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 The history of the publication of William Shakespeare's Plays and Poems.

  Use our Fact Sheet for the dates, publishers, printers and  background  to the publication of the Folios  and Quartos.

For a list of the published Quartos

For a list of the published Folio plays 

The Publication of William Shakespeare's Plays and Poems

Shakespeare's works were originally published as single volume Quartos (which were printed on both sides of large sheets of paper and then folded twice and bound, making them small and easier to hold volumes approximately 25-30cm high), Octavos (as the Quartos but folded three times making a smaller volume 20-25cm high), and later as Folios (larger, picture book sized volumes, 30-38cm high).

As a member of the company, Shakespeare would have given copies of the plays to the Lord Chamberlain's Men and later the King's Men. These would be rough versions of the text and are often called 'Foul Papers', what we would now probably call a 'first draft'. Also, Elizabethan writers would often provide the company with a Prompt Book which would contain stage directions. Prior to printing, a 'Fair Copy' or clear handwritten version would be produced by a scribe to ensure the printers could set the type correctly. In the Elizabethan world, there was no copyright over intellectual property, such as plays. Because the income of the theatre company relied on attendance or box office, and the King's Men wanted to make sure no other companies would perform the plays, most scripts would not be printed until after they were produced, ensuring the financial gain from the script would go to the playwright and actors first. However, there was great rivalry between theatre companies and some rival troupes would steal or otherwise obtain the texts and produce them or sell them to the printers. Once published, the copyright of the plays became the property of the printers. 

The publication of playscripts was given a boost when Ben Jonson defied convention and published his complete works in 1616. Shakespeare is thought to have been among the playwrights of the time who mocked and criticised Jonson's pretensions to produce a collected 'workes' in a large folio volume, but Jonson set in motion the idea that playscripts were literary works. 

Rights to Shakespeare's plays were owned by the theatre company the King's Men, so as a shareholder Shakespeare would earn very little from publication. Eighteen of Shakespeare's plays were published in Quarto versions prior to 1623. The cost of a copy of a quarto edition was six pennies.

The First Folio - 1623

John Hemminge and Henry Condell were two of Shakespeare's colleagues from the King's Men. In his will, Shakespeare named 'my fellowes John Hemynges Richard Burbage & Henry Cundell' and left them 26 shillings 8d 'to buy them ringes.'  Seven years later, it was Hemminge and Condell who compiled and edited 36 plays, using Shakespeare's manuscripts, actors' sheets and prompt books. The 907 page edition of the First Folio was published by Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount as 'Mr William Shakespeare Comedies Histories & Tragedies published according to the true original copies'. They prefaced the folio with 'We have but collected them, and done an office to the dead...without ambition either of self-profit or fame, only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare...' Copies of the First Folio cost around one pound each. Ben Jonson in a poem published in the Folio called Shakespeare 'the Soul of the Age'.

The Second Folio - 1632 

Published by Robert Allot, William Aspley, Richard Hawkins, Richard Meighen and John Smethwick.

The Third Folio - 1663 

Published by Philip Chetwinde, in 1664 it was republished with the addition of seven new plays, of which only Pericles is now considered authentically Shakespeare.

The Fourth Folio - 1685 

A reprinting of the Third Folio with 43 plays and published by Bentley, Brewster, Chiswell and Herringman.   

The Complete Works

Nicholas Rowe published an edition of Shakespeare's Complete Works in 1709 which contained 43 plays as from the Fourth Folio. Subsequent editions have removed and added plays (most notably The Two Noble Kinsmen and Edward III), modernised the spelling and punctuations and added extensive stage directions.

The Poems

Unlike the quarto editions of the plays, Shakespeare's poems had been very marketable prior to his death.

In 1593 Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis. Of all his works printed in his lifetime, this was the most financially successful, with nine quarto editions printed. This was followed the next year with the printing of The Rape of Lucrece.

Shakespeare's Sonnets was publised in 1609.

Shakespeare's Collected Poems was published in 1640 by John Benson.