Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
Shakespeare’s plays were printed in different formats. Some of the plays were first printed as quartos, or books in which the paper is folded in half twice, creating a smaller book. They were subsequently printed as folios, in which the pages are folded in half once, and later quarto and folio versions followed. None of Shakespeare’s manuscripts has survived, and Shakespeare himself was not involved in the publication of his plays. After his death, two actors from Shakespeare’s company, John Heminge and Henry Condell, were responsible for having the First Folio published in 1623, a series of 36 plays in folio format.
The Quarto (Q) and Folio (F) texts differ considerably from one another in terms of content, including omission or inclusion of passages, variant wording and spelling, and other details. Scholars have felt that the Q texts of certain plays, such as King Lear, might have been based on actors reporting what they could remember of performances, or on someone in the audience writing down what they heard. Quartos like these, which seem to have a faulty text, have been called ‘bad’ or pirated quartos. Another explanation for errors might be that a play was printed using Shakespeare’s ‘foul papers’, or rough drafts. 
One reason for doubting the ‘correctness’ of the Q texts is the remark made in the preface to the First Folio, addressed to the readers: ‘[...] you were abus'd with diuerse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of iniurious impostors, that expos'd them: euen those,are now offer'd to your view cur'd, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceiued the[m]’.  However, nothing can be certain. During the processes of performance, remembering (and perhaps stealing), transcribing, correcting, comparing, revising and printing, there were so many opportunities for variance, error, additions or omissions, that scholars are still debating the precise relationships between the First Quarto, Folio and Second Quarto editions.
Differences between the different versions sometimes seem to have been based on mishearings. The editors of the Arden Lear give the example of Q 4.6.154-5, ‘a dogge, so bade’, which appears as ‘a dog’s obeyed’ in F. The latter makes sense in context: Lear is speaking about a beggar running away from a dog, and comparing corrupt or hypocritical officials to the dog: ‘there thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office’.  A famous example of variant readings comes from Hamlet: ‘O that this too too sallied flesh would melt,/ Thaw and resolve itself into a dew’.  Q1 and Q2 have ‘sallied’ (assailed): Q1 reads: ‘O that this too much griev’d and sallied flesh [...]’. ‘Griev’d and sallied’ do seem to go together, yet some editors have changed ‘sallied’ to ‘sullied’ (polluted). F, however, has a still different word, ‘solid’, which goes well with ‘melt’. Again from Hamlet, the soliloquy beginning ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! is the F version: Q1 has ‘dunghill idiote slave’. This may or may not relate to deletions of profanity in F texts. 
As can be seen, editors of modern editions are faced with a number of difficult decisions. Is it possible to know which texts are more ‘correct’, or closer to Shakespeare’s intentions? Ought F and Q readings to be put together into a modern edition, or should these versions be treated as separate? Editors of Shakespearean plays take great care to explain how they have approached all these decisions, and many more, and record variations in footnotes and appendices. But, without manuscripts in Shakespeare’s own hand, we can never be certain of an authentic original. Every edition that is produced, unless it is a facsimile reproduction of one of the earliest printed texts, will represent someone’s idea of how the play can best be represented and offered to a modern audience. For example, the editions we read today nearly always have modernised spelling and punctuation. Ultimately, the ‘perfect’ version of a Shakespeare play cannot be found, but the different versions and variants of Shakespeare’s plays increase the richness of what they have to offer.
1. William Shakespeare, King Lear
, ed. by R. A. Foakes, The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series (London: Nelson, 1977; Thomson Learning, 2005), p. 115, citing G. I. Duthie’s edition of King Lerar (Oxford: Blackwell, 1949) for the argument that actors reconstructed the play, and W. W. Greg, The Shakespeare First Folio
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1955), who discusses the question of ‘foul papers’. Return to text
4. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series (London: Thomson Learning, 2006), 1.2.129-30, pp. 175-6. Return to text
7. The editors of the Arden Othello mention that ‘more than fifty instances of profanity’ in Q were deleted or replaced with other words in F, including the harmless ‘Tush’ (1.1.1). William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. by E. A. J. Honigmann, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series (London: Thomson Learning, 1997, 2004), p. 352. Return to text
8. For very detailed explanations of the specific problems involved in preparing a modern edition from the Q and F texts, cf. Hamlet, pp. 74-94 and pp. 465-532; King Lear, pp. 110-151 and pp. 393-415; Othello, pp. 1-2 and pp. 351-67; and William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, ed. by John Wilders, The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series (London: Routledge, 1995; Thomson Learning, 2003-4), 75-84 and pp. 303-15. Return to text