Bad quarto

Hamlet Q1 (1603), the first published text of Hamlet, is often described as a "bad quarto".

In Shakespearean scholarship, a bad quarto is a quarto-sized publication of one of Shakespeare’s plays that is considered spurious, that was pirated from a theatre without permission by someone in the audience writing it down as it was spoken. Or it would be written down later by an actor or group of actors, which, according to the theory, has been termed “memorial reconstruction”. In this way the quarto derives from performance, and since it lacks a direct link to the author’s original manuscript, it is a text that would be expected to contain corruptions, abridgments and paraphrasings.[1][2] This is in contrast to a “good quarto”, which is considered to be a text that is authorized; one that may have been printed from the author’s manuscript, or a scribal copy or prompt copy based on the author’s manuscript.[3] "Bad quartos" are considered to include the first quartos of Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Hamlet.[4]

The concept has expanded to include quartos of plays by other Elizabethan authors, including Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar, Greene’s Orlando Furioso, and the collaborative script, Sir Thomas More.[5][6]

The bad quarto theory has been accepted, studied and expanded by many scholars, but there are scholars who do not accept it,[7][8][9][10] and those, such as Eric Sams,[11] who consider the entire theory to be without foundation. Jonathan Bate states that “late twentieth- and early twenty-first century scholars have begun to question the whole edifice.”[12]

Origins of the Bad Quarto theory

The concept of the “Bad Quarto” as a category of text was created by bibliographer Alfred W. Pollard in his book Shakespeare Folios and Quartos (1909). The idea came to him in his reading of the address by the editors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, that appears at the beginning of Shakespeare’s First Folio. This address is titled, “To the Great Variety of Readers.” In this address Heminges and Condell refer to “diuerse stolne, and surreptitious copies” of the plays. It had been thought that that reference was generally to quarto editions of the plays. Pollard, however, claims that Heminges and Condell meant to refer only to “bad” quartos, and Pollard lists as “bad” the first quartos of Romeo and Juliet (1597), Henry V (1600), The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602), Hamlet (1603), and Pericles (1609). Pollard points out that the texts contained “badness”, but also that there was badness in those who pirated the plays.[13]

The scholar W. W. Greg, worked closely with Pollard; he published the bad quarto of The Merry Wives of Windsor,[14] which is a work that is significant in the history of the “bad quarto” theory. In that book, Greg describes how he thinks the text may have been copied, and identifies the actor who played the role of “Host” as the culprit, and Greg gives the process the actor perhaps used the term “memorial reconstruction,” a phrase that has been taken on by other scholars.[15][16]

Comparison of the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy in the first three editions of Hamlet

For Shakespeare, the First Folio of 1623 is the crucial document; of the thirty-six plays contained in that collection, eighteen have no other source. The eighteen other plays had been printed in quarto form at least once between 1594 and 1623; but since the prefatory matter in the First Folio itself warns against earlier texts, which are termed "stol'n and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors", eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editors of Shakespeare tended to ignore the quarto texts in favor of the Folio.

It was at first suspected that the bad quarto texts represented shorthand reporting, a practice mentioned by Thomas Heywood:[17] reporters would surreptitiously take down a play's text in shorthand during a performance, thus pirating a popular play for a competing interest. But W. W. Greg and R. C. Rhodes argued instead for an alternative theory: since some of the minor speeches varied less than those of major characters, their hypothesis held that the actors who played those minor roles had reconstructed the play texts from memory — giving an accurate report of the parts they themselves had memorized and played, but a less correct report of the other actors' parts.

The idea caught on among Shakespeare scholars. Peter Alexander added The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (1594) and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York (1595), the earliest versions of Henry VI, Part 2 and Henry VI, Part 3, to the roster of bad quartos; these were previously thought to be source plays for Shakespeare's later versions of the same stories. The concept of the bad quarto was extended to play texts by authors other than Shakespeare, and by the second half of the twentieth century the idea was widely being used.[18] However, by the end of the century, considerable doubt had been cast on the concept of memorial reconstruction by the work of Laurie Maguire, then at the University of Ottawa.

Criticism and alternate hypotheses

Some problems exist with the bad quarto hypothesis. The first quarto of Richard III is considered a bad quarto, "even though it is an unusually 'good' bad quarto."[19] Alexander himself recognized that the idea of memorial reconstruction did not apply perfectly to the two plays he studied, which possessed problematical features that could not be explained this way. He maintained that the quartos of the two early histories were partial memorial reconstructions.

Some critics, including Eric Sams and Hardin Craig, dispute the entire concept of memorial reconstruction, pointing out that, unlike shorthand reporting, there was no reliable historical evidence that actors reconstructed plays from memory. In this view, memorial reconstruction is a modern fiction. Individual scholars have sometimes favored alternative explanations for variant texts—in some cases, revision.[20] Steven Roy Miller considers a revision hypothesis in preference to a bad-quarto hypothesis for The Taming of a Shrew, the alternative version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.[21]

Robert Burkhart's 1975 study Shakespeare's Bad Quartos: Deliberate Abridgements Designed for Performance by a Reduced Cast provides another alternative to the hypothesis of bad quartos as memorial reconstruction. Other studies have questioned the "orthodox view" on bad quartos, as in David Farley-Hills's work on Romeo and Juliet.

The Maguire study

In 1996, Laurie Maguire of the Department of English at the University of Ottawa published a study[22] of the concept of memorial reconstruction, based on the analysis of errors made by actors taking part in the BBC TV Shakespeare series, broadcast in the early 1980s. She found that actors typically add, drop or invert single words. However, the larger-scale errors expected if actors were attempting to piece together the plays some time after their performance failed to appear in all but a few of the bad quartos. The study did, however, uncover some circumstantial evidence for memorial reconstruction in the bad quartos of Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Pericles. According to Maguire, virtually all the bad quartos appear to be accurate renditions of original texts that "merit our attention as valid texts in their own right".[23]

Bad quartos of other playwrights

Though the bad quarto concept originated in reference to Shakespearean texts, scholars have also applied it to non-Shakespearean play texts of the English Renaissance era. In 1938 Leo Kirschbaum published "A Census of Bad Quartos" that included 20 play texts.[24] Laurie Maguire's 1996 study examines 41 Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean editions that have been categorised as bad quartos, including the first editions of Arden of Feversham, The Merry Devil of Edmonton, and Fair Em, plays of the Shakespeare Apocrypha, plus George Chapman's The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and The Massacre at Paris, Part 1 of Heywood's If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, and Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy, among others.[25]


  1. Jenkins, Harold. “Introduction”. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Arden Shakespeare (1982) ISBN 1-903436-67-2. page 19.
  2. Duthie, George Ian. “Introduction; the good and bad quartos”. The Bad Quarto of Hamlet. CUP Archive (1941). pp. 1 — 4
  3. Duthie, George Ian. “Introduction; the good and bad quartos”. The Bad Quarto of Hamlet. CUP Archive (1941). pp. 5 — 9
  4. Duthie, George Ian. “Introduction; the good and bad quartos”. The Bad Quarto of Hamlet. CUP Archive (1941). pp. 1 — 4
  5. Erne, Lukas. Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist. Cambridge University Press. (2013) ISBN 9781107029651 p. 223
  6. Maguire, Laurie E. Shakespearean Suspect Texts: The 'Bad' Quartos and Their Contexts. Cambridge University Press (1996). ISBN 9780521473644 p. 79
  7. Irace, Kathleen. Reforming the "bad" Quartos: Performance and Provenance of Six Shakespearean First Editions. University of Delaware Press (1994) ISBN 9780874134711 p. 14.
  8. Richmond, Hugh Macrae. Shakespeare’s Theatre: A Dictionary of His Stage Context. Continuum (2002) ISBN 0 8264 77763. p. 58
  9. Jolly, Margrethe. The First Two Quartos of Hamlet: A New View of the Origins and Relationship of the Texts. McFarland (2014) ISBN 9780786478873
  10. McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents. Macmillan (2001) ISBN 9780312248802 p. 203
  11. Sams, Eric. The Real Shakespeare; Retrieving the Early Years, 1564 — 1594. Meridian (1995) ISBN 0-300-07282-1
  12. Bate, Jonathan. "The Case for the Folio". (2007)
  13. De Grazia, Margreta. “The essential Shakespeare and the material book.” Orgel, Stephe and others, editors. Shakespeare and the Literary Tradition. Courier Corporation (1999) ISBN 9780815329671. page 51.
  14. Greg, W. W. editor. Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, 1602. Oxford; At the Clarendon Press (1910)
  15. Pollard, Alfred W. Shakespeare folios and quartos: a study in the bibliography of Shakespeare's plays, 1594–1685. University of Michigan Library (1909).
  16. Erne, Lukas. Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist. Cambridge University Press (2013) ISBN 9781107029651. p. 221
  17. In the Prologue to his 1605 play If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody.
  18. Halliday, Shakespeare Companion, p. 49.
  19. Evans, Riverside Shakespeare, p. 754.
  20. Steven Urkowitz has argued the hypothesis that King Lear is a revised work, in Shakespeare's Revision of "King Lear." Some scholars have argued that the more challenging plays of the Shakespearean canon, like All's Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida, make sense as works that Shakespeare wrote at one time and later revised.
  21. Miller, pp. 6–33.
  22. Maguire, L. Shakespeare's Suspect Texts: the 'Bad' Quartos and their context Cambridge Univ Press (1996)
  23. Quoted in The Sunday Telegraph 17 March 1996 p12
  24. Maguire, pp. 85–6.
  25. Maguire, pp. 227–321.


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