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Who was William Shakespeare?

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, in 1564. Very little is known about his life, but by 1592 he was in London working as an actor and a dramatist. Between about 1590 and 1613, Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays and collaborated on several more. Many of these plays were very successful both at court and in the public playhouses. In 1613, Shakespeare retired from the theatre and returned to Stratford-upon-Avon. He died and was buried there in 1616.

What did he write?

Shakespeare wrote plays and poems. His plays were comedies, histories and tragedies. His 17 comedies include A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Among his 10 history plays are Henry V and Richard III. The most famous among his 10 tragedies are Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. Shakespeare’s best-known poems are The Sonnets, first published in 1609.

What are the quartos?

Shakespeare’s plays began to be printed in 1594, probably with his tragedy Titus Andronicus. This appeared as a small, cheap pamphlet called a quarto because of the way it was printed. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays had appeared in quarto editions by the time of his death in 1616. Another three plays were printed in quarto before 1642. In 1623 an expensive folio volume of 36 plays by Shakespeare was printed, which included most of those printed in quarto.

Why are the quartos important?

None of Shakespeare’s manuscripts survives, so the printed texts of his plays are our only source for what he originally wrote. The quarto editions are the texts closest to Shakespeare’s time. Some are thought to preserve either his working drafts (his foul papers) or his fair copies. Others are thought to record versions remembered by actors who performed the plays, providing information about staging practices in Shakespeare’s day.

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Quotation in context

“To be, or not to be, that is the question”

Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 1

In the first “bad” quarto of 1603 reads

Quote from Quarto of 1603

'To be, or not to be, I there’s the point'

In the second “good” quarto of 1605 reads

Quote from Quarto of 1605

'To be, or not to be, that is the question'

Compare the two copies

Background on William Shakespeare's life and works

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