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The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Second Edition

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Hailed by The Washington Post as "a definitive synthesis of the best editions" and by The Times of London as "a monument to Shakespearean scholarship," The Oxford Shakespeare is the ultimate anthology of the Bard's work: the most authoritative edition of the plays and poems ever published. Now, almost two decades after the original volume, Oxford is proud to announce a thoroughly updated second edition, including for the first time the texts of The Reign of Edward III and Sir Thomas More, recognizing these two plays officially as authentic works by Shakespeare. This beautiful collection is the product of years of full-time research by a team of British and American scholars and represents the most thorough examination ever undertaken of the nature and authority of Shakespeare's work. The editors reconsidered every detail of the text in the light of modern scholarship and they thoroughly re-examined the earliest printed versions of the plays, firmly establishing the canon and chronological order of composition. All stage directions have been reconsidered in light of original staging, and many new directions for essential action have been added. This superb volume also features a brief introduction to each work as well as an illuminating General Introduction. Finally, the editors have added a wealth of secondary material, including an essay on language, a list of contemporary allusions to Shakespeare, an index of Shakespearean characters, a glossary, a consolidated bibliography, and an index of first lines of the Sonnets. Compiled by the world's leading authorities, packed with information, and attractively designed, The Oxford Shakespeare is the gold standard of Shakespearean anthologies.
Oxford University Press, USA
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Table of Contents


Title Page

Copyright Page










The Two Gentlemen of Verona


The Taming of the Shrew


The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster


The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth


The First Part of Henry the Sixth


The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus


The Tragedy of King Richard the Third


Venus and Adonis


The Rape of Lucrece


The Reign of King Edward the Third


The Comedy of Errors


Love’s Labour’s Lost



The Tragedy of King Richard the Second


The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet


A Midsummer Night’s Dream


The Life and Death of King John


The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice


The History of Henry the Fourth


The Merry Wives of Windsor


The Second Part of Henry the Fourth


Much Ado About Nothing


The Life of Henry the Fifth


The Tragedy of Julius Caesar


As You Like It


The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark


Twelfth Night, or What You Will


Troilus and Cressida



A Lover’s Complaint


Various Poems



The Book of Sir Thomas More


Measure for Measure


The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice


The History of King Lear


The Life of Timon of Athens


The Tragedy of Macbeth


The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra


All’s Well That Ends Well


A Reconstructed Text of Pericles, Prince of Tyre


The Tragedy of Coriolanus


The Winter’s Tale


The Tragedy of King Lear


Cymbeline, King of Britain


The Tempest



All Is True


The Two Noble Kinsmen




Martin Droeshout’s engraving of Shakespeare, first published on the title-page of the First Folio (1623)

To the Reader

This figure that thou here seest put,

It was for gentle Shakespeare cut,

Wherein the graver had a strife

With nature to outdo the life.

O, could he but have drawn his wit

As well in brass as he hath hit

His face, the print would then surpass

All that was ever writ in brass!

But since he cannot, reader, look

Not on his picture, but his book.


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Second edition published 2005

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with a General Introduction, and Introductions to individual works, by


The Complete Works has been edited collaboratively under the General Editorship of Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Each editor has undertaken prime responsibility for certain works, as follows:

STANLEY WELLS The Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Taming of the Shrew; Titus Andronicus; Venus and Adonis; The Rape of Lucrece; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Much Ado About Nothing; As You Like It; Twelfth Night; The Sonnets and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’; Various Poems (printed); Othello; Macbeth; Antony and Cleopatra; The Winter’s Tale

GARY TAYLOR I Henry VI; Richard III; The Comedy of Errors; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Henry V; Hamlet; Troilus and Cressida; Various Poems (manuscript); All’s Well That Ends Well; King Lear; Pericles; Cymbeline

JOHN JOWETT Richard II; Romeo and Juliet; King John; I Henry IV; The Merry Wives of Windsor; 2 Henry IV; Julius Caesar; Sir Thomas More; Measure for Measure; Timon of Athens; Coriolanus; The Tempest

WILLIAM MONTGOMERY The First Part of the Contention; Richard Duke of York; Edward III; The Merchant of Venice; All Is True; The Two Noble Kinsmen

American Advisory Editor · S. Schoenbaum

Textual Adviser · G. R. Proudfoot

Music Adviser · F. W. Sternfeld

Editorial Assistant · Christine Avern-Carr


THE preparation of a volume such as this would be impossible without the generosity that scholars can count on receiving from their colleagues, at home and overseas. Among those to whom we are particularly grateful are: R. E. Alton; John P. Andrews; Peter Beal; Thomas L. Berger; David Bevington; J. W. Binns; Peter W. M. Blayney; Fredson Bowers; A. W. Braunmuller; Alan Brissenden; Susan Brock; J. P. Brockbank; Robert Burchfield; Lou Burnard; Lesley Burnett; John Carey; Janet Clare; Thomas Clayton; T. W. Craik; Norman Davis; Alan Dessen; E. E. Duncan-Jones; K. Duncan-Jones; R. D. Eagleson; Philip Edwards; G. Blakemore Evans; Jean Fuzier; Hans Walter Gabler; Philip Gaskell; A. J. Gurr; Antony Hammond; Richard Hardin; G. R. Hibbard; Myra Hinman; R. V. Holdsworth; E. A. J. Honigmann; T. H. Howard-Hill; MacD. P. Jackson; Harold Jenkins; Charles Johnston; John Kerrigan; Randall McLeod; Nancy Maguire; Giorgio Melchiori; Peter Milward; Kenneth Muir; Stephen Orgel; Kenneth Palmer; John Pitcher; Eleanor Prosser; S. W. Reid; Marvin Spevack; R. K. Turner; E. M. Waith; Michael Warren; R. J. C. Watt; Paul Werstine; G. Walton Williams; Laetitia Yeandle.

We are conscious also of a great debt to the past: to our predecessors R. B. McKerrow and Alice Walker, who did not live to complete an Oxford Shakespeare but whose papers have been of invaluable assistance, and to the long line of editors and other scholars, from Nicholas Rowe onwards, whose work is acknowledged in William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion.

We gratefully acknowledge assistance from the staff of the following libraries and institutions: the Beinecke Library, Yale University; the Birmingham Shakespeare Library; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; the British Library; the English Faculty Library, Oxford; the Folger Shakespeare Library; Lambeth Palace Library; St. John’s College, Cambridge; the Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon; the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham; Trinity College, Cambridge; the Victoria and Albert Museum; Westminster Abbey Library.

Many debts of gratitude have also been incurred to persons employed in a variety of capacities by Oxford University Press. Among those with whom we have worked especially closely are Linda Agerbak, Sue Dommett, Oonagh Ferrier, Paul Luna, Jamie Mackay, Louise Pengelley, Graham Roberts, Maria Tsoutsos, and Patricia Wilkie. John Bell started it all, Kim Scott Walwyn made sure we finished it, and from beginning to end Christine Avern-Carr’s meticulous standards of accuracy have been exemplary.

S.W.W. G.T.

J.J. W.L.M.


THIS volume contains all the known plays and poems of William Shakespeare, a writer, actor, and man of the theatre who lived from 1564 to 1616. He was successful and admired in his own time; major literary figures of the subsequent century, such as John Milton, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope, paid tribute to him, and some of his plays continued to be acted during the later seventeenth and earlier eighteenth centuries; but not until the dawn of Romanticism, in the later part of the eighteenth century, did he come to be looked upon as a universal genius who outshone all his fellows and even, some said, partook of the divine. Since then, no other secular imaginative writer has exerted so great an influence over so large a proportion of the world’s population. Yet Shakespeare’s work is firmly rooted in the circumstances of its conception and development. Its initial success depended entirely on its capacity to please the theatre-goers (and, to a far lesser extent, the readers) of its time; and its later, profound impact is due in great part to that in-built need for constant renewal and adaptation that belongs especially to those works of art that reach full realization only in performance. Shakespeare’s power over generations later than his own has been transmitted in part by artists who have drawn on, interpreted, and restructured his texts as others have drawn on the myths of antiquity; but it is the texts as they were originally performed that are the sources of his power, and that we attempt here to present with as much fidelity to his intentions as the circumstances in which they have been preserved will allow.

Shakespeare’s Life: Stratford-upon-Avon and London

Shakespeare’s background was commonplace. His father, John, was a glover and wool-dealer in the small Midlands market-town of Stratford-upon-Avon who had married Mary Arden, daughter of a prosperous farmer, in or about 1557. During Shakespeare’s childhood his father played a prominent part in local affairs, becoming bailiff (mayor) and justice of the peace in 1568; later his fortunes declined. Of his eight children, four sons and one daughter survived childhood. William, his third child and eldest son, was baptized in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 26 April 1564; his birthday is traditionally celebrated on 23 April—St. George’s Day. The only other member of his family to take up the theatre as a profession was his youngest brother, Edmund, born sixteen years after William. He became an actor and died at the age of twenty-seven: on the last day of 1607 the sexton of St. Saviour‘s, Southwark, noted ‘Edmund Shakspeare A player Buried in ye Church wth a forenoone knell of ye great bell, xxs.’ The high cost of the funeral suggests that it may have been paid for by his prosperous brother.

John Shakespeare’s position in Stratford-upon-Avon would have brought certain privileges to his family. When young William was four years old he could have had the excitement of seeing his father, dressed in furred scarlet robes and wearing the alderman’s official thumb-ring, regularly accompanied by two mace-bearing sergeants in buff, presiding at fairs and markets. A little later, he would have begun to attend a ‘petty school’ to acquire the rudiments of an education that would be continued at the King’s New School, an established grammar school with a well-qualified master, assisted by an usher to help with the younger pupils. We have no lists of the school’s pupils in Shakespeare’s time, but his father’s position would have qualified him to attend, and the school offered the kind of education that lies behind the plays and poems. Its boy pupils, aged from about eight to fifteen, endured an arduous routine. Classes began early in the morning: at six, normally; hours were long, holidays infrequent. Education was centred on Latin; in the upper forms, the speaking of English was forbidden. A scene (4.1) in The Merry Wives of Windsor showing a schoolmaster taking a boy named William through his Latin grammar draws on the officially approved textbook, William Lily’s Short Introduction of Grammar, and, no doubt, on Shakespeare’s memories of his youth.

From grammar the boys progressed to studying works of classical and neo-classical literature. They might read anthologies of Latin sayings and Aesop’s Fables, followed by the fairly easy plays of Terence and Plautus (on whose Menaechmi Shakespeare was to base The Comedy of Errors). They might even act scenes from Latin plays. As they progressed, they would improve their command of language by translating from Latin into English and back, by imitating approved models of style, and by studying manuals of composition, the ancient rules of rhetoric, and modern rules of letter-writing. Putting their training into practice, they would compose formal epistles, orations, and declamations. Their efforts at composition would be stimulated, too, by their reading of the most admired authors. Works that Shakespeare wrote throughout his career show the abiding influence of Virgil’s Aeneid and of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (both in the original and in Arthur Golding’s translation of 1567). Certainly he developed a taste for books, both classical and modern: his plays show that he continued to read seriously and imaginatively for the whole of his working life.

After Shakespeare died, Ben Jonson accused him of knowing ‘small Latin and less Greek’; but Jonson took pride in his classical knowledge: a boy educated at an Elizabethan grammar school would be more thoroughly trained in classical rhetoric and Roman (if not Greek) literature than most present-day holders of a university degree in classics. Modern languages would not normally be on the curriculum. Somehow Shakespeare seems to have picked up a working knowledge of French—which he expected audiences of Henry V to understand—and of Italian (the source of Othello, for instance, is an Italian tale that had not been published in translation when he wrote his play). We do not know whether he ever travelled outside England.

Shakespeare must have worked hard at school, but there was a life beyond the classroom. He lived in a beautiful and fertile part of the country, with rivers and fields at hand. He had the company of brothers and sisters. Each Sunday the family would go to Stratford’s splendid parish church, as the law required; his father, by virtue of his dignified status, would sit in the front pew. There Shakespeare’s receptive mind would be impressed by the sonorous phrases of the Bible, in either the Bishops’ or the Geneva version, the Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer. From time to time travelling players would visit Stratford. Shakespeare’s father would have the duty of licensing them to perform; probably his son first saw plays professionally acted in the Guildhall below his schoolroom.

Shakespeare would have left school when he was about fifteen. What he did then is not known. One of the earliest legends about him, recorded by John Aubrey around 1681, is that ‘he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country’. John Cottom, who was master of the Stratford school between 1579 and 1581 or 1582, and may have taught Shakespeare, was a Lancashire man whose family home was close to that of a landowner, Alexander Houghton. Both Cottom and Houghton were Roman Catholics, and there is some reason to believe that John Shakespeare may have retained loyalties to the old religion. When Houghton died, in 1581, he mentioned in his will one William Shakeshafte, possibly a player. The name is a possible variant of Shakespeare; conceivably Cottom found employment in Lancashire again for his talented pupil as a tutor who also acted. On the other hand, the name ‘Shakeshaft’, common in Lancashire, is not found in Warwickshire. If Shakespeare did leave Stratford, he was soon back home. On 28 November 1582 a bond was issued permitting him to marry Anne Hathaway of Shottery, a village close to Stratford. She was eight years his senior, and pregnant. Their daughter, Susanna, was baptized on 26 May 1583, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, on 2 February 1585. Though Shakespeare’s professional career (described in the next section of this Introduction) was to centre on London, his family remained in Stratford, and he maintained his links with his birthplace till he died and was buried there.

I. The Shakespeare coat of arms, from a draft dated 20 October 1596, prepared by Sir William Dethick, Garter King-of-Arms

One of the unfounded myths about Shakespeare is that all we know about his life could be written on the back of a postage stamp. In fact we know a lot about some of the less exciting aspects of his life, such as his business dealings and his tax debts (as may be seen from the list of Contemporary Allusions, pp. lxv-lxviii). Though we cannot tell how often he visited Stratford after he started to work in London, clearly he felt that he belonged where he was born. His success in his profession may be reflected in his father’s application for a grant of arms in 1596, by which John Shakespeare acquired the official status of gentleman. In August of that year William’s son, Hamnet, died, aged eleven and a half, and was buried in Stratford. Shakespeare was living modestly, and, so far as we know, alone in the Bishopsgate area of London, north of the river, in October of the same year, but in the following year showed that he looked on Stratford as his real home by buying a large house, New Place. It was demolished in 1759.

In October 1598 Richard Quiney, whose son was to marry Shakespeare’s daughter Judith, travelled to London to plead with the Privy Council on behalf of Stratford Corporation, which was in financial trouble because of fires and bad weather. He wrote the only surviving letter addressed to Shakespeare; as it was found among Quiney’s papers, it was presumably never delivered. It requested a loan, possibly on behalf of the town, of £30—a large sum, suggesting confidence in his friend’s prosperity. In 1601 Shakespeare’s father died, and was buried in Stratford. In May of the following year Shakespeare was able to invest £320 in 107 acres of arable land in Old Stratford. In the same year John Manningham, a London law student, recorded a piece of gossip that gives us a rare contemporary anecdote about the private life of Shakespeare and of Richard Burbage, the leading tragedian of his company:

Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard the Third. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third.

In 1604 Shakespeare was lodging in north London with a Huguenot family called Mountjoy; in 1612 he was to testify in a court case relating to a marriage settlement on the daughter of the house. The records of the case provide our only transcript of words actually spoken by Shakespeare; they are not characterful. In 1605 Shakespeare invested £440 in the Stratford tithes, which brought him in £60 a year; in June 1607 his elder daughter, Susanna, married a distinguished physician, John Hall, in Stratford, and there his only grandchild, their daughter Elizabeth, was baptized the following February. In 1609 his mother died there, and from about 1610 his increasing involvement with Stratford along with the reduction in his dramatic output suggests that he was withdrawing from his London responsibilities and spending more time at New Place. Perhaps he was deliberately devoting himself to his family’s business interests; he was only forty-six years old: an age at which a healthy man was no more likely to retire then than now. If he was ill, he was not totally disabled, as he was in London in 1612 for the Mountjoy lawsuit. In March 1613 he bought a house in the Blackfriars area of London for £140: he is not known to have lived in it. Also in 1613 the last of his three brothers died. In late 1614 and 1615 he was involved in disputes about the enclosure of the land whose tithes he owned. In February 1616 his second daughter, Judith, married Thomas Quiney, causing William to make alterations to the draft of his will, which he signed on 25 March. His widow was entitled by law and local custom to part of his estate; he left most of the remainder to his elder daughter, Susanna, and her husband. He died on 23 April, and was buried two days later in a prominent position in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church. A monument was commissioned, presumably by members of his family, and was in position by 1623. The work of Gheerart Janssen, a stonemason whose shop was not far from the Globe Theatre, it incorporates a half-length effigy which is one of the only two surviving likenesses of Shakespeare with any strong claim to authenticity.

As this selective survey of the historical records shows, Shakespeare’s life is at least as well documented as those of most of his contemporaries who did not belong to great families; we know more about him than about any other dramatist of his time except Ben Jonson. The inscription on the Stratford landowner’s memorial links him with Socrates and Virgil; and in the far greater memorial of 1623, the First Folio edition of his plays, Jonson links this ‘Star of poets’ with his home town as the ‘Sweet swan of Avon’. The Folio includes the second reliable likeness of Shakespeare, an engraving by Martin Droeshout which, we must assume, had been commissioned and approved by his friends and colleagues who put the volume together. In the Folio it faces the lines signed ‘B.1.’ (Ben Jonson) which we print beneath it. Shakespeare’s widow died in 1623, and his last surviving descendant, Elizabeth Hall (who inherited New Place and married first a neighbour, Thomas Nash, and secondly John Bernard, knighted in 1661), in 1670.

2. Shakespeare’s monument, designed by Gheerart Janssen, in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare’s Professional Career

We do not know when Shakespeare joined the theatre after his marriage, or how he was employed in the mean time. In 1587 an actor of the Queen’s Men—the most successful company of the 1580s—died as a result of manslaughter shortly before the company visited Stratford. That Shakespeare may have taken his place is an intriguing speculation. Nor do we know when he began to write. It seems likely (though not certain) that he became an actor before starting to write plays; at any rate, none of his extant writings certainly dates from his youth or early manhood. One of his less impressive sonnets—No. 145—apparently plays on the name ‘Hathaway’ (‘ “I hate” from hate away she threw’), and may be an early love poem; but this is his only surviving non-dramatic work that seems at all likely to have been written before he became a playwright. Possibly his earliest efforts in verse or drama are lost; just possibly some of them survive anonymously. It would have been very much in keeping with contemporary practice if he had worked in collaboration with other writers at this stage in his career. We believe that other writers, including Thomas Nashe, contributed to I Henry VI, that George Peele is part-author of Titus Andronicus, and that Shakespeare wrote part of Edward III (not included in the first edition of the Complete Works). Other writers’ hands have been plausibly detected in The First Part of the Contention (2 Henry VI) and Richard Duke of York (3 Henry VI).

The first printed allusion to Shakespeare dates from 1592, in the pamphlet Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, published as the work of Robert Greene, writer of plays and prose romances, shortly after he died. Mention of an ‘upstart crow’ who ‘supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’ and who ‘is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country’ suggests rivalry; though parody of a line from Richard Duke of York (3 Henry VI) shows that Shakespeare was already known on the London literary scene, the word ‘upstart’ does not suggest a long-established author.

It seems likely that Shakespeare’s earliest surviving plays date from around 1590, possibly earlier: they include comedies (The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew), history plays based on English chronicles (The First Part of the Contention, Richard Duke of York), and a pseudo-classical tragedy (Titus Andronicus). We cannot say with any confidence which company (or companies) of players these were written for; Titus Andronicus, at least, seems to have gone from one company to another, since according to the title-page of the 1594 edition it had been acted by the Earl of Derby‘s, the Earl of Pembroke’s, and the Earl of Sussex’s Men. Early in his career, Shakespeare may have worked for more than one company. A watershed was the devastating outbreak of plague which closed London’s theatres almost entirely from June 1592 to May 1594. This seems to have turned Shakespeare’s thoughts to the possibility of a literary career away from the theatre: in spring 1593 appeared his witty narrative poem Venus and Adonis, to be followed in 1594 by its tragic counterpart, The Rape of Lucrece. Both carry dedications over Shakespeare’s name to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, who, though aged only twenty in 1593, was already making a name for himself as a patron of poets. Patrons could be important to Elizabethan writers; how Southampton rewarded Shakespeare for his dedications we do not know, but the affection with which Shakespeare speaks of him in the dedication to Lucrece suggests a strong personal connection and has encouraged the belief that Southampton may be the young man—or one of the young men—addressed so lovingly in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

3. Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624), at the age of twenty: a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard

Whether Shakespeare began to write the Sonnets at this time is a vexed question. Certainly it is the period at which his plays make most use of the formal characteristics of the sonnet: Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet, for example, both incorporate sonnets into their structure; but Henry V, probably dating from 1599, has a sonnet as an Epilogue, and in All’s Well That Ends Well (1606-7) a letter is cast in this form, and so is Jupiter’s speech in Cymbeline (1610). Allusions within the Sonnets suggest that they were written over a period of at least three years. At some later point they seem to have been rearranged into the order in which they were printed. Behind them—if indeed they are autobiographical at all—lies a tantalizingly elusive story of Shakespeare’s personal life. Many attempts have been made to identify the poet’s friend (or friends), the rival poet (or poets), and the dark woman (or women) who is both the poet’s mistress and the seducer of his friend; none has achieved any degree of certainty.

After the epidemic of plague dwindled, a number of actors who had previously belonged to different companies amalgamated to form the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. In the first official account that survives, Shakespeare is named, along with the famous comic actor Will Kemp and the tragedian Richard Burbage, as payee for performances at court during the previous Christmas season. The Chamberlain’s Men rapidly became the leading dramatic company, though rivalled at first by the Admiral’s Men, who had Edward Alleyn as their leading tragedian. Shakespeare stayed with the Chamberlain’s (later King’s) Men for the rest of his career as actor, playwright, and administrator. He is the only prominent playwright of his time to have had so stable a relationship with a single company.

With the founding of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s career was placed upon a firm footing. It is not the purpose of this Introduction to describe his development as a dramatist, or to attempt a thorough discussion of the chronology of his writings. The Introductions to individual works state briefly what is known about when they were composed, and also name the principal literary sources on which Shakespeare drew in composing them. More detailed discussion of dating is to be found in the Textual Companion. The works themselves are arranged in a conjectured order of composition. There are many uncertainties about this, especially in relation to the early plays. The most important single piece of evidence is a passage in a book called Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury, by a minor writer, Francis Meres, published in 1598. Meres wrote: As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins, so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love Labour’s Lost, his Love Labour’s Won, his Midsummer’s Night Dream, and his Merchant of Venice; for tragedy, his Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, King John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet.

Some of the plays that Meres names had already been published or alluded to by 1598; but for others, he supplies a date by which they must have been written. Meres also alludes to Shakespeare’s ‘sugared sonnets among his private friends’, which suggests that some, if not all, of the poems printed in 1609 as Shakespeare’s Sonnets were circulating in manuscript by this date. Works not mentioned by Meres that are believed to have been written by 1598 are the three plays concerned with the reign of Henry VI, The Taming of the Shrew, Edward III, and the narrative poems.

Shakespeare seems to have had less success as an actor than as a playwright. We cannot name any of his roles for certain, though seventeenth-century traditions have it that he played Adam in As You Like It, and Hamlet’s Ghost—and more generally that he had a penchant for ‘kingly parts’. Ben Jonson listed him first among the ‘principal comedians’ in Every Man in his Humour, acted in 1598, when he reprinted it in his 1616 Folio, and Shakespeare is also listed among the performers of Jonson’s tragedy Sejanus in 1603. He was certainly one of the leading administrators of the Chamberlain’s Men. Until 1597, when their lease expired, they played mainly in the Theatre, London’s first important playhouse, situated north of the River Thames in Shoreditch, outside the jurisdiction of the City fathers, who exercised a repressive influence on the drama. It had been built in 1576 by James Burbage, a joiner, the tragedian’s father. Then the company seems to have played mainly at the Curtain until some time in 1599. Shakespeare was a member of the syndicate responsible for building the first Globe theatre, in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, out of the dismantled timbers of the Theatre in 1599. Initially he had a ten-per-cent financial interest in the enterprise, fluctuating as other shareholders joined or withdrew. It was a valuable share, for the Chamberlain’s Men won great acclaim and made substantial profits. After Queen Elizabeth died, in 1603, they came under the patronage of the new king, James I; the royal patent of 19 May 1603 names Shakespeare along with other leaders of the company. London was in the grip of another severe epidemic of plague which caused a ban on playing till the following spring. The King’s processional entry into London had to be delayed; when at last it took place, on 15 March 1604, each of the company’s leaders was granted four and a half yards of scarlet cloth for his livery as one of the King’s retainers; but the players seem not to have processed. Their association with the King was far from nominal; during the next thirteen years—up to the time of Shakespeare’s death—they played at court more often than all the other theatre companies combined. Records are patchy, but we know, for instance, that they gave eleven plays at court between I November 1604 and 31 October 1605, and that seven of them were by Shakespeare: they included older plays—The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost—and more recent ones—Othello and Measure for Measure. The Merchant of Venice was played twice.

Some measure of Shakespeare’s personal success during this period may be gained from the ascription to him of works not now believed to be his; Locrine and Thomas Lord Cromwell were published in 1595 and 1602 respectively as by ‘W.S.’; in 1599 a collection of poems, The Passionate Pilgrim, containing some poems certainly by other writers, appeared under his name; so, in 1606 and 1608, did The London Prodigal and A Yorkshire Tragedy. Since Shakespeare’s time, too, many plays of the period, some published, some surviving only in manuscript, have been attributed to him. In modern times, the most plausible case has been made for parts, or all, of Edward III, which was entered in the registers of the Stationers’ Company (a normal, but not invariable, way of setting in motion the publication process) in 1595 and published in 1596. It was first ascribed to Shakespeare in 1656. When this edition of the Complete Works first appeared, we said that if any play deserved to be added to the canon, this was it. Since then the scholarly case for Shakespeare having written part, or even all, of the play has grown, and we reprint it here according to its conjectural date of composition.

4. King James I (1566-1625): a portrait 1621) by Daniel Mytens

In August 1608 the King’s Men took up the lease of the smaller, ‘private’ indoor theatre, the Blackfriars; again, Shakespeare was one of the syndicate of owners. The company took possession in 1609. The Blackfriars served as a winter home; in better weather, performances continued to be given at the Globe. By now, Shakespeare was at a late stage in his career. Perhaps he realized it; he seems to have been willing to share his responsibilities as the company’s resident dramatist with younger writers. Timon of Athens, tentatively dated to early 1606, seems on internal evidence to be partly the work of Thomas Middleton (1580-1627). Another collaborative play, very successful in its time, was Pericles (c. 1607-8), in which Shakespeare probably worked with George Wilkins, an unscrupulous character who gave up his brief career as a writer in favour of a longer one as a tavern (or brothel) keeper. But Shakespeare’s most fruitful collaboration was with John Fletcher, his junior by fifteen years. Fletcher was collaborating with Francis Beaumont on plays for the King’s Men by about 1608. Beaumont stopped writing plays when he married, in about 1613, and it is at this time that Fletcher began to collaborate with Shakespeare. A lost play, Cardenio, acted by the King’s Men some time before 20May 1613, was plausibly ascribed to Shakespeare and Fletcher in a document of 1653; All is True (Henry VIII), first acted about June 1613, is generally agreed on stylistic evidence to be another fruit of the same partnership; and The Two Noble Kinsmen, also dated 1613, which seems to be the last play in which Shakespeare had a hand, was ascribed to the pair on its publication in 1634. One of Shakespeare’s last professional tasks was the minor one of devising an impress—which has not survived—for the Earl of Rutland to bear at a tournament held on 24 March 1613 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the King’s accession. An impresa was a paper or pasteboard shield painted with an emblematic device and motto which would be carried and interpreted for a knight by his squire; such a ceremony is portrayed in Pericles (Sc. 6). Shakespeare received forty-four shillings for his share in the work; Richard Burbage was paid the same sum ‘for painting and making it’.

The Drama and Theatre of Shakespeare’s Time

Shakespeare came upon the theatrical scene at an auspicious time. English drama and theatre had developed only slowly during the earlier part of the sixteenth century; during Shakespeare’s youth they exploded into vigorous life. It was a period of secularization; previously, drama had been largely religious in subject matter and overtly didactic in treatment; as a boy of fifteen, Shakespeare could have seen one of the last performances of a great cycle of plays on religious themes at Coventry, not far from his home town. 1567 saw the building in London of the short-lived Red Lion, and in 1576 the Theatre went up, to be rapidly followed by the Curtain: England’s first important, custom-built playhouses. There was a sudden spurt in the development of all aspects of theatrical art: acting, production, playwriting, company organization, and administration. Within a few years the twin arts of drama and theatre entered upon a period of achievement whose brilliance remains unequalled.

The new drama was literary and rhetorical rather than scenic and spectacular: but its mainstream was theatrical too. Its writers were poets. Prose was only beginning to be used in plays during Shakespeare’s youth; a playwright was often known as a ‘poet’, and most of the best playwrights of the period wrote with distinction in other forms. Shakespeare’s most important predecessors and early contemporaries, from whom he learned much, were John Lyly (c.1554-1606), pre-eminent for courtly comedy and elegant prose, Robert Greene (1558-92), who helped particularly to develop the scope and language of romantic comedy, the tragedian Thomas Kyd (1558-94),and Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), whose ‘mighty line’ put heroism excitingly on the stage and who shares with Shakespeare credit for establishing the English history play as a dramatic mode. As Shakespeare’s career progressed, other dramatists displayed their talents and, doubtless, influenced and stimulated him. George Chapman (c.1560-1634) emerged as a dramatist in the mid-1590s and succeeded in both comedy and tragedy. He was deeply interested in classical themes, as was Ben Jonson (1572-1637), who became Shakespeare’s chief rival. Jonson was a dominating personality, vocal about his accomplishments (and about Shakespeare, who, he said, ‘wanted art’), and biting as a comic satirist. Thomas Dekker (c.1572-1632) wrote comedies that are more akin to Shakespeare’s than to Jonson’s in their romantic warmth; the satirical plays of John Marston (c.1575-1634) are more sensational and cynical than Jonson’s. Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) brought a sharp wit to the portrayal of contemporary London life, and developed into a great tragic dramatist. Towards the end of Shakespeare’s career, Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625) came upon the scene; the affinity between Shakespeare’s late tragicomedies and some of Fletcher’s romances is reflected in their collaboration.

The companies for which these dramatists wrote were organized mainly from within. They were led by the sharers: eight in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at first, twelve by the end of Shakespeare’s career. Collectively they owned the joint stock of play scripts, costumes, and properties; they shared both expenses and profits. All were working members of the company. Exceptionally, the sharers of Shakespeare’s company owned the Globe theatre itself; more commonly, actors rented theatres from financial speculators such as Philip Henslowe, financier of the Admiral’s Men. Subordinate to the sharers were the ‘hired men’—lesser actors along with prompters (‘bookholders’), stagekeepers, wardrobe keepers (‘tiremen’), musicians, and money-collectors (‘gatherers’). Even those not employed principally as actors might swell a scene at need. The hired men were paid by the week. Companies would need scribes to copy out actors’ parts and to make fair copies from the playwrights’ foul papers (working manuscripts), but they seem mainly to have been employed part-time. The other important group of company members were the apprentices. These were boys or youths each serving a formal term of apprenticeship to one of the sharers. They played female and juvenile roles.

The success of plays in the Elizabethan theatres depended almost entirely on the actors. They had to be talented, hard-working, and versatile. Above all they had to have extraordinary memories. Plays were given in a repertory system on almost every afternoon of the week except during Lent. Only about two weeks could be allowed for rehearsal of a new play, and during that time the company would be regularly performing a variety of other plays. Lacking printed copies, the actors worked from ‘parts’ written out on scrolls giving only the cue lines from other characters’ speeches. The bookholder, or prompter, had to make sure that actors entered at the right moment, properly equipped. Many of them would take several parts in the same play: doubling and more was a necessary practice. The strain on the memory was great, demanding a high degree of professionalism. Conditions of employment were carefully regulated: a contract of 1614 provides that an actor and sharer, Robert Dawes (not in Shakespeare’s company), be fined one shilling for failure to turn up at the beginning of a rehearsal, two shillings for missing a rehearsal altogether, three shillings if he was not ‘ready apparelled’ for a performance, ten shillings if four other members of the company considered him to be ‘overcome with drink’ at the time he should be acting, and one pound if he simply failed to turn up for a performance without ‘licence or just excuse of sickness’.

There can be no doubt that the best actors of Shakespeare’s time would have been greatly admired in any age. English actors became famous abroad; some of the best surviving accounts are in letters written by visitors to England: the actors were literally ‘something to write home about’, and some of them performed (in English) on the Continent. Edward Alleyn, the leading tragedian of the Admiral’s Men, renowned especially for his performances of Marlowe’s heroes, made a fortune and founded Dulwich College. All too little is known about the actors of Shakespeare’s company and the roles they played, but many testimonies survive to Richard Burbage’s excellence in tragic roles. According to an elegy written after he died, in 1619,No more young Hamlet, old Hieronimo;

Kind Lear, the grieved Moor, and more beside

That lived in him have now for ever died.

There is no reason to suppose that the boy actors lacked talent and skill; they were highly trained as apprentices to leading actors. Most plays of the period, including Shakespeare’s, have far fewer female than male roles, but some women’s parts—such as Rosalind (in As You Like It) and Cleopatra—are long and important; Shakespeare must have had confidence in the boys who played them. Some of them later became sharers themselves.

The playwriting techniques of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were intimately bound up with the theatrical conditions to which they catered. Theatre buildings were virtually confined to London. Plays continued to be given in improvised circumstances when the companies toured the provinces and when they acted at court (that is, wherever the sovereign and his or her entourage happened to be—in London, usually Whitehall or Greenwich). In 1602, Twelfth Night was given in the still-surviving hall of one of London’s Inns of Court, the Middle Temple. Acting companies could use guildhalls, the halls of great houses, the yards of inns, or even churches. (In 1608, Richard II and Hamlet were performed by ships’ crews at sea off the coast of Sierra Leone.) Many plays of the period require no more than an open space and the costumes and properties that the actors carried with them on their travels. Others made more use of the expanding facilities of the professional stage. No doubt texts were adapted as circumstances required.

5. Richard Burbage: reputedly a self-portrait

6. The hall of the Middle Temple, London

Permanent theatres were of two kinds, known now as public and private. Most important to Shakespeare were public theatres such as the Theatre, the Curtain, and the Globe. Unfortunately, the only surviving drawing (reproduced opposite) portraying the interior of a public theatre in any detail is of the Swan, not used by Shakespeare’s company. Though theatres were not uniform in design, they had important features in common. They were large wooden buildings, usually round or polygonal; the Globe, which was about 100 feet in diameter and 36 feet in height, could hold over three thousand spectators. Between the outer and inner walls—a space of about 12 feet—were three levels of tiered benches extending round most of the auditorium and roofed on top; after the Globe burnt down, in 1613, the roof, formerly thatched, was tiled. The surround of benches was broken on the lowest level by the stage, broad and deep, which jutted forth at a height of about 5 feet into the central yard, where spectators (‘groundlings’) could stand. Actors entered mainly, perhaps entirely, from openings in the wall at the back of the stage. At least two doors, one on each side, could be used; stage directions frequently call for characters to enter simultaneously from different doors, when the dramatic situation requires them to be meeting, and to leave ‘severally’ (separately) when they are parting. The depth of the stage meant that characters could enter through the stage doors some moments before other characters standing at the front of the stage might be expected to notice them.

Also in the wall at the rear of the stage there appears to have been some kind of central aperture which could be used for the disclosing and putting forth of Desdemona’s bed (Othello, 5.2) or the concealment of the spying Polonius (Hamlet, 3.4) or of the sleeping Lear (The History of King Lear, Sc. 20). Behind the stage wall was the tiring-house—the actors’ dressing area.

On the second level the seating facilities for spectators seem to have extended even to the back of the stage, forming a balcony which at the Globe was probably divided into five bays. Here perhaps was the ‘lords’ room’, which could be taken over by the actors for plays in which action took place ‘above’ (or ‘aloft’), as in Romeo’s wooing of Juliet or the death of Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. It seems to have been possible for actors to move from the main stage to the upper level during the time taken to speak a few lines of verse, as we may see in The Merchant of Venice (2.6.51-8) or Julius Caesar (5.3.33-5). Somewhere above the lords’ room was a window or platform known as ‘the top’; Joan la Pucelle appears there briefly in I Henry VI (3.3), and in The Tempest, Prospero is seen ‘on the top, invisible’ (3.3).

Above the stage, at a level higher than the second gallery, was a canopy, probably supported by two pillars (which could themselves be used for concealment) rising from the stage. One function of the canopy was to shelter the stage from the weather; it also formed the floor of one or more huts housing the machinery for special effects and its operators. Here cannon-balls could be rolled around a trough to imitate the sound of thunder, and fire crackers could be set off to simulate lightning. And from this area actors could descend in a chair operated by a winch. Shakespeare uses this facility mainly in his late plays: in Cymbeline for the descent of Jupiter (5.5), and, probably, in Pericles for the descent of Diana (Sc. 21) and in The Tempest for Juno’s appearance in the masque (4.1). On the stage itself was a trap which could be opened to serve as Ophelia’s grave (Hamlet, 5.1) or as Malvolio’s dungeon (Twelfth Night, 4.2).

7. The Swan Theatre: a copy, by Aernout van Buchel, of a drawing made about 1596 by Johannes de Witt, a Dutch visitor to London

Somewhere in the backstage area, perhaps in or close to the gallery, must have been a space for the musicians who played a prominent part in many performances. No doubt then, as now, a single musician was capable of playing several instruments. Stringed instruments, plucked (such as the lute) and bowed (such as viols), were needed. Woodwind instruments included recorders (called for in Hamlet, 3.2) and the stronger, shriller hautboys (ancestors of the modern oboe); trumpets and cornetts were needed for the many flourishes and sennets (more elaborate fanfares) played especially for the comings and goings of royal characters. Sometimes musicians would play on stage: entrances for trumpeters and drummers are common in battle scenes. More often they would be heard but not seen; from behind the stage (as, perhaps, at the opening of Twelfth Night or in the concluding dance of Much Ado About Nothing), or even occasionally under it (Antony and Cleopatra, 4.3). Some actors were themselves musicians: the performers of Feste (in Twelfth Night) and Ariel (in The Tempest) must sing and, probably, accompany themselves on lute and tabor (a small drum slung around the neck). Though traditional music has survived for some of the songs in Shakespeare’s plays (such as Ophelia’s mad songs, in Hamlet), we have little music which was certainly composed for them in his own time. The principal exception is two songs for The Tempest by Robert Johnson, a fine composer who was attached to the King’s Men.

Shakespeare’s plays require few substantial properties. A ‘state’, or throne on a dais, is sometimes called for, as are tables and chairs and, occasionally, a bed, a pair of stocks (King Lear, Sc. 7/2.2), a cauldron (Macbeth, 4.1), a rose brier (I Henry VI, 2.4), and a bush (Two Noble Kinsmen, 5.3). No doubt these and other such objects were pushed on and off the stage by attendants in full view of the audience. We know that Elizabethan companies spent lavishly on costumes, and some plays require special clothes; at the beginning of 2 Henry IV, Rumour enters ‘painted full of tongues’; regal personages, and supernatural figures such as Hymen in As You Like It (5.4) and the goddesses in The Tempest (4.1), must have been distinctively costumed; presumably a bear-skin was needed for The Winter’s Tale (3.3). Probably no serious attempt was made at historical realism. The only surviving contemporary drawing of a scene from a Shakespeare play, illustrating Titus Andronicus (reproduced on the following page), shows the characters dressed in a mixture of Elizabethan and classical costumes, and this accords with the often anachronistic references to clothing in plays with a historical setting. The same drawing also illustrates the use of head-dresses, of varied weapons as properties—the guard to the left appears to be wearing a scimitar—of facial and bodily make-up for Aaron, the Moor, and of eloquent gestures. Extended passages of wordless action are not uncommon in Shakespeare. Dumb shows feature prominently in earlier Elizabethan plays, and in Shakespeare the direction ‘alarum’ or ‘alarums and excursions’ may stand for lengthy and exciting passages of arms. Even in one of Shakespeare’s latest plays, Cymbeline, important episodes are conducted in wordless mime (see, for example, 5.2-4).

Towards the end of Shakespeare’s career his company regularly performed in a private theatre, the Blackfriars, as well as at the Globe. Like other private theatres, this was an enclosed building, using artificial lighting, and so more suitable for winter performances. Private playhouses were smaller than the public ones—the Blackfriars held about 600 spectators—and admission prices were much higher—a minimum of sixpence at the Blackfriars against one penny at the Globe. Facilities at the Blackfriars must have been essentially similar to those at the Globe since some of the same plays were given at both theatres. But the sense of social occasion seems to have been different. Audiences were more elegant (though not necessarily better behaved); music featured more prominently.

8. A drawing, attributed to Henry Peacham, illustrating Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

It seems to have been under the influence of private-theatre practice that, from about 1609 onwards, performances of plays customarily marked the conventional five-act structure by a pause, graced with music, after each act. The need to trim the candles was a practical reason for introducing act breaks. Previously, though dramatists often showed awareness of five-act structure (as Shakespeare conspicuously does in Henry V, with a Chorus before each act), public performances seem to have been continuous, making the scene the main structural unit. None of the editions of Shakespeare’s plays printed in his lifetime (which do not include any written after 1609) marks either act or scene divisions. The innovation of act-pauses threw more emphasis on the act as a unit, and made it possible for dramatists to relax their observance of what has come to be known as ‘the law of re-entry’, according to which a character who had left the stage at the end of one scene would not normally make an immediate reappearance at the beginning of the next. Thus, if Shakespeare had been writing The Tempest before 1609, it is unlikely that Prospero and Ariel, having left the stage at the end of Act 4, would have instantly reappeared at the start of Act 5. We attempt to reflect this feature of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy by making no special distinction between scene-breaks and act-breaks except in those later plays in which Shakespeare seems to have observed the new convention (and in Titus Andronicus, Measure for Measure, and Macbeth, since the texts of these plays apparently reflect theatre practice after they were first written, and in The Comedy of Errors, a neo-classically structured play in which the act-divisions appear to be authoritative, and to represent a private performance).

9. A reconstruction of the Blackfriars playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, opened in 2001, and regularly used for performances

Dramatic conventions changed and developed considerably during Shakespeare’s career. Throughout it, they favoured self-evident artifice over naturalism. This is apparent in Shakespeare’s dramatic language, with its soliloquies (sometimes addressed directly to the audience), its long, carefully structured speeches, its elaborate use of simile, metaphor, and rhetorical figures of speech (in prose as well as verse), its rhyme, and its patterned dialogue. It is evident in some aspects of behaviour and characterization: Oberon and Prospero have only to declare themselves invisible to become so; disguises can be instantly donned with an appearance of impenetrability, and as rapidly abandoned; some characters—Rumour at the opening of 2 Henry IV, Time in The Winter’s Tale, even the Gardeners in Richard II—clearly serve a symbolic rather than a realistic function: and supernatural manifestations are common. The calculated positioning of characters on the stage may help to make a dramatic point, as in the scene in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (4.2) in which the disguised Julia overhears her faithless lover’s serenade to her rival, Silvia; or, more complexly, that in Troilus and Cressida (5.2) in which Troilus and Ulysses observe Diomede’s courtship of Cressida while they are themselves observed by the cynical Thersites. Not uncommonly, Shakespeare provokes his spectators into consciousness that they are watching a play, as when Cassius, in Julius Caesar, looks forward to the time when the conspirators’ ‘lofty scene’ will be ‘acted over In states unborn and accents yet unknown’ (3.1.112 -14); or, in Troilus and Cressida, when Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus reach out from the past tense of history to the present tense of theatrical performance in a ritualistic anticipation of what their names will come to signify (3.2.169-202).

Techniques such as these are closely related to the non-illusionistic nature of the Elizabethan stage, in which the mechanics of production were frequently visible. Many scenes take place nowhere in particular. Awareness of place was conveyed through dialogue and action rather than through scenery; location could change even within a scene (as, for example, in 2 Henry IV, where movement of the dying King’s bed across the stage establishes the scene as ‘some other chamber’: 4.3.132). Sometimes Shakespeare uses conflicting reactions to an imagined place as a kind of shorthand guide to character: to the idealistic Gonzalo, Prospero’s island is lush, lusty, and green; to the cynical Antonio, ‘tawny’ (The Tempest, 2.1.57-9): such an effect would have been dulled by scenery which proved one or the other right.

In some ways, the changes in Shakespeare’s practice as his art develops favour naturalism. Thus verse becomes freer, metaphor predominates over simile, rhyme and other formalistic elements are reduced, the proportion of prose over verse increases to the middle of his career (but then decreases again), some of his most psychologically complex character portrayals—Coriolanus, Cleopatra—come late. But his drama remains rooted in the conventions of a rhetorical, non-scenic (though not unspectacular) theatre: the supernatural looms largest in his later plays—Macbeth, Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest. The Tempest draws no less self-consciously on the neo-classical conventions of five-act structure than The Comedy of Errors, and Prospero’s narration to Miranda (1.2) is as blatant a piece of dramatic exposition as Egeon’s tale in the opening scene of the earlier play. Heroines of the late romances—Marina (in Pericles), Perdita (in The Winter’s Tale), and Miranda (in The Tempest)—are portrayed with less concern for psychological realism than those of the romantic comedies—Viola (in Twelfth Night) and Rosalind (in As You Like It)—and the revelation to Leontes at the end of The Winter’s Tale is both more improbable and more moving than the similar revelation made to Egeon at the end of The Comedy of Errors.

The theatre of Shakespeare’s time was his most valuable collaborator. Its simplicity was one of its strengths. The actors of his company were the best in their kind. His audiences may not have been learned, or sophisticated, by modern standards; according to some accounts, they could be unruly; but they conferred popularity upon plays which for emotional power, range, and variety, for grandeur of conception and subtlety of execution, are among the most demanding, as well as the most entertaining, ever written. If we value Shakespeare’s plays, we must also think well of the theatrical circumstances that permitted, and encouraged, his genius to flourish.

10. A performance of Julius Caesar in progress at the reconstructed Globe Theatre on Bankside, London

The Early Printing of Shakespeare’s Plays

For all its literary distinction, drama in Shakespeare’s time was an art of performance; many plays of the period never got into print: they were published by being acted. It is lucky for us that, so far as we know, all Shakespeare’s finished plays except the collaborative Cardenio reached print. None of his plays that were printed in his time survives in even a fragment of his own handwriting; the only literary manuscript plausibly ascribed to him is a section of Sir Thomas More, a play not printed until the nineteenth century. In this edition of the Complete Works we replace the fragment previously offered with a newly edited text of the whole play. The only works of Shakespeare that he himself seems to have cared about putting into print are the narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. A major reason for this is Shakespeare’s exceptionally close involvement with the acting company for which he wrote. There was no effective dramatic copyright; acting companies commonly bought plays from their authors—as a resident playwright, Shakespeare was probably expected to write about two each year—and for whatever reason, companies generally preferred that their plays should not get into print except when they needed to raise money by selling them to publishers. Nevertheless, by one means and another, and in one form and another, about half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed singly in his lifetime, almost all of them in the flimsy, paperback format of a quarto—a book made from sheets of paper that had been folded twice, and normally costing sixpence. Some of the plays were pirated: printed, that is, in unauthorized editions, from texts that seem to have been put together from memory by actors or even, perhaps, by spectators, perhaps primarily to create scripts for other companies, perhaps purely for publication. Some of the plays were printed in shorter editions in some of which the text is variously adapted, paraphrased, and garbled. It has been argued that they have been subject to ‘memorial reconstruction’—put together by actors—though the extent to which the reporters’ defective memories gave rise to the peculiar features of these texts has been much disputed. They make up an unstable grouping often referred to as the ‘bad’ quartos: bad not because they were, necessarily, badly printed or surreptitiously published, but because the quality of the text is different from, and by and large inferior to, that of the alternative versions. The term has become contentious, as it places texts of different character and possible provenance under a single pejorative label. The earliest texts of The First Part of the Contention and Richard Duke of York (usually known by the titles under which they were printed in the First Folio—2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI) appeared in 1594 and 1595 respectively; they may well be reported texts, but the reports seem to have been based on an earlier version of the plays as Shakespeare wrote them. Also in 1594 appeared The Taming of A Shrew, perhaps better described as an imitation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (the titles may have been regarded as interchangeable) than as a detailed reconstruction of it. The 1597 edition of Richard III is perhaps the best of these heavily variant texts; it seems to be closely based on a performance version. The text of Romeo and Juliet, as printed in the same year, may have been put together by a few actors exploiting a popular success, though some critics regard this too as an acceptable theatre version of the play. The 1600 quarto of Henry V may present a text made for a smaller company of actors than that for which it had been written; here again theatrical adaptation seems to have played a major part in its evolution. The Merry Wives of Windsor of 1602 seems to derive largely from the memory of the actor who played the Host of the Garter Inn—perhaps a hired man no longer employed by Shakespeare’s company. Worst reported of all is the 1603 Hamlet, which also appears to derive from the memory of one or more actors in minor roles. Last printed of the ‘bad’ quartos is Pericles, of 1609, where there are strong indications of memorial reporting even in the absence of a fuller text with which to compare it.

The worst of these reported texts have many faults. Frequently they garble the verse and prose of the original—To be or not to be; ay, there’s the point‘, says the 1603 Hamlet; usually they abbreviate—the 1603 Hamlet has about 2,200 lines, compared to the 3,800 of the good quarto; occasionally they include lines from plays by other authors (especially Marlowe); sometimes they include passages clearly cobbled together and in distinctly un-Shakespearian language to supply gaps in the reporter’s memory. For all this, they are not without value in helping us to judge how Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed. As the fuller texts may have been too long for performance, the shorter versions potentially offer an indication as to how the plays were reshaped for the Shakespearian stage. Their directions may give us more information about early performances than is available in other texts: for instance, the reported text of Hamlet has the direction ‘Enter Ofelia playing on a lute, and her hair down, singing‘—far more vivid than the good Quarto’s ‘Enter Ophelia’, or even the Folio’s ‘Enter Ophelia distracted’. Because these are post-performance texts, they may preserve, in the midst of corruption, authentically Shakespearian changes made to the play after it was first written and not recorded elsewhere. A particularly interesting case is The Taming of the Shrew: the play as printed in the Folio, in what is clearly, in general, the more authentic text, abandons early in its action the framework device which makes the story of Katherine and Petruccio a play within the play; the quarto continues this framework through the play, and provides an amusing little episode rounding it off. These passages may derive from ones written by Shakespeare but not printed in the Folio: we print them as Additional Passages at the end of the play. In general, we draw more liberally than most previous editors on the reported texts, in the belief that they can help us to come closer than before to the plays as they were acted by Shakespeare’s company as well as by others. However, we are mindful that, no matter what their various origins, these texts constitute distinct versions of the plays.

11. ‘To be or not to be’ as it appeared in the ‘bad’ quarto of 1603

Although in general, companies which owned play scripts preferred not to allow them to be printed, some of Shakespeare’s plays were printed from authentic manuscripts during his lifetime, and even while they were still being performed by his company; these have often been designated as ‘good’ quartos. First came Titus Andronicus, printed in 1594 from Shakespeare’s own papers, probably because the company for which he wrote it had been disbanded. In 1597 Richard II was printed perhaps directly from Shakespeare’s manuscript, minus the politically sensitive episode (in 4.1) in which Richard gives up his crown to Bolingbroke: a clear instance of censorship, whether self-imposed or not. The first play to be published from the outset in Shakespeare’s name is Love’s Labour’s Lost, in 1598. Several other quartos printed from good manuscripts appeared around the same time: I Henry IV (probably from a scribal transcript) in 1598, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, 2 Henry IV, and Much Ado About Nothing (all evidently from Shakespeare’s papers) in 1600. In 1604 appeared a new text of Hamlet printed from Shakespeare’s own papers and declaring itself to be ‘Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy’: surely an attempt to replace a bad text by a good one. King Lear followed, in 1608, in a badly printed quarto whose status has been much disputed, but which we believe to derive from Shakespeare’s own manuscript. In 1609 came Troilus and Cressida, probably from Shakespeare’s own papers, in an edition which in the first-printed copies claims to present the play ‘as it was acted by the King’s majesty’s servants at the Globe‘, but in copies printed later in the print-run declares that it has never been ‘staled with the stage’. The only new play to appear between Shakespeare’s death and the publication of the Folio in 1623 was Othello, printed in 1622 apparently from a transcript of Shakespeare’s own papers.

Not much money was to be made from printing a single edition of a play, but some of these quartos were several times reprinted. In the right circumstances Shakespeare could be a valuable property to a publisher. He and his company, however, would have benefited only from the one-off return of selling a manuscript for publication. It is not clear why they released reliable texts of some plays but not others. As a shareholder in the company to which the plays belonged, Shakespeare himself must have been a partner in its decisions, and it is difficult to believe that he was so lacking in personal vanity that he was happy to be represented in print by garbled texts; but he seems to have taken no interest in the progress of his plays through the press, and only two plays, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, were printed in debased quartos that were replaced with fuller quarto texts. Even some of those printed from authentic manuscripts—such as the 1604 Hamlet—are badly printed, and certainly not proof-read by the author; none of them bears an author’s dedication or shows any sign of having been prepared for the press in the way that, for instance, Ben Jonson clearly prepared some of his plays. John Marston, introducing the printed text of his play The Malcontent in 1604, wrote: ‘Only one thing afflicts me, to think that scenes invented merely to be spoken, should be enforcively published to be read.’ Perhaps Shakespeare was similarly afflicted.

In 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, Ben Jonson published his own collected plays in a handsome Folio. It was the first time that an English writer for the popular stage had been so honoured (or had so honoured himself), and it established a precedent by which Shakespeare’s fellows could commemorate their colleague and friend. Principal responsibility for this ambitious enterprise was undertaken by John Heminges and Henry Condell, both long-established actors with Shakespeare’s company; latterly, Heminges had been its business manager. They, along with Richard Burbage, had been the colleagues whom Shakespeare remembered in his will: he left each of them 26s. 8d. to buy a mourning ring. Although the Folio did not appear until 1623, they may have started planning it soon after—or even before—Shakespeare died: big books take a long time to prepare. And they undertook their task with serious care. Most importantly, they printed eighteen plays that had not so far appeared in print, and which might otherwise have vanished. Their decision not to include Edward III suggests at least that they did not believe Shakespeare to have written all of it. They omitted (so far as we can tell) only Pericles, Cardenio (now vanished), The Two Noble Kinsmen—perhaps because these three were collaborative—and the mysterious Love’s Labour’s Won (see p. 337). And they went to considerable pains to provide good texts. They had no previous experience as editors; they may have had help from others (including Ben Jonson, who wrote commendatory verses for the Folio): anyhow, although printers find it easier to set from print than from manuscript, they were not content simply to reprint quartos whenever they were available. In fact they seem to have made a conscious effort to identify and to avoid making use of the quartos now recognized as unauthoritative. In their introductory epistle addressed ‘To the Great Variety of Readers’ they declare that the public has been ‘abused with divers stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors’. But now these plays are ‘offered to your view cured and perfect of their limbs, and all the rest absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them’.

None of the quartos believed by modern scholars to be unauthoritative was used unaltered as copy for the Folio. As men of the theatre, Heminges and Condell had access to theatre copies, and they made considerable use of them. For some plays, such as Titus Andronicus (which includes a whole scene not present in the quarto), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the printers had a copy of a quarto (not necessarily the first) marked up with alterations made as the result of comparison with a theatre manuscript. For other plays (the first four to be printed in the Folio—The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Measure for Measure—along with The Winter’s Tale and probably Othello) they employed a professional scribe, Ralph Crane, to transcribe papers in the theatre’s possession. For others, such as Henry V and All’s Well That Ends Well, they seem to have had authorial papers; and for yet others, such as Macbeth, a theatre manuscript. We cannot always be sure of the copy used by the printers, and sometimes it may have been mixed: for Richard III they seem to have used pages of the third quarto mixed with pages of the sixth quarto combined with passages in manuscript; a copy of the third quarto of Richard II, a copy of the fifth quarto, and a theatre manuscript all contributed to the Folio text of that play; the annotated third quarto of Titus Andronicus was supplemented by the ‘fly’ scene (3.2) which Shakespeare appears to have added after the play was first composed. Dedicating the Folio to the brother Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, Heminges and Condell claimed that, in collecting Shakespeare’s plays together, they had ‘done an office to the dead to procure his orphans guardians’ (that is, to provide noble patrons for the works he had left behind), ‘without ambition either of self profit or fame, only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare’. Certainly they deserve our gratitude.

The Modern Editor’s Task

It will be clear from all this that the documents from which even the authoritative early editions of Shakespeare’s plays were printed were of a very variable nature. Some were his own papers in a rough state, including loose ends, duplications, inconsistencies, and vaguenesses. At the other extreme were theatre copies representing the play as close to the state in which it appeared in Shakespeare’s theatre as we can get; and there were various intermediate states. For those plays of which we have only one text—those first printed in the Folio, along with Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Edward III-the editor is at least not faced with the problem of alternative choices. The surviving text of Macbeth gives every sign of being an adaptation: if so, there is no means of recovering what Shakespeare originally wrote. The scribe seems to have entirely expunged Shakespeare’s stage directions from The Two Gentlemen of Verona: we must make do with what we have. Other plays, however, confront the editor with a problem of choice. Pared down to its essentials, it is this: should readers be offered a text which is as close as possible to what Shakespeare originally wrote, or should the editor aim to formulate a text presenting the play as it appeared when performed by the company of which Shakespeare was a principal shareholder in the theatres that he helped to control and on whose success his livelihood depended? The problem exists in two different forms. For some plays, the changes made in the more theatrical text (always the Folio, if we discount the bad quartos) are relatively minor, consisting perhaps in a few reallocations of dialogue, the addition of music cues to the stage directions, and perhaps some cuts. So it is with, for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard II. More acute—and more critically exciting—are the problems raised when the more theatrical version appears to represent, not merely the text as originally written after it had been prepared for theatrical use, but a more radical revision of that text made (in some cases) after the first version had been presented in its own terms. At least five of Shakespeare’s plays exist in these states: they are 2 Henry IV, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, and King Lear.

The editorial problem is compounded by the existence of conflicting theories to explain the divergences between the surviving texts of these plays. Until recently, it was generally believed that the differences resulted from imperfect transmission: that Shakespeare wrote only one version of each play, and that each variant text represents that original text in a more or less corrupt form. As a consequence of this belief, editors conflated the texts, adding to one passages present only in the other, and selecting among variants in wording in an effort to present what the editor regarded as the most ‘Shakespearian’ version possible. Hamlet provides an example. The 1604 quarto was set from Shakespeare’s own papers (with some contamination from the reported text of 1603). The Folio includes about 80 lines that are not in the quarto, but omits about 23 that are there. The Folio was clearly influenced by, if not printed directly from, a theatre manuscript. There are hundreds of local variants. Editors have conflated the two texts, assuming that the absence of passages from each was the result either of accidental omission or of cuts made in the theatre against Shakespeare’s wishes; they have also rejected a selection of the variant readings. It is at least arguable that this produces a version that never existed in Shakespeare’s time. We believe that the 1604 quarto represents the play as Shakespeare first wrote it, before it was performed, and that the Folio represents a theatrical text of the play after he had revised it. Given this belief, it would be equally logical to base an edition on either text: one the more literary, the other the more theatrical. Both types of edition would be of interest; each would present within its proper context readings which editors who conflate the texts have to abandon.

It would be extravagant in a one-volume edition to present double texts of all the plays that exist in significantly variant form. The theatrical version is, inevitably, that which comes closest to the ‘final’ version of the play. We have ample testimony from the theatre at all periods, including our own, that play scripts undergo a process of, often, considerable modification on their way from the writing table to the stage. Occasionally, dramatists resent this process; we know that some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries resented cuts made in some of their plays. But we know too that plays may be much improved by intelligent cutting, and that dramatists of great literary talent may benefit from the discipline of the theatre. It is, of course, possible that Shakespeare’s colleagues occasionally overruled him, forcing him to omit cherished lines, or that practical circumstances—such as the incapacity of a particular actor to do justice to every aspect of his role—necessitated adjustments that Shakespeare would have preferred not to make. But he was himself, supremely, a man of the theatre. We have seen that he displayed no interest in how his plays were printed: in this he is at the opposite extreme from Ben Jonson, who was still in mid-career when he prepared the collected edition of his works. We know that Shakespeare was an actor and shareholder in the leading theatre company of its time, a major financial asset to that company, a man immersed in the life of that theatre and committed to its values. The concept of the director of a play did not exist in his time; but someone must have exercised some, at least, of the functions of the modern director, and there is good reason to believe that that person must have been Shakespeare himself, for his own plays. The very fact that those texts of his plays that contain cuts also give evidence of more ‘literary’ revision suggests that he was deeply involved in the process by which his plays came to be modified in performance. For these reasons, this edition chooses, when possible, to print the more theatrical version of each play. In some cases, this requires the omission from the body of the text of lines that Shakespeare certainly wrote; there is, of course, no suggestion that these lines are unworthy of their author; merely that, in some if not all performances, he and his company found that the play’s overall structure and pace were better without them. All such lines are printed as Additional Passages at the end of the play.

In all but one of Shakespeare’s plays the revisions are local—changes in the wording of individual phrases and lines—or else they are effected by additions and cuts. Essentially, then, the story line is not affected. But in King Lear the differences between the two texts are more radical. It is not simply that the 1608 quarto lacks over 100 lines that are in the Folio, or that the Folio lacks close on 300 lines that are in the Quarto, or that there are over 850 verbal variants, or that several speeches are assigned to different speakers. It is rather that the sum total of these differences amounts, in this play, to a substantial shift in the presentation and interpretation of the underlying action. The differences are particularly apparent in the military action of the last two acts. We believe, in short, that there are two distinct plays of King Lear, not merely two different texts of the same play; so we print edited versions of both the Quarto (‘The History of ...’) and the Folio (‘The Tragedy of...’).

Though the editor’s selection, when choice is available, of the edition that should form the basis of the edited text is fundamentally important, many other tasks remain. Elizabethan printers could do meticulously scholarly work, but they rarely expended their best efforts on plays, which—at least in quarto format—they treated as ephemeral publications. Moreover, dramatic manuscripts and heavily annotated quartos must have set them difficult problems. Scribal transcripts would have been easier for the printer, but scribes were themselves liable to introduce error in copying difficult manuscripts, and also had a habit of sophisticating what they copied—for example, by expanding colloquial contractions—in ways that would distort the dramatist’s intentions. On the whole, the Folio is a rather well-printed volume; there are not a great many obvious misprints; but for all that, corruption is often discernible. A few quartos—notably A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600)—are exceptionally well printed, but others, such as the 1604 Hamlet, abound in obvious error, which is a sure sign that they also commit hidden corruptions. Generations of editors have tried to correct the texts; but possible corruptions are still being identified, and new attempts at correction are often made. The preparation of this edition has required a minutely detailed examination of the early texts. At many points we have adopted emendations suggested by previous editors; at other points we offer original readings; and occasionally we revert to the original text at points where it has often been emended.

12. The last lines of King Lear in the 1608 quarto

13. The last lines of King Lear in the 1623 First Folio

Stage directions are a special problem, especially in a one-volume edition where some degree of uniformity may be thought desirable. The early editions are often deficient in directions for essential action, even in such basic matters as when characters enter and when they depart. Again, generations of editors have tried to supply such deficiencies, not always systematically. We try to remedy the deficiencies, always bearing in mind the conditions of Shakespeare’s stage. At many points the requisite action is apparent from the dialogue; at other points precisely what should happen, or the precise point at which it should happen, is in doubt—and, perhaps, was never clearly determined even by the author. In our edition we use broken brackets—e.g. [He kneels]—to identify dubious action or placing. Inevitably, this is to some extent a matter of individual interpretation; and, of course, modern directors may, and do, often depart freely from the original directions, both explicit and implicit. Our original-spelling edition, while including the added directions, stays somewhat closer to the wording of the original editions than our modern-spelling edition. Readers interested in the precise directions of the original texts on which ours are based will find them reprinted in William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion.

Ever since Shakespeare’s plays began to be reprinted, their spelling and punctuation have been modernized. Often, however, this task has been left to the printer; many editors who have undertaken it themselves have merely marked up earlier edited texts, producing a palimpsest; there has been little discussion of the principles involved; and editors have been even less systematic in this area than in that of stage directions. Modernizing the spelling of earlier periods is not the simple business it may appear. Some words are easily handled: ‘doe’ becomes ‘do’, ‘I’ meaning ‘yes’ becomes ‘ay’, ‘beutie’ becomes ‘beauty’, and so on. But it is not always easy to distinguish between variant spellings and variant forms. It is not our aim to modernize Shakespeare’s language: we do not change ‘ay’ to ‘yes’, ‘ye’ to ‘you’, ‘eyne’ to ‘eyes’, or ‘hath’ to ‘has’; we retain obsolete inflections and prefixes. We aim not to make changes that would affect the metre of verse: when the early editions mark an elision—know‘st’, ‘ha’not’, ‘i’th’temple‘—we do so, too; when scansion requires that an -ed ending be sounded, contrary to modern usage, we mark it with a grave accent—formed’, ‘moved’. Older forms of words are often preserved when they are required for metre, rhyme, word-play, or characterization. But we do not retain old spellings simply because they may provide a clue to the way words were pronounced by some people in Shakespeare’s time, because such clues may be misleading (we know, for instance, that ‘boil’ was often pronounced as ‘bile’, ‘Rome’ as ‘room’, and ‘person’ as ‘person’), and, more importantly, because many words which we spell in the same way as the Elizabethans have changed pronunciation in the mean time; it seems pointless to offer in a generally modern context a mere selection of spellings that may convey some of the varied pronunciations available in Shakespeare’s time. Many words existed in indifferently variant spellings; we have sometimes preferred the more modern spelling, especially when the older one might mislead: thus, we spell ‘beholden’, not ‘beholding’, ‘distraught’ (when appropriate), not ‘distract’.

Similar principles are applied to proper names: it is, for instance, meaningless to preserve the Folio’s ‘Petruchio’ when this is clearly intended to represent the old (as well as the modern) pronunciation of the Italian name ‘Petruccio’; failure to modernize adequately here results even in the theatre in the mistaken pedantry of ‘Pet-rook-io’. For some words, the arguments for and against modernization are finely balanced. The generally French setting of As You Like It has led us to prefer ‘Ardenne’ to the more familiar ‘Arden’, though we would not argue that geographical consistency is Shakespeare’s strongest point. Problematic too is the military rank of ensign; this appears in early texts of Shakespeare as ‘ancient’ (or ‘aunciant’, ‘auncient’, ‘auntient’, etc.). ‘Ancient’ in this sense, in its various forms, was originally a corruption of ‘ensign’, and from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries the forms were interchangeable. Shakespeare himself may well have used both. There is no question that the sense conveyed by modern ‘ensign’ is overwhelmingly dominant in Shakespeare’s designation of Iago (in Othello) and Pistol (in 2 Henry IV, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor), and it is equally clear that ‘ancient’ could be seriously misleading, so we prefer ‘ensign’. This is contrary to the editorial tradition, but a parallel is afforded by the noun ‘dolphin’, which is the regular spelling in Shakespearian texts for the French ‘dauphin’. Here tradition favours ‘dauphin’, although it did not become common in English until the later seventeenth century. It would be as misleading to imply that Iago and Pistol were ancient as that the Dauphin of France was an aquatic mammal.

Punctuation, too, poses problems. Judging by most of the early, ‘good’ quartos as well as the section of Sir Thomas More believed to be by Shakespeare, he himself punctuated lightly. The syntax of his time was in any case more fluid than ours; the imposition upon it of a precisely grammatical system of punctuation reduces ambiguity and imposes definition upon indefinition. But Elizabethan scribes and printers seem to have regarded punctuation as their prerogative; thus, the 1600 quarto of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is far more precisely punctuated than any Shakespearian manuscript is likely to have been; and Ralph Crane clearly imposed his own system upon the texts he transcribed. So it is impossible to put much faith in the punctuation of the early texts. Additionally, their system is often ambiguous: the question mark could signal an exclamation, and parentheses were idiosyncratically employed. Modern editors, then, may justifiably replace the varying, often conflicting systems of the early texts by one which attempts to convey their sense to the modern reader. Working entirely from the early texts, we have tried to use comparatively light pointing which will not impose certain nuances upon the text at the expense of others. Readers interested in the punctuation of the original texts will find it reproduced with minimal alteration in our original-spelling edition.

Theatre is an endlessly fluid medium. Each performance of a play is unique, differing from others in pace, movement, gesture, audience response, and even—because of the fallibility of human memory—in the words spoken. It is likely too that in Shakespeare’s time, as in ours, changes in the texts of plays were consciously made to suit varying circumstances: the characteristics of particular actors, the place in which the play was performed, the anticipated reactions of his audience, and so on. The circumstances by which Shakespeare’s plays have been transmitted to us mean that it is impossible to recover exactly the form in which they stood either in his own original manuscripts or in those manuscripts, or transcripts of them, after they had been prepared for use in the theatre. Still less can we hope to pinpoint the words spoken in any particular performance. Nevertheless, it is in performance that the plays lived and had their being. Performance is the end to which they were created, and in this edition we have devoted our efforts to recovering and presenting texts of Shakespeare’s plays as they were acted in the London playhouses which stood at the centre of his professional life.


Readers of this edition may find it helpful to have a note of some of its more distinctive features. Fuller discussion is to be found in the General Introduction, and in the Textual Companion (1987).


This volume includes all the writings believed by the editors to have been written, wholly or in part, by Shakespeare. Like all other editions, it also prints a few poems of uncertain authorship (see Various Poems, pp. 805-811). Information about reasons for inclusion and exclusion can be found in the Textual Companion, ‘The Canon and Chronology of Shakespeare’s Plays’, pp. 69-144).


Each work is preceded by a brief introduction summarizing essential background information.


The works are printed in conjectured order of composition as determined by the editors. The simplest way to find any given work is to refer to the Alphabetical List of Contents (pp. xi-xii). (Short poems are listed under the general title of ‘Various Poems’.)

The Words

Every new edition of Shakespeare differs to some extent from its predecessors. Because this edition represents a radical rethinking of the text, it departs from tradition more than most. New emendations of disputed readings have been introduced. At times we restore original readings that have traditionally been emended. Spelling and punctuation have been thoroughly reconsidered (see General Introduction, pp. xv-xlii). Our most radical departures from tradition relate to the plays that survive in more than one early text. In the belief that these texts are more likely to reflect unrevised and revised versions, rather than differently corrupted versions of a lost original (as has generally been supposed), we have abandoned the tradition of conflation. Passages surviving only in a text that we have not selected as our base text are printed not in the body of the play but as Additional Passages (as, for example, at the end of Hamlet). Most drastically, we present separately edited texts of both authoritative early editions of King Lear, using the titles under which they first appeared (The History of King Lear for the quarto text of 1608, and The Tragedy of King Lear for the Folio text). The only text in the volume printed from manuscript, Sir Thomas More, calls for individual treatment, which is discussed in the introduction to the play.

Stage Directions

Stage directions are based on those of the early editions, where they vary in amplitude and in style. They have been amended where necessary in order to signal requisite action. Changes are not automatically signalled. Special brackets (⌈ ⌉) indicate that the action signalled, its placing, or the identity of the speaker, is, in the editor’s opinion, open to question.

Act and Scene Divisions

None of Shakespeare’s plays printed in his lifetime is divided into acts and scenes, and the scattered divisions in the Folio have no certain claim to authenticity. Up to about 1609, plays appear to have been given with no act breaks. For convenience of reference we follow the standard practice of dividing the plays into five acts and the acts into scenes, on the principle that a new scene begins after the stage is cleared. We have rethought the traditional divisions, resulting in a few divergences from the norm.

In plays such as The Tempest, where the practice, dating from around 1609, of observing act breaks was followed, the break is signalled by a Tudor rose ().

For reasons explained elsewhere, Pericles, Edward III, Sir Thomas More, and The History of King Lear (based on the 1608 quarto) are divided only into scenes.


Titles have been rethought, so that for example the play printed in the Folio as The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth, and traditionally known as Henry VIII, is here given the title of All Is True, under which it was first acted. The Alphabetical List of Contents (pp. xi-xii) lists plays under traditional as well as rethought form.



ANY encounter with Shakespeare, on page or on stage, presents us with two related linguistic challenges:• a semantic challenge: we have to work out what his language means, if we are to follow the plots, understand the descriptions of people and places, and take in what he (in the poems) or his characters (in the plays) are saying and thinking,

• a pragmatic challenge: we have to appreciate the effects that his choice of language conveys, if we are to explain the style in which he or his characters talk, see why other characters react in the way they do, and understand what is happening to our intellect and emotions as we read, watch, or listen to their exchanges.

Most of the time we respond to these challenges with unselfconscious ease, because the language of Shakespeare is the same, or only minimally different, from the language we use today. We need no explanatory linguistic notes, or specialist dictionaries or grammars, to understand the semantics of such lines as: SIR JOHN Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?

(I Henry IV, 1.2.1)


If music be the food of love, play on.

(Twelfth Night, 1.1.1)


To be, or not to be; that is the question.

(Hamlet, 3.1.58)

The thought may be demanding upon occasion; but the language is no barrier.

Nor do we need a corresponding scholarly apparatus to appreciate the pragmatic force underlying such lines as: PRINCE HARRY [of Sir John] That villainous, abominable misleader of youth

(I Henry IV, 2.5.467)


My name, sir, is Marina.

(Pericles, 21.131)

SHYLOCK [of a jewel] ... I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor.

(Merchant of Venice, 3.1.113)

If we refer to the context in which these lines occur, we find that they are, in turn, a jocular insult, a moment of revelation, and a nostalgic reflection; but we do not need to look up editorial notes to decide whether to laugh, cry, or sympathize as we take in what is said.

At the other extreme, there is Shakespearian language which is so far removed from our modern linguistic intuitions that without specialist help we are at a loss to know what to make of it, semantically or pragmatically. We have problems understanding what it means, or how we should react to it, or why it makes characters behave in the way they do: SIR JOHN [to Prince Harry] What a plague have I to do with a buff jerkin?

(I Henry IV, 1.2.45-6)

KENT [to Oswald . . . [you] lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable, finical rogue.

(The Tragedy of King Lear, 2.2.15-17).

SIR TOBY [to Sir Andrew, of challenging Cesario] ... If thou ‘thou’st’ him some thrice, it shall not be amiss.

(Twelfth Night, 3.2.42-3)

The general meaning and force of these three utterances is plain: the first is a jocular expostulation; the second is a savage character assault; the third is an incitement to be insulting. But if we do not have a clear understanding of what the words mean or the impact they carry, we would be at a serious disadvantage if someone were to interrogate us on the point. Why should a buff jerkin upset Sir John? (We need to know they were worn by law officers.) How relevant an insult is finical? (The word meant ‘nit-picking’ or ‘over-fussy’ - a description, we might imagine, which a steward would find particularly irritating.) Why is thou such an asset in making a challenge? (Because courtiers would normally address each other as you, and their servants as thou; calling a fellow-courtier thou three times would be especially galling.) Difficulties of this kind have come about because of language change.

Shakespeare was writing in the middle of a period of English linguistic history called Early Modern English, which runs from around 1500 to around 1750. It was an age when the language was beginning to settle down after a turbulent few centuries when its structure radically altered from its Anglo-Saxon character. Old English (used until the twelfth century) is so different from Modern English that it has to be approached as we would a foreign language. Middle English (used until the fifteenth century) is very much more familiar to modern eyes and ears, but we still feel that a considerable linguistic distance separates us from those who wrote in it - Chaucer and his contemporaries. During the fifteenth century, a huge amount of change affected English pronunciation, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, so that Shakespeare would have found Chaucer almost as difficult to read as we do. But between Jacobethan times and today the changes have been very limited. Although we must not underestimate the problems posed by such words as buff jerkin, finical, and thou, we must not exaggerate them either. Most of Early Modern English is the same as Modern English. The evidence lies in the fact that there are many lines of Shakespeare where we feel little or no linguistic distance at all: BRUTUS ... If there be any in this assembly, any dear

friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to

Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend

demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my

answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved

Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living,

and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to

live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for

him. As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it. As he was

valiant, I honour him. But as he was ambitious, I

slew him.

(Julius Caesar, 3.2.17-27)

That is why we call the period ‘Early Modern’ English rather than, say, ‘Late Middle’ English. The name suggests a closeness to the language of the present day.

Writing and speaking

The identity between Early Modern and Modern English can be illustrated from all areas of language structure - the writing system, the sound system, the grammar, the vocabulary, and the structure of the spoken or written discourse. However, it must be recognized that in the first two of these areas the identity is an artefact - the result of conventional editorial and performance practice. The Early Modern English system of spelling and punctuation is actually very different from that which we encounter in Modern English; but we would never guess from reading most editions. Just under half of the words in the First Folio have a spelling wh