In an ordinary room off a beige corridor in a dull 1930s Oxford building, four priceless early editions of Hamlet lie thrillingly open on a large round table that once belonged to John Ruskin.
It’s hugely tempting to touch, but this is a situation where discretion is the better part of valour.
These are the Bodleian Library’s quarto copies (a cheap way of printing on paper that was then folded in four) of the Danish prince’s very “Tragicall Historie”, printed between 1611 and 1637. They spend most of their lives locked away in the darkness of the New Bodleian Library’s vaults, under the watchful eye of Clive Hurst, the library’s director of rare books.
“We’ll gladly make them accessible if people have a good reason,” says Mr. Hurst. “But even serious Shakespeare scholars rarely ask to look at the primary sources — they tend to stick to the Arden Shakespeare.” The Arden may be the accepted premier scholarly edition to which academics, students and actors most frequently refer, but a new online database is set to make it easier for anyone interested in Shakespeare to compare and contrast the earliest editions of his plays that still exist.
Even if you’re in receipt of a generous grant that allows you to fly all over the world to view individual quartos in the flesh, Mr. Hurst points out, libraries guard their precious copies jealously. This website is the first opportunity anyone has ever had to compare different editions side by side.
Funded by the U.K. Joint Information Systems Committee and the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, the Shakespeare Quartos Archive (www.quartos.org) is a free resource that will in time reproduce at least one copy of every edition of Shakespeare’s plays printed in quarto before the theatres were closed by the Puritan parliament in 1642.
Currently, there are 32 copies of Hamlet available to view — all contributed by the project’s partner institutions, which own the majority of pre-1642 quartos: the Bodleian, the British Library, the University of Edinburgh Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Huntingdon Library and the National Library of Scotland.
The website offers far more than just a photographic reproduction of these rare texts. Academics were invited on to an advisory forum to suggest features they felt would be most useful, explains Pip Willcox, digital editor of the Oxford Digital Library, who has edited the plays so that the trickier composition of these early versions is clarified in a transcribed version that can be viewed alongside each page.
As a condition of the project’s funding, and unusually in academia, the website, built by the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, is open access.
Features that would be impossible to replicate even by traipsing off to university libraries all over the world include the facility to overlay a speech from one edition on top of the same speech from another.
For Christie Carson, senior lecturer in English at Royal Holloway, the ease of comparison is invaluable in thinking about what differences between texts mean in terms of performance history. “Hamlet is an interesting example because the placement of ‘to be or not to be’ is crucial to the development of Hamlet’s character,” she explains.
“You can keep your annotations private, or make them public,” explains Ms. Willcox.
Ben Burton, outside lecturer in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature at Hertford College and Somerville colleges, Oxford, says he’s already used the website to encourage students to think about how differences between texts affect the way early modern literature is interpreted.
The students were set the task of editing the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. Looking at the differing versions, they were told to make their own decisions as to what punctuation should be used and comment on the discrepancies they found.
“The archive is ideally suited to this exercise, as it makes it easy for them to identify and examine the variations. Used in this way, the archive can help enliven a form of textual analysis that many students find dry and esoteric,” he says.
Having recently visited six libraries in the U.K. and the U.S. to examine six of the seven surviving second quarto editions of Hamlet — the last one is in Poland and he’s not made it over there yet — Gabriel Egan, reader in Shakespeare studies at Loughborough University and author of Reading Shakespeare’s Mind, says the fact that early copies are so spread out is a cause of academic arguments. “I’m interested in the small differences between the copies of a single edition arising because printers would stop the press during a run, make corrections to the type, restart the press and then mix the corrected with the uncorrected sheets,” he explains.
“In the case of the second quarto of Hamlet, the 2007 Arden Shakespeare reports that scholars don’t even agree what all the differences between the seven exemplars are. A couple of scholars reckon they’ve found a press correction in the Yale exemplar, but the Arden editors weren’t able to confirm this. It’s surprising that the state of the text of the first good edition of the most famous work of English literature should be the subject of uncertainty, but there it is.” As a member of the project’s advisory forum, Mr. Egan says that his central concern was that the archive should not just be freely available, but also manipulable by users. “Those who make a resource — Google Maps, or the Shakespeare quartos archive, for instance — must be aware that they themselves won’t be able to think up the most exciting new uses for it, so they must provide a way for others to suck in the data over the internet and synthesise it,” he explains.
What are the next quarto versions set for upload to the archive? Ms. Willcox says her first choice would be Romeo and Juliet, and Mr. Hurst nominates Lear. Maybe they should wait to see David Tennant’s next choice of Shakespeare role, select the play based on that and invite him to the launch: there surely couldn’t be a better way to publicise — and popularise — a website.