Early Shakespeare sources: a guide for academic researchers. Part 1: manuscript and early print sources for Shakespeare's works

Adrian S Edwards surveys the 16th- and 17th-century sources for Shakespeare’s works – the few surviving pages of Shakespearean manuscript, the quarto editions of his plays and poems, and the large folio editions of his collected works – and gives an overview of the British Library’s holdings.


Surviving copies of the earliest printed editions of Shakespeare’s plays and poems are today dispersed across the world. A handful of institutions however have particularly good collections, the British Library among them. The Library is also home to the only manuscript play script to include sections written by the man himself. This article explores the editions that survive from Shakespeare’s time, surveys the copies held in the British Library today, and considers how they found their way into the UK’s national library. It also identifies the collectors who once owned them, including a king, an actor and several scholars. It is based primarily on an examination of the surviving 16th- and 17th-century books themselves.

Scarcity of manuscript sources

Shakespeare’s writing constitutes a pivotal role in the development of English literature and language. It is therefore surprising to discover how few examples of his handwriting survive. Most academics agree that only one substantial piece of text written in his own hand has so far come to light. This is a short section in the sole surviving script for a play by Anthony Munday called Sir Thomas More, which is held at the British Library.[1] It appears that Shakespeare, along with others, helped to revise the text, and researchers have identified three pages that they are confident contain his handwriting.[2] Aside from this manuscript, the only other proven examples of his handwriting are six signatures, one of which – on a 1613 mortgage deed for an apartment in Blackfriars Gatehouse – is also at the British Library.[3] A wide range of manuscript and archival sources relating more broadly to Shakespeare’s life and times have however been tracked down. The international project Records of Early English Drama is the primary focus for this work, seeking to locate, transcribe, edit and publish relevant sources created from the Middle Ages to 1642.

The Book of Sir Thomas More: Shakespeare's only surviving literary manuscript

Shakespeare's handwriting in The Book of Sir Thomas More

Harley MS 7368, the only surviving play script to include Shakespeare’s handwriting.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Printing Shakespeare

Given this scarcity of manuscript sources in Shakespeare’s own hand, researchers and performers turn instead to the earliest printed editions. For the plays, there is a particular emphasis on publications issued during his lifetime and in the 25 years after his death. 1642 is the usual watershed date for bibliographers and theatre historians, this being when almost all theatres in London were shut down by the authorities, not to re-open until 18 years later. Shakespeare’s individual plays were first published from 1594 as small, cheap pamphlet editions known as quartos, although one, Henry VI, Part 3, was in fact first issued in an octavo format. Then from 1623 there were also large-sized luxury editions known as folios, which contained 36 or more of his works. In some cases, words, lines or even entire sections vary between these different editions. This variation reflects the lack of authorial input in early modern printing processes, and the range of different manuscript sources used by the printers in creating their texts: working drafts, promptbooks, fair copies, transcripts, or even versions set down from memory by members of the cast. There are therefore ‘good quartos’ and ‘bad quartos’, the former thought to more accurately represent the lines as composed by Shakespeare himself.

All the editions were printed in London, reflecting the city’s centrality in the nation’s book trade. Publishing rights to individual texts were acquired from the outset by a range of different printers, publishers and booksellers (all members of the Worshipful Company of Stationers), who then traded these rights over time. Some editions were issued without the relevant permissions being in place, and these are known as pirated editions. Examples include The Passionate Pilgrime (1599) and the so-called ‘False Folio’ (1619). It is not certain whether all of Shakespeare’s works were printed at all: besides his contributions to Sir Thomas More, there is evidence for a play called Love’s Labour’s Won, but it is unclear whether this is a lost play or an alternative title for one which we already know.[4]

Published poetry

It was as a poet that Shakespeare first made his mark in print. His two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, were published as quarto editions in 1593 and 1594 respectively. Both stayed in print for several decades: Venus and Adonis was issued in a further 11 editions and variants in his lifetime, and The Rape of Lucrece saw a further five editions and variants. Shakespeare’s name is not supplied on the title page of either work. Both works instead contain a signed dedication from him to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. By the time that the 154 sonnets were issued as a small, collected quarto volume in 1609, Shakespeare’s name had become a draw and the title in fact reads Shake-speares Sonnets.[5] It seems however that the sonnets did not achieve the publishing success of his earlier poetry, as they were not published again until 1640, long after his death, in a collection edited by the bookseller John Jonson (at which point eight were omitted and others altered).

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

By 1609 Shakespeare’s name had become a draw and was included in the title of this book of poems.

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The printing of Shakespeare’s other poetry is less straight forward. ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ is found buried deep within the pages of Robert Chester’s compendium Loves Martyr, published in 1601, where the poem is without a title but is signed.[6] A collected edition called The Passionate Pilgrime, which purports to be ‘By W. Shakespeare’ on its 1599 and 1612 title pages, is not exactly what it claims. Of the 20 poems it contains, only five are accepted to be by Shakespeare: two sonnets, later published as numbers 138 and 144 in the 1609 edition, and three pieces extracted from the play script of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Early quarto editions

The first of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in print the year after Venus and Adonis. Two works, Titus Andronicus and Henry VI, Part 2, cite 1594 as their year of publication on the title page, but experts in the field generally agree that the quarto of Titus came first. Historians surmise that Shakespeare was already a successful playwright by this time, as in 1592 Robert Greene had complained about this ‘upstart crow’.[7] Despite this, Shakespeare’s name does not appear on the title pages of any of his plays until 1598, when it is included in the second quarto editions of Richard II and Richard III. Even after then, a further eight editions issued before he died in 1616 fail to print his name on the title page.

Shakespeare's Collected Poems, 1640

Shakespeare's Collected Poems, 1640

Frontispiece portrait to the Collected Poems. This collection is controversial because Benson reordered the sonnets and changed the gender of one of the addressees.

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18 of Shakespeare’s plays had been published by his death. Many had been published multiple times, giving a total of 46 individual editions and variants issued from 1594 to 1616. However, small changes in printing, such as textual corrections or different places of sale listed on the title page, can mean that bibliographers do not always calculate the number of distinct quarto editions in the same way.[8]

The period between Shakespeare’s death in 1616 and the closure of the London theatres in 1642 is also seen as significant in terms of editions of his plays. This is primarily because there is a continuity of performance and many of his former friends and colleagues were around to provide advice. During this extended period, a further 28 new quarto editions appeared. Within that number were three plays: the first ever printing of Othello (1622) and Two Noble Kinsmen (1634), and the first quarto edition of The Taming of the Shrew (1631), a version of which had appeared in the First Folio of 1623. After 1642, just a couple of new quarto editions were published, and the main focus moves instead to the collected editions in folio format. Cheap, single-play editions do not make their mark again until a flurry of publications are produced by Jacob Tonson and Robert Walker in 1734–35.

Henry VI, Part 3

Henry VI, Part 3

Richard, Duke of Gloucester murders Henry VI. Frontispiece illustration in Jacob Tonson’s 1734 edition of Henry VI, Part 3.

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92 quartos issued before 1642 are held at the British Library. These represent 21 plays and around 84% of all the editions and variants that were produced. Digitised copies are available on Shakespeare in Quarto, an online resource that brings together 107 facsimiles generated from originals in five British and American libraries. The site is also a source for individual shelfmarks and provenance information relating to the quartos held at the British Library.

Folios and the ‘False Folio’

In 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, the playwright Ben Jonson oversaw the publication of a single-volume collected edition of his own plays, poems, masques and other ‘entertainments’, using the largest commercially available format of book, known as a folio. This was an innovation as, up until that point, the luxury folio format had been reserved for more serious works (such as legal texts or classical histories), and wasn’t used for popular, contemporary drama. Seven years later, and perhaps inspired by Jonson’s precedent, two of Shakespeare’s former colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, worked with London printer-publishers Edward Blount, William Jaggard and his son Isaac to produce a collected edition of his plays. This large folio first edition of 1623 is now popularly known as the Shakespeare First Folio. Martin Droeshout’s title page portrait of the playwright has helped this publication become one of the best known and most collectable books in the English-speaking world.

The volume contains texts of the 36 plays now generally accepted as being wholly or in part by Shakespeare. 14 had already been published as quartos during the previous three decades, although in some instances the texts vary to one degree or another (as with Hamlet, Othello and King Lear). Pericles was omitted, despite having been published before, but another 18 appeared for the first time. If it wasn’t for the efforts of the compilers, plays such as Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and The Tempest might not be known today. The opportunity to publish Cardenio, Sir Thomas More and Love’s Labour’s Won (if it existed) was not taken. And at no point were any of Shakespeare’s poetical works ever included. Three distinct variants of the First Folio exist. These reflect changes made while printing was in progress, and generally arise from the late addition of Troilus and Cressida. There are also variations in the detail of Droeshout’s title page portrait of Shakespeare.[9]

Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare's First Folio - title page and introduction by Ben Johnson

The first collected edition of the works of Shakespeare was printed in the larger and more prestigious folio format.

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Held by© British Library

The First Folio was followed in 1632 by a new edition described as ‘The second Impression’, but generally known today as the Shakespeare Second Folio. It was published by Robert Allot in collaboration with four others, printed by Thomas Coates, and sold at several different bookshops across the city. A range of slightly different title pages was created to reflect this. The volume contains the same 36 plays as the First Folio, but with some 1,700 linguistic changes and the addition of an unsigned poem by John Milton.

The story of the Third Folio is less straight forward. A first version appeared in 1663, published by Philip Chetwinde with essentially the same content as the Second Folio. The following year, however, Chetwinde published an expanded version incorporating a further seven plays.[10] Only one of these additions, Pericles, is generally accepted today as being by Shakespeare. All seven, however, had previously been published as quartos with Shakespeare’s name on the title page. Two Noble Kinsmen is still not included, despite having been printed as a quarto edition in 1634, credited to Shakespeare and John Fletcher on the title page. The fourth and final folio contains the same 43 plays as the enlarged Third Folio and appeared in 1685; three versions exist with slightly different imprints.

In addition to these genuine Shakespeare folios, bibliographers frequently refer to the ‘False Folio’. This is a series of ten plays printed in a particularly large quarto format by William Jaggard in 1619, with the option of presenting them as a single bound collected edition. Two of the plays are no longer thought to be by Shakespeare, and Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3 are brought together under the title The Whole Contention Between the Two Famous Houses, Lancaster and York. Each of the ten plays was given its own title page, some stating 1619, others with earlier false dates. The only surviving set of the False Folio plays still bound together is at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. Copies of the constituent parts are however held in several other collections, where they are generally treated the same as regular quarto editions.


[1] The Booke of Sir Thomas More (c. 1601–04), at Harley MS 7368.

[2] Edward Maude Thompson, Shakespeare’s Handwriting (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1916), p. 39. See also Sir Thomas More, ed. by John Jowett, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 2011).

[3] Egerton MS 1787. The other signatures are at the National Archives in London (one on a legal deposition of 1612 and three on his will) and at the London Metropolitan Archives (on another Blackfriars Gatehouse document of 1613). The signature in the Library’s copy of Montaigne’s Essays (1603) at C.21.d.20 is accepted as a fake.

[4] Love’s Labour’s Won is listed in Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (London: P. Short, 1598), p. 282, and in a 1603 inventory of the stationer Christopher Hunt, which is now at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign [Pre-1640 MS 153(1)].

[5] Shake-speares Sonnets was issued in two variants, reflecting the fact that copies were licensed to be sold equally by two booksellers. Besides the sonnets, the volume also contains the 47-line poem ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ on the final 11 pages.

[6] Robert Chester, Loves Martyr: or, Rosalins Complaint (London: for E.B., 1601), pp. 170–72. And in another edition of 1611, same page references.

[7] Robert Greene, Greenes, Groats-worth of Witte (London: William Wright, 1592), sig. F1v.

[8] Examples of these small variations can be found among the editions of Pericles. In the two quarto versions of 1609, line 3 on sig. A2r reads ‘Eneer Gower’ and in the other ‘Enter Gower’. In the two quarto versions of 1630, the printer statement on the title-page in one reads ‘Printed by I.N. for R.B. 1630’, whereas the other states ‘Printed by I.N. for R.B. and are to be sould at his shop in Cheapside, at the signe of the Bible. 1630’.

[9] Peter W M Blayney, The First Folio of Shakespeare (Washington DC: Folger Library, 1991), pp. 18–24.

[10] The seven additional plays are: Pericles, The London Prodigall, The History of Thomas Ld Cromwell, Sir John Oldcastle Lord Cobham, The Puritan Widow, A York-shire Tragedy and The Tragedy of Locrine.

Further reading

Adrian S Edwards, Early Shakespeare sources: a guide for academic researchers. Part 2: the British Library’s early Shakespeare collections.

  • Adrian S Edwards
  • Adrian S Edwards is the Head of Printed Heritage Collections at the British Library. He has worked for the Library in a variety of rare books roles since 1990. In recent years he has co-curated major exhibitions on the English language and British comics. Adrian’s research interests focus on the history of the British Library collections, native American linguistics, and the life and work of the 19th-century poet and Romani scholar Charles G Leland.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.