It hardly needs saying that, when we look to see who is behind it all, the balding pate of the favourite son of Stratford-on-Avon quickly comes to the fore. William Shakespeare (1564-1616), unlike his younger contemporary Ben Jonson (1572-1637), seems to have taken no interest at all in the ways and means through which his dramatic writings would be transmitted to posterity. No manuscripts of his texts have survived and his handwriting is known from a few examples of signatures in legal documents. Approximately half the plays in the canon were printed in the author’s lifetime, though not under his control, in quarto editions which today are very rare; after his death, in 1623 his friends published in London the so-called First Folio or a collected edition of thirty-six plays (the only important omission is Pericles), which has generally been taken as the basis for critical editions of the text. His light-hearted attitude has meant countless jobs for the boys (and girls) and, nearly four centuries after his death, Shakespeare textual criticism is a booming industry that takes no account of economic recessions. If anything, the debate has been more intense in the last two decades than at any point in history, with the publication of ‘different’ versions of fundamental texts such as King Lear and Hamlet and of radically new versions of the histories. In this revolution of critical attitudes analytical bibliography has had a considerable part.

But in order to understand the role played by bibliography we have to comprehend the problem of Shakespeare’s text and the objective of the pioneering bibliographers. Contrary to what is often believed about the ‘New Bibliography’, its prime concern has not been just to undertake the study of printing processes, but rather to understand the nature of the ‘copy’ behind the quarto and folio editions. The basic intuition was provided by McKerrow, who noticed a plausible correlation between the state of the texts of Elizabethan-Jacobean theatre and the known practice of the companies of the time; see ‘The Elizabethan Printer and Dramatic Manuscripts’, The Library, s. 4, vol. 12 (1931-32), pp. 253-275 (on the validity of the same, see Paul Werstine, ‘McKerrow’s “suggestion” and Twentieth-century Shakespeare textual criticism’, Renaissance drama, vol. 19 (1989), pp. 149-173; Idem, ‘Narratives about printed Shakespearean texts: “Foul papers” and “bad quartos”’, Shakespeare quarterly, vol. 41 (1990), pp. 65-86). The essential fact was that, after a reading by the author, the company purchased the autograph text, which was recopied to provide a working or prompt-copy, while the original was placed in the theatre archive. When the company chose to publish the text, usually to obviate pirate editions sometimes reconstructed from memory (the so-called ‘bad’ quartos), they had to choose between the prompt-copy and the unused autograph from the archive. Rather than risk having the former destroyed in the printing shop, often they preferred the latter, despite its lesser legibility and the presence of crossings out and corrections which made the task of the compositor harder and probably explain the high percentage of errors in the published text. When Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues came to publish the First Folio, they had access to a wide variety of material, some of it probably autograph. In general, where a previous edition was available, they sent it to the printer, but only after a careful comparison with the versions they had available. Shakespeare philology has therefore sought above all to decide whether the copy given to the printer was the autograph or that of the prompter, and, if contrast between quarto and folio versions appears, what was the relationship between the texts.

The other aspect of Shakespearian bibliography has, more obviously, been the intense scrutiny to which the early editions have been subjected, in particular the First Folio, in order to understand the details of the printing process and the behaviour of the men who set the type and worked at the press. It has to be said that to an outsider some techniques seem nigh to madness in terms of the effort expended in the recovery of minimal items of information. The only reply is that for Shakespeare no effort is too great. Representative texts are:

  • Alfred W. Pollard, Shakespeare Folios and Quartos: A Study in the Bibliography of Shakespeare’s Plays 1594-1685 (London, Methuen, 1909). This book draws attention to several features of the First Folio that become staple fare in successive scholarship, such as running titles that were kept in the skeleton for reuse and evidence for setting by formes, with work beginning from the innermost forme of the gathering. 
  • Edwin Elliot Willoughby, The Printing of the First Folio of Shakespeare (London, Oxford University Press for the Bibliographical Society, 1932). Little known and little used today, this monograph elaborates Pollard’s basic hints in a more systematic fashion.
  • Charlton Hinman, The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1963). No scholar seriously interested in watching analytical bibliography at work, at times in spectacular fashion, can go for long without thumbing through these two considerable tomes. Once again though, people who talk about bibliography rather than study it have managed to give a misleading idea of Hinman and his work (1911-77; see the obituary by Bowers in The Book Collector, vol. 26, 1977, pp. 389-391). Part of the error lies in two contingent facts: first, the huge sums of money spent by the eccentric millionaire and bard idolater, Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930), to assemble a library dedicated wholly to Shakespeare and his works (the outcome, the Folger Shakespeare Library, now exists in Washington a couple of blocks distance from the Senate), including 79 or 80, depending on how one counts certain fragments, copies of the First Folio; second, the construction by Hinman of a machine that bears his name in order to perform a mechanized collation of these exemplars (see § 11 collators). In this way he collated fifty copies of the Folger collection (not, as has sometimes been claimed, all of them), but for little result, since, apart from a page or so in Two Gentlemen of Verona, few significant printing variants were discovered. The very detailed viewing of the text necessary to the collation led however to a series of other findings, including a complete reconstruction of how the First Folio was printed. By observing the movement of characters damaged in a distinctive manner through a succession of formes (vol. 1, pp. 425-461, describes 615 single types in 13,075 appearances), Hinman recognised three different cases of type (called x, y, and z) employed in printing the First Folio and confirmed Pollard’s intuition that setting was excecuted by formes. The fact that inside the First Folio it is possible to identify individual compositors through their idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation patterns was already an accepted feature of Shakespearean scholarship, first suggested by a correspondent to the TLS (Thomas Satchell ‘The Spelling of the First Folio’, Times Literary Supplement, 3 June 1920, p. 352, which recognises in the text of Macbeth the two hands known to later scholarship as Compositor A and Compositor B; cfr. Alice Walker, ‘Compositor Determination and Other Problems in Shakespearean Texts’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 7 (1955), pp. 3-15). Hinman refined the method and took the total of identified hands to five, apportioning the work on the edition between compositors A, B, C, D, and E, who set type for the equivalent of 194, 445, 120, 35½, and 71½ pages of the edition. The true measure of his achievement lies in the fact that, almost forty years later, other Shakespeare scholars have refined his methods but not challenged his parameters nor his basic conclusions. In particular, in parts of the edition where Hinman himself was uncertain whether compositor A or compositor C, who have very similar habits and spelling characteristics, had set the text, others have seen the hands of ghostly journeymen who bear strange names such as F, H, I, and J (a suggestion about the presence of compositor ‘G’ has not been generally accepted). Hinman’s basic spelling test, which distinguished compositor A from compositor B by his preference for doe, goe, here instead of do, go, heere, was based on common words present in almost every page, to which could be added the evidence of less frequent terms such as griefe, traytor, young in the former against greefe, traitor, yong in the latter. Later scholars have not only been able to apply computer-generated concordances to chosen sections of the text, making it much easier to isolate idiosyncratic spellings, but they have also worked on‘psycho-mechanical evidence’ such as the tendency to insert a space before a comma in a short line which distinguishes compositor C from his colleagues, or the preferences manifested regarding upper or lower case in words such as Devil/devil and Heaven/heaven; see in chronological order the following articles: T. H. Howard Hill, ‘The Compositors of Shakespeare’s Folio Comedies’, Studies in Bibliography vol. 26 (1973), pp. 61-106; John O’Connor, ‘Compositors D and F of the Shakespeare First Folio’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 28 (1975), pp. 81-117; Gary Taylor, ‘The Shrinking Compositor A of the Shakespeare First Folio’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 34 (1981), pp. 96-117 (with ample bibliography); Paul Werstine, ‘Cases and Compositors in the Shakespeare First Folio Comedies’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 35 (1982), pp. 206-234.
  • Peter W. M. Blayney, The Texts of ‘King Lear’ and their Origins. Volume I. Nicholas Okes and the First Quarto (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982). Sometimes extreme but always brilliant application of Hinman’s methods, with successive refinements, to the problem of the early editions of King Lear, torment and bane of the ‘New Bibliography’ and already object of a significant monograph by W. W. Greg in 1940. The promised second volume, entitled The Quarto and Folio Texts, still has to appear and there is little hope that it will do so.