Bad quarto

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Hamlet Q1 (1603), the first published text of Hamlet, is often described as a "bad quarto".

In Shakespearean scholarship, a bad quarto (or pirated quarto) is a quarto-sized book that may be unreliable or contain more errors than other versions of the text.

Origins of the Bad Quarto theory[edit]

A basic axiom of palaeography is that the earliest texts in a line of transmission are to be favored over later texts. In the copying of manuscripts, the earliest texts will have the fewest scribal errors and be closest to the author's original intent; the later a text is, the worse it generally is. As bibliography evolved out of palaeography, it was influenced by the same heuristic, which clearly does apply in some cases. (From the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, the plays of Shakespeare were performed in adaptations that varied widely, even wildly, from their creator's intent, while the older texts gave a much better representation of authorial intention.) The mechanical process of printing, however, complicates this axiom; subsequent printings of a given work plainly do allow for the correction of typographical and other errors, and also for authorial revisions, so that later texts can provide a better delivery of the author's meaning.

Comparison of the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy in the first three editions of Hamlet

For Shakespeare, the First Folio of 1623 is the crucial document; of the thirty-six plays contained in that collection, eighteen have no other source. The eighteen other plays had been printed — in quarto form with one octavo exception[1] — at least once between 1594 and 1623; but since the prefatory matter in the First Folio itself warns against the earlier texts, which are termed "stol'n and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors", eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editors of Shakespeare tended to ignore the quarto texts in favor of the Folio.

Gradually, however, it was recognized that the quarto texts varied widely among themselves; some were much better than others. It was the bibliographer Alfred W. Pollard who originated the term "bad quarto" in 1909, to distinguish several texts that he judged significantly corrupt. He focused on four early quartos: Romeo and Juliet (1597), Henry V (1600), The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602) and Hamlet (1603). His reasons for citing these texts as "bad" were that they featured obvious errors, changes in word order, gaps in the sense of the text, jumbled printing of prose as verse and verse as prose, and similar problems.

It was at first suspected that these texts represented shorthand reporting, a practice mentioned by Thomas Heywood:[2] reporters would surreptitiously take down a play's text in shorthand during a performance, thus pirating a popular play for a competing interest. But W. W. Greg and R. C. Rhodes argued instead for an alternative theory: since some of the minor speeches varied less than those of major characters, their hypothesis held that the actors who played those minor roles had reconstructed the play texts from memory — giving an accurate report of the parts they themselves had memorized and played, but a less correct report of the other actors' parts.

The idea caught on among Shakespeare scholars. Peter Alexander added The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (1594) and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York (1595), the earliest versions of Henry VI, Part 2 and Henry VI, Part 3, to the roster of bad quartos; these were previously thought to be source plays for Shakespeare's later versions of the same stories. The concept of the bad quarto was extended to play texts by authors other than Shakespeare, and by the second half of the twentieth century the idea was widely accepted as valid.[3] However, by the end of the century, considerable doubt had been cast on the concept of memorial reconstruction by the work of Laurie Maguire, then at the University of Ottawa.

Criticism and alternate hypotheses[edit]

Some problems remained with the hypothesis, however; the sheep-and-goats division of texts into "good" and "bad" categories was not always easy or elegantly simple. Consider the determination that Q1 of Richard III is a bad quarto, "even though it is an unusually 'good' bad quarto."[4] Alexander himself recognized that the idea of memorial reconstruction did not apply perfectly to the two plays he studied, which possessed problematical features that could not be explained this way. He maintained that the quartos of the two early histories were partial memorial reconstructions.

A few critics — Eric Sams is one example, Hardin Craig another — disputed the entire concept of memorial reconstruction, pointing out that, unlike shorthand reporting, there was no reliable historical evidence that actors ever reconstructed plays from memory. In this skeptical view, memorial reconstruction is purely a modern fiction divorced from any underlying Elizabethan reality. Individual scholars have sometimes favored alternative explanations for variant texts — in some cases, revision.[5] Steven Roy Miller considers a revision hypothesis in preference to a bad-quarto hypothesis for The Taming of a Shrew, the alternative version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.[6]

Robert Burkhart's 1975 study Shakespeare's Bad Quartos: Deliberate Abridgements Designed for Performance by a Reduced Cast provides another alternative to the hypothesis of bad quartos as memorial reconstruction. Other studies have questioned the "orthodox view" on bad quartos, as in David Farley-Hills's work on Romeo and Juliet.

The Maguire study[edit]

In 1996, Laurie Maguire of the Department of English at the University of Ottawa published a study[7] of the concept of memorial reconstruction, based on the analysis of errors made by actors taking part in the BBC TV Shakespeare series, broadcast in the early 1980s. She found that actors typically add, drop or invert single words. However, the larger-scale errors expected if actors were attempting to piece together the plays some time after their performance failed to appear in all but a few of the bad quartos. The study did, however, uncover some circumstantial evidence for memorial reconstruction in the bad quartos of Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Pericles. According to Maguire, virtually all the bad quartos appear to be accurate renditions of original texts that "merit our attention as valid texts in their own right".[8]

Bad quartos of other playwrights[edit]

Though the bad quarto concept originated in reference to Shakespearean texts, scholars have also applied it to a range of non-Shakespearean play texts of the English Renaissance era. In 1938 Leo Kirschbaum published "A Census of Bad Quartos" that included 20 play texts.[9] Laurie Maguire's 1996 study examines 41 Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean editions that have been categorised as bad quartos, including the first editions of Arden of Feversham, The Merry Devil of Edmonton, and Fair Em, plays of the Shakespeare Apocrypha, plus George Chapman's The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and The Massacre at Paris, Part 1 of Heywood's If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, and Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy, among others.[10]


  1. ^ The exception was the 1595 first edition of Henry VI, Part 3, in the version known as The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York; it was an octavo, not a quarto.
  2. ^ In the Prologue to his 1605 play If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody.
  3. ^ Halliday, Shakespeare Companion, p. 49.
  4. ^ Evans, Riverside Shakespeare, p. 754.
  5. ^ Steven Urkowitz has famously argued the hypothesis that King Lear is a revised work, in Shakespeare's Revision of "King Lear." Some scholars have argued that the more challenging plays of the Shakespearean canon, like All's Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida, make sense as works that Shakespeare wrote at one time and later revised.
  6. ^ Miller, pp. 6-33.
  7. ^ Maguire, L. Shakespeare's Suspect Texts: the 'Bad' Quartos and their context Cambridge Univ Press (1996)
  8. ^ Quoted in The Sunday Telegraph 17 March 1996 p12
  9. ^ Maguire, pp. 85-6.
  10. ^ Maguire, pp. 227-321.


  • Alexander, Peter. Shakespeare's Henry VI and Richard III. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1929.
  • Burkhart, Robert E. Shakespeare's Bad Quartos: Deliberate Abridgements Designed for Performance by a Reduced Cast. The Hague, Mouton, 1975.
  • Craig, Hardin. A New Look at Shakespeare's Quartos. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1961.
  • Evans, G. Blakemore, textual editor. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
  • Farley-Hills, David. "The 'Bad' Quarto of Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare Survey 49 (1996), pp. 27–44.
  • Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.
  • Hart, Alfred, "Stolne and Surreptitious Copies: A Comparative Study of Shakespeare's Bad Quartos," Melbourne Univ. Press, 1942 (reprinted Folcroft Library Editions, 1970).
  • Kirschbaum, Leo. "A Census of Bad Quartos." Review of English Studies 14:53 (January 1938), pp. 20–43.
  • Maguire, Laurie E. Shakespearean Suspect Texts: The "Bad" Quartos and Their Contexts. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Miller, Steven Roy, ed. The Taming of a Shrew: the 1594 Quarto. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Pollard, Alfred W. Shakespeare Folios and Quartos. London, Methuen, 1909.
  • Rhodes, R. C. Shakespeare's First Folio. Oxford, Blackwell, 1923.
  • Urkowitz, Steven. Shakespeare's Revision of "King Lear." Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1980.