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Which Shakespeare texts are best for language studies?

Aside from whether to go for a modern edition or not, you need to decide which plays to choose if you want to study Shakespeare’s language.
This is our penultimate video talk on how we access Shakespeare’s language, and we are focusing on choosing Shakespeare’s texts. We’re going to look at reasons for and against choosing certain text attributed to or thought to be by Shakespeare, at least in part. We will consider The First Folio of 1623, a mixture of text from The First Folio and selected quartos, and the canon, as far as plays are concerned, which typically means the First Folio plus Pericles The Two Noble Kinsman. One thing to stress is that because this talk is structured around a dichotomy of “for and against,” it involves broad reasons. Sometimes the reasons are a little more nuanced and complex than my presentation suggests.
Let’s start with the reasons for using The First Folio. Well, perhaps the key one is that it is the earliest publication intended to represent the works of Shakespeare. Half of the plays in the folio had never been printed before. The First Folio is the only authority for these plays. Sure there were earlier quartos of some plays, but they are not equally good. The first quartos for Romeo Juliet, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Hamlet have been deemed the bad quartos. And finally, some, the Royal Shakespeare Company for example, claimed that the folio is better for the theatre, perhaps because, for instance, it has more stage directions in it than earlier copies.
Now the reasons against choosing The First Folio. Importantly, what we must remember, that it is a volume of plays. It does not include Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, or importantly the sonnets. It does not include all the plays, or parts of plays, known or believed, by at least some scholars, to be by Shakespeare– Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsman, Edward III, Double Falsehood, et cetera. And what is included is almost certainly not just by Shakespeare. Attribution scholars have suggested that the folio includes writing by Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, Thomas Nashe, George Peele, and Christopher Marlowe. 16 of the folio plays have previously been published in quarto format.
The point here is that some of those texts clearly constituted the basis for the folio. And in the further stages of production for the folio, further errors and alterations were introduced. In other words, some of the quartos might be thought better texts. Another possible choice is the Folio-Quarto mixed hybrid which essentially means using the plays that only appear in the folio plus selected quartos for the rest. This choice is the one that the majority of the leading reputable editions of today make. There is one reason in favour of this, but it is absolutely key. At the level of individual plays, we get the best plays textual scholarship suggests we have. Best here means the closest to Shakespeare’s presumed own work.
The reasons against such a choice are as follows. As a collection it’s a hybrid. It didn’t exist as such. It’s a modern construction. There is more willingness to admit or reject particular plays from the collection entirely. Hybrid collections vary in their contents. Strictly speaking, one’s research conclusions will always be in part circumscribed by the particular Folio-Quarto collection used. Although, admittedly, it is fairly clear cut in some cases. In others there is no clear agreement about what counts as best. There is no gold standard here, because we do not actually know what Shakespeare wrote. So it can never be verified.
Now the final choice– the Cannon. This essentially means using the plays of The First Folio plus Pericles and also The Two Noble Kinsman. Reasons supporting this choice include the fact that you would be selecting the most widely used set of text treated as if they were written by Shakespeare. This is what people in schools, universities, theatres, and so on will be using as Shakespearean. Significantly, the canon includes the poetry, especially the sonnets. The fact that the plays of the canon are widely and easily available in all formats around the globe is important for promoting contact with Shakespeare. Of course, there are reasons against this choice.
The canon was established by The First Folio and cemented by subsequent editions of the folio. For that reason, it has many of the disadvantages of the folio. The canon now includes Pericles– thought to have been partly written by George Wilkins– and The Two Noble Kinsmen– believed to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher. The final thing to mention, although there are significant exceptions, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company complete works, is that individual texts in the canonical tradition are more agnostic about their sources and thus tend towards hotchpotch approach– cobbling together bits and pieces even, in some cases, with no acknowledgment of where they come from.
So that was a quick overview of the pros and cons of choosing The First Folio, a Folio-Quarto hybrid, and the canon.
Let me conclude with a personal view. It must be clear by now that there is no perfect choice in an absolute sense. I say this, not least, because we will never know for sure the exact words that Shakespeare penned. I think one’s choices depend on your research goals. The ideal, perhaps, is to have all versions of possible Shakespeare’s works available, and then we can track what is happening across all of them or dynamically combine them to form specific collections for specific purposes. This possibility of realising this ideal does not yet exist. But with digitization projects and open access we are moving towards it.

Aside from issues to do with, for example, whether to go for a modern edition or an original text, you need to decide which plays to choose if you want to study Shakespeare’s language.

This is not least because whether or not Shakespeare wrote (or at least contributed to the writing of) some of those plays is occasionally a matter of controversy.

The First Folio

You might decide to use the plays of the First Folio. After all, it is the earliest publication intended to represent the works of Shakespeare. However, there are reasons against this choice – it only includes the plays, and not, for example, the poetry attributed to Shakespeare, for example.

Another is that some have argued that it does not include plays or parts of plays believed to have been written by Shakespeare. Conversely, some have argued that what is there in the First Folio includes plays or parts of plays thought to be at least co-written with other playwrights.

First Folio, supplemented

Another choice is to go for the First Folio but supplement it with other texts, selected Quartos, for example – many modern editions do exactly this.

This hybrid choice can have the merit of being based on the “best” plays that textual and attribution scholarship suggests we have (“best” meaning closest to Shakespeare’s presumed own work).

But an argument against this choice is precisely that it is a hybrid, a modern construction with no historical parallel as a collection. Also, whilst scholars agree in some cases about what counts as “best”, there is endless debate about others.

First Folio, Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen

Finally, a choice might be to go for the canon, essentially the First Folio, plus Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen. This has the merit of being widely available and used in various formats around the globe. But this choice has the same disadvantages as those of the First Folio, and there is also considerable doubt about whether (or which parts of) Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen Shakespeare actually wrote.

What collection of Shakespeare’s works do you use to study his language? What would you argue is the best choice?

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