Over the past several years in cooperation with the world’s greatest libraries, Octavo has digitally photographed most of the existing early quarto editions of William Shakespeare’s plays and poems, as well as the quarto editions of plays such as The Yorkshire Tragedy once considered part of the Shakespeare canon.
Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during the poet’s lifetime, appearing separately in editions called quartos. These small books, about the size of a modern paperback, were sold unbound for a few pence. The quartos vary widely in bibliographical and textual significance, and in textual quality. The quarto editions of Shakespeare’s two narrative poems— Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594 —are unusually error-free, suggesting the author’s engagement with their printing. But Shakespeare himself was probably not involved in seeing the quarto editions of the plays through the press, since the texts are marked by numerous compositorial and proofreading errors that an attentive author would wish to correct. Despite this apparent lack of authorial interest, scholars have realized since the late-eighteenth century that, for many of the plays, the quarto prints the most authoritative text of the play. Indeed, several of the texts collected in the 1623 volume, Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies –commonly known as the First Folio--merely reprint the text found in the earlier quarto.
Because of the unique attention that Shakespeare’s work commands, digital reproduction of each surviving early quarto is an important contribution to the body of textual and bibliographical knowledge. This site makes these editions available to anyone who wishes to read the earliest printed form of Shakespeare’s work.