camp is probably the late Eric Sams, see particularly his books The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594, and the posthumously published The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Later Years, 1594-1616, which is available here:

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