Treasures in Full: Shakespeare in Quarto
This exquisite web site was designed and mounted by the British Library to feature their collection of 93 copies of 21 plays in quarto editions printed during the lifetime of Shakespeare and up until the closing of the theatres in 1642. The site is part of the British Library's "Treasures in Full" exhibits, other exhibits featuring Malory's Arthurian Manuscript, Caxton's Chaucer, Gutenberg Bible, Magna Carta, and Renaissance Festival Books. They are equally generous of resources, intelligently designed for easy navigation, free from scholarly baggage and disputes, and a joy to the eye.
For those unfamiliar with early documents or new to Shakespeare altogether, the exhibit begins with a "Basics" section which summarizes Shakespeare's life and career and briefly explains what quartos editions are. A sidebar to the Basics section compares the Hamlet, act 3 scene 1 in the 1603 (bad) and 1605 (good) quarto editions with a link to "compare the two copies." The compare feature works for all the quartos presented and is an invaluable tool for beginners and scholars alike. Especially valuable is the ability to print the two passages being compared side-by-side. In fact, the implementation of printing throughout the exhibit is outstanding, eliminating the need to cut and paste in order to store a printed copy of the materials.
After the Basics section, comes the Background section, containing features on Shakespeare's Life, Shakespeare's Works, Shakespeare's Theatre, Shakespeare in Print, Shakespeare Quartos, and Plays Not In Quarto. Each of the sections is the most general overview, of course, and are presented in bite-sized chunks of text with enlargeable illustrations. Where the section has longer content, it is linked to succeeding pages at the foot of each page. The design is intended to relieve the eye and maintain interest so that the viewer is not overwhelmed by densely textual material, especially at the rather small default font size used throughout. The sections contain a few external links (a link to Shakespeare's will at the national archives, for example, in the Life section) and mostly internal cross-links that expand their usefulness. Where an image occurs, there is always the option to enlarge it for a better view. This is very useful with some images (the illustration of Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender, for example), less useful with other examples which are still too small to inspect closely even in their enlarged state (the illustration of what is thought to be Shakespeare's handwriting from Sir Thomas More). The balance between text and illustration is just right.
The admirable section on the Plays contains cross-links to a detailed description of each play (with plot summary), detailed printing history with bibliographic descriptive links to BL holdings, and even audio links. For example, the summary to The Merchant of Venice contains two audio links, also from the collection of the BL, to John Guilgud as Gratiano in 1.1 (1:45), and Ellen Terry as Portia in 4.1 (1:45). The audio is not streamed, but presented in downloadable wma format. The plot summaries are presented in the traditional Act division, and are usually linked into the actual printed quartos for quick reference. Summaries and detailed information are provided only for plays printed in quarto.
The section on Shakespeare's Theatre contains overviews on the playhouses (Globe, Fortune and Blackfriars only), companies of players (Admiral's Men, Lord Strange's Men, Lord Chamberlain's Men, King's Men, and Pembroke's Men only), and individual players (Alleyn, Armin, James Burbage, Richard Burbage, Condell, Field, Goughe, Heminge, Henslowe (to stretch a point), Kemp, Lowin, Phillips, Pope, Sincklo, Sly and Taylor). The section is the broadest outline, but useful nonetheless for those new to these subjects.
The Shakespeare in Print section gives exemplary summaries of the London book trade, printed plays, and printing Shakespeare. This section is the exception to the general rule that avoids scholarly controversy. It presents the newer view that companies offered their plays for publication, rather than 'guarding them closely' as has so long been the conventional wisdom. The reason why so few (relatively) were published was because of the poor hope of profits by printers:
The Shakespeare in Quarto section contains links to complete bibliographic details of BL holdings for each of the plays in quarto. "All of the British Library's pre-1642 Shakespeare quartos were digitised during 2003. The work was done by Octavo, a company specialising in the creation of digital facsimiles of rare books and manuscripts." Here is a sample bibliographic entry:
This section is briefer, more of an expanded timeline, and deals with the "afterlife" of Shakespeare's plays from the reopening of the theatres in 1660 through modern times. A section is devoted to the Restoration, the 18th Century, 19th Century, Early 20th Century, the Late 20th Century, and a stub for the 21st Century: "The history of Shakespeare in the 21st century is yet to be written." The early 20th century section contains a couple of Olivier speeches one as the prologue from Henry V, and with Stanley Holloway in the gravedigger's scene from Hamlet in audio wma format.
The jewel of the exhibit is, of course, the presentation of electronic facsimiles of all 93 quartos. A system of drop-down menus permits display of any of the quartos or, more importantly, any two of the quartos for side-by-side comparison.
There are convenient controls for paging, magnification and printing, which is extremely useful in making close comparisons. Comparison pages are dynamically generated asp pages, so that links are relative, and cannot be stored as permanent links for class assignments, unfortunately. It would be impossible to handle comparative links in any other way with a collection so large. The bottom of each page contains further navigation controls to jump to any page: "Very few of the early quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays have page numbers. The first three leaves in each quire (section of four leaves) have signatures. Most of the British library’s quartos have been bound with additional blank pages before and after the original printed text." To jump to pages, one must use a page numbering system, page 1 being the first page of text, page -1 the title page, and other blank pages and binding as negative numbers, beginning counting at 1 back. One cannot enter the signature/recto-verso identification in order to jump, nor would one want to try. The texts are cross-linked to full bibliographic materials and to a very useful, sortable (just click the column heads) comparison table of all 93 quartos.
The texts section also contains links to three brief scholarly articles on various texts, called "Expert Views:"
The articles are succinct, authoritative, and pitched just right for the tone of the exhibit.
Extremely valuable among the ancillary materials to the exhibit is a longish page of references, listing the most authoritative sources from which the textual materials in the display were prepared. Also provided are a brief set of links to Internet resource on Shakespeare (we are proud to be included) and a briefer glossary of terms related to early modern book printing.
The exhibit is stunning in its generosity and ongoing contribution to Shakespeare scholarship. It is extremely well designed, useful for the specialist (in the comparison of quarto texts) and gently leading to the newcomer. The tone is scholarly but not stuffing, avoiding most controversies in favor of well established facts. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the British Library for this outstanding resource.