The British Museum has put online its “93 copies of the 21 plays by Shakespeare printed in quarto before the theatres were closed in 1642.” At the Comparing the texts page:

You can view the British Library’s copies of Shakespeare quartos separately or you can compare any two copies.
If you choose to see one copy at a time, you will get two pages on the screen as you would if you had the book open in front of you. To read the text you may have to enlarge the image by clicking on it or using the enlarge icon…
You can also compare the text of any two of the 93 copies. To do this, select a copy from the ‘View one copy’ drop down lists on the left hand search form above. Then select another copy from the ‘Compare with another text’ drop down lists on the right hand search form above. Even different copies of the same edition may not be exactly the same, because of the way the quartos were printed.
If you choose to compare two copies, you will see one page from each side by side…

It’s absolutely amazing to be able to flip through the 1603 First Quarto of Hamlet and read it as easily as if you had the book in your hand (if the museum would let you hold it). (BBC news story here, courtesy of xsjsx at Wordorigins.)


  1. Oh god yes. I started reading the first quarto of _Hamlet_, sucking the juices out of every u/v and extra e and the handwritten annotation ‘Polack’ against _pollax_… until I remembered I had far more urgent things to do and mustn’t get out the folio text to compare.

  2. Original Shakespeare tangentially related:
    I thought that this article on a Shakespearean performance using Elizabethan pronunciations (New York Time FreeRegReq) sounded interesting. I’m surprised this sort of thing hasn’t been done more often.
    Some of the observations made in the article: apparently, despite the Great Vowel Shift, the language remained quite comprehensible to modern ears and was even considered more accessible by younger listeners (not as posh sounding) and a whole bunch of puns and rhymes which had laid dormant and unrecognised for centuries started to work again. Also, whole chunks of the text were easier to say with the effect that the running time of the play was reduced by 10% (which in show business can never be a bad thing).

  3. You know what’s even better than looking at old Shakespeare quartos? Looking at Chaucer editions that are even older, and hosted in the exact same way by the British Library!

  4. That’s great — here‘s the direct link.

Speak Your Mind