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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. The Text of Shakespeare

§ 5. Carelessness of Players and Printers

The mangled state of the text in the first quartos of Parts II and III of Henry VI, The Merry Wives, Henry V, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet shows another disintegrating factor at work besides adaptation. Publishers who could not secure a copy of a play by any other means would employ a shorthand writer to report it, while it was being acted. This report, naturally, would be very imperfect; some poetaster would patch it up as best he could, and thus it found its way into print. The numerous mistakes due to imperfect hearing confirm this view of the origin of these texts, such as “tigers of Arcadia” for “tigers of Hyrcania,” “Cophetua” for “Caveto,” etc.

The first quartos of these plays have been regarded as earlier drafts subsequently revised by the poet. This theory is plausible with regard to The Merry Wives, where the quarto contains passages which evidently do not go back to the same original as the corresponding passages in the folio, and to the two parts of Henry VI, which appear under a different title. But the causes already enumerated are sufficient to account for the state of the quarto text; and, wherever this is admitted to be not only an adaptation of the supposed earlier draft, but a garbled version of the adaptation, it is difficult to see how the question of revision can be fruitfully discussed.

Numerous minor omissions in the quartos are due to carelessness in copying either on the part of the players or the printers. In this way, a whole scene was omitted in earlier impressions of the quarto of Part II of Henry IV, but restored in later copies. The very numerous half-lines which still remain in the text may be attributed to this cause. Sometimes, a passage drops out owing to similarity of expressions at the beginning and end.

The text of the first folio has a more uniform value than that of the quartos. But, in two respects, it is, on the whole, hardly any more trustworthy. For the punctuation and metre of the plays, we are largely dependent on the work of modern editors. In individual cases, however, the metrical arrangement of the folio is vastly superior. In King Lear, the verse of the folio, to a large extent, is represented by prose in the quarto. The duplicate quarto plays, in which the folio text was drawn from one of the quartos, afford a test of its conjectural emendations. They are of little importance and generally for the worse. Where real corruption exists (e.g. “perttaunt-like,” in Love’s Labour’s Lost) it is usually left alone.

Alternative readings are very common in the variant quarto plays. There is sometimes very little to choose between them; but, in such cases, the folio text is to be preferred, as having better authority. But, ordinarily, it is better in itself. The quarto text, though often substituting a more usual word or phrase, occasionally preserves the unmistakable words of Shakespeare. The inimitable “Love’s thrice repured nectar” appears, in the folio, as “reputed.”