There’s a famous line in Hamlet: “O that this too too solid flesh would melt” (1.ii.129). Not only is it the start of an agonised soliloquy in which Hamlet tortures himself over his mother’s apparent desire for her dead husband’s brother, but it is also a line over which many generations of scholars have wrangled. You see, there are several different editions of Hamlet: a first quarto printed in 1603, and then another in 1604, before the folio edition appeared in 1623. The quartos (so named for being the size of a quarter of a sheet of paper) would normally be used for any critical text because they are the earliest. Unfortunately, the quartos for Hamlet are so corrupt that they can’t really be trusted. Nevertheless…they still might contain passages that are more correct than the folio, composed after Shakespeare’s death, ever could be.
To return to that line of Hamlet: the folio has ‘solid flesh’, but the first quarto has ‘sallied flesh’, and the second quarter has either ‘sallied’ or ‘sullied’. Each variant changes the way we see Hamlet.
But what does this have to do with Open Shakespeare? Well, this little example shows how important it is to have a reliable text for each play, especially now that we will be annotating and one day producing critical editions from them. Currently, we have the Gutenberg text of the first folio, although, like many other first folios, this text is actually a hodgepodge of other first folios recomposed sometime in the 18th Century. We also have the Moby Shakespeare, so called for the man who produced the most widely circulated digital version of Shakespeare’s plays – but without saying what edition he used…
Having consulted with a few professors here in Cambridge (credit where it’s due: the info about composite folios comes from Prof. Kerrigan), it appears that there is a first folio actually in Cambridge. If we could find a way of digitising it, this would be a great benefit to Open Shakespeare, establishing, if not a ‘perfect’ text (which, once the Globe and Shakespeare’s own playtexts burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII could never now be possible), at least one with some historical authority.
I have no idea how we will digitise the Cambridge folio, so any suggestions would be welcome. I heard once that a young Arthur Miller, in order to hone his play-writing skills, copied out almost all of Shakespeare’s plays by hand. So, if you’re an aspiring playwright with lots of time on your hands, do get in touch.