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PUBLICATION OF SHAKESPEARE'S PLAYS

Shakespeare's plays were never published under his guidance. In his day, plays were considered entertainment, not literature; they were part of the popular culture as television is today. When Ben Jonson, another Elizabethan playwright, published his collected Works, he was considered a hopeless egotist!

There was another reason that plays were not printed for general distribution. Plays were the property of the theater company that produced them. A published play was fair game for a rival company. (It was a long time before plagiarism laws and copyrights made play piracy illegal.)


Nonetheless, 18 of Shakespeare's did appear in print while he was alive, proof that he was a very popular writer for the stage. The plays were printed in single editions, known as quartos. Shakespeare didn't supervise the publication of these editions, so it's hard to gauge their accuracy. There were often many versions of a single play, as Shakespeare rewrote during rehearsals and during the run.

After Shakespeare's death, two of his colleagues printed the plays (18) not included in the quarto editions. This collection became known as the First Folio, and although they're considered closer to Shakespeare's original versions, no one knows how closely they resemble Shakespeare's own manuscript. No version of any play in Shakespeare's handwriting exists today.

It's not crucial to know every detail in Shakespeare's plays, nor what scholars surmise he meant by every obscure word (to us, anyway) of difficult passage. You can enjoy the plays anyway. But it's good to keep in mind that there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the plays because no single printed version of any play had Shakespeare's approval. The problems in the texts have puzzled readers for hundreds of years. But the problems are minor compared to the pleasure and enlightenment to be had from Shakespeare's plays.

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