Shakespeare Quartos Archive
The earliest Shakespeare quartos are over four hundred years old and constitute the rarest, most fragile body of printed literature available to Shakespeare scholars. Sold unbound and often read to pieces, they are among the most ephemeral books of the age and survive in relatively low numbers. In the absence of surviving manuscripts, the quartos offer the earliest known evidence of what Shakespeare might actually have written, and what appeared on the early modern English stage. Only about half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed in quarto during his lifetime (1564–1616), and before the first printed collection of his plays, the First Folio of 1623. They are living artifacts telling the story of how Shakespeare's Hamlet, Henry V, King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Romeo and Juliet, to name just a few, first circulated in print. Scholars, teachers, editors, and theatre directors, therefore, seek to examine these books for historical evidence and for significant variations in text. Over the centuries, generations of collectors have held these unassuming treasures in private collections, then donated or sold them to public institutions, rare book libraries, or other individuals. This pattern of trade over four centuries has dispersed the body of Shakespeare quartos all over the world. Due to their rarity and fragility, the earliest quartos are often not accessible to those who need to study them.