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Last Updated: Friday, 10 September, 2004, 04:11 GMT 05:11 UK
Shakespearean text lives online
Page from quarto edition of Hamlet
Scholars can see how the text changes across editions
Fans of Shakespeare are getting the chance to thumb through some of the earliest copies of the Bard's plays.

The British Library is putting online 93 high-resolution digitised copies of 21 of Shakespeare's plays.

The texts date from Shakespeare's lifetime and are pamphlet editions of plays prepared to be sold after performances had finished.

The printed works show how the text evolved and cast doubt on the idea of definitive versions of his plays.

Textual history

"The quartos were cheaply produced and would have been available for as little as sixpence," said Moira Goff, head of British Collections 1501-1800 at the British Library.

Henry IV Part 1
Henry IV Part 2
Henry V
Henry VI Parts 2&3
Henry VI Part 3
King Lear
Love's Labour's Lost
The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Richard II
Richard III
Romeo and Juliet
The Taming of the Shrew
Titus Andronicus
Troilus and Cressida
The Two Noble Kinsman
As such the editions were prepared during Shakespeare's life and they are likely to be more authentic versions of the plays than the First Folio editions that were published seven years after the Bard's death in 1616.

The texts of the plays are thought to be the closest versions to the way that the plays were actually written and performed.

"Given that Shakespeare left no manuscripts behind, the quartos are as close as we are able to get to what he actually wrote," said Ms Goff.

"They take us behind the First Folio and different quarto versions of the plays provide clues to Shakespeare's own revisions of his works."

Copy control

The quarto editions are thought to be Shakespeare's working drafts, copies for rehearsals or records of versions remembered by actors.

Quartos were not produced in large numbers because they were not very popular or profitable.

Detail of quarto page, British Library
Many pages have contemporary annotations
Many of the quartos featured in the online collection are from collections amassed by King George III and 18th century actor David Garrick.

The different versions of plays show that some of the most famous lines in the Shakespearean canon changed from one performance to another.

For instance Hamlet's famous line: "To be, or not to be, that is the question" appears in a quarto from 1605. However in an earlier edition produced in 1603 it is written as: "To be, or not to be, I there's the point".

The 21 plays featured on the website include many of Shakespeare's best known works including King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, Love's Labours Lost, Romeo and Juliet and Othello.

Accompanying the online collection is background material, essays by Shakespearean scholars, commentaries, images and sound clips.

Tools on the site allow scholars to compare different versions of the same play to track textual changes.

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