Curious person: Hey, you’re the dramaturg, right? That means you answer questions?
Dramaturg: To the best of my ability.
CP: So, what is a “bad quarto” anyways?
D: A “bad quarto” is what some scholars call the early printings of plays by Shakespeare and other writers in his time.
CP: Okay, but what makes them bad?
D: Well, they don’t fit neatly into the simplest progression of a play from the Author’s mind to the printed playbook, and people don’t agree where they come from.
CP: How do plays usually get printed?
D: The simplest story is that the author writes out the play, and it’s copied by a scribe with nice handwriting and that copy is called “the fair copy” and it is what a playing company would buy. Maybe they’d use it as the prompt book, maybe they’d make another copy, but if later they decided to get the play printed they could take that same copy to the printers and it would get printed. There’s still some room for error in this very simple story (at least one scribe copying, and the typesetter laying type) but it seems to be a pretty clear progression.
CP: But that’s not the whole story? Why not?
D: Well, sometimes plays got printed many times. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays were published after his death in The First Folio, a big impressive volume, but many were published earlier as Quartos, smaller, less expensive books with just one play each.
CP: Like today, you can get a big Complete Works of Shakespeare or a little copy of Romeo and Juliet for your English class.
D: Yeah, except some of the quartos were pretty different from the Folio.
CP: Different, how?
D: Some Quartos are much shorter than the Folio versions, some have different character names, the scenes could be in a different order, or the words are just different. The titles are sometimes a little different, or some of the plays we think were written by Shakespeare don’t have his name on them in the original printing.
CP: That seems like a lot more than copying errors! How did they get so different?
D: There are three answers scholars typically give to this question. The first is that the “Bad quartos” are pirated copies; audience members transcribed the plays as they watched them and then sold their faulty versions to printers before there were legitimate published versions of the plays.
CP: Like when people record movies in theaters on their phones? It’s an awful version of the film, but it’s good enough till it’s available on DVD or whatever?
D: Same old piracy idea. Except people transcribing are gonna make a lot more mistakes than the video on your phone. The second typical answer to the question of where all the differences came from is that the actors sold their parts.
CP: But in Shakespeare’s theater the actors didn’t get the whole play, right?
D: The actors only had what we call “cue scripts.” The company would probably have one full copy of the play, that fair copy, that they’d use for prompting. But the actors wouldn’t get that whole book. Their part would have their lines and their cues and nothing more, so if an actor sell his script to a publisher, he would have to write out everything else in the play from memory. This theory is called “memorial reconstruction” and it’s also a common explanation of why there are so many differences or “mistakes” in the early quartos.
CP: So what’s the last explanation?
D: The last explanation is the biggest and messiest, and it that the early quartos show an earlier (or later, or just different) version of the plays. Usually people think it’s an another version by the same author, but that doesn’t need to be the case. With the Anonymous Taming of A Shrew, we’re not even sure if it was written by Shakespeare or if Shakespeare based his play The Taming of THE Shrew on it or vica versa.
CP: Is that possible? Would Shakespeare write a different version of someone else’s play that was already doing well elsewhere?
D: Totally. Shakespeare almost certainly did this with The Famous Victories of Henry V, an anonymous earlier play, and John Fletcher wrote a sequel to one or both of the Shrew plays called The Tamer Tamed. Copyright was a more flexible thing in that century, but the same sort of thing happens even today. Think about the themes in kids movies. Disney makes fairytale movies, Dreamworks makes fairytale satire movies. Dreamworks makes a Scottish-y medieval-y magic-y story with dragons? Pixar makes one with bears. Think Finding Nemo vs. Shark’s Tale, or Antz coming out at the same time as A Bug’s Life.
CP: I still don’t get why they’re called “bad."
D: Well, most of the time the quartos people call “bad” are earlier than other quartos and earlier than the Folio for sure. There’s always been a reason to call the earlier version bad. Think about Lord of the Rings enthusiasts, who have all the DVDs in the extended versions. What do they call the other version of the films? Not the original or theatrical version but something with a little more stigma…
CP: The “unextended version”?
D: Yeah! So it makes sense for those who really love the version of Shakespeare that they’ve read most (based on the late, more “authentic” quartos or the Folio). They’re unfamiliar with these shorter, less noticed, alternative versions, and when they read them suddenly Hamlet is saying “aye there’s the point” instead of “that is the question” and it seems like it’s all wrong, all bad. But scholars today are beginning to embrace the early quartos. Just because these quartos are different than the Shakespeare we are most familiar with, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking at them. If anything, the bad quartos are an opportunity, an undiscovered country in performance and scholarly opportunities.If you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below! I’ll answer them in a future post.