Lecture on “The Bad Quartos”

Monday night I went to the Wanamaker Playhouse, one of my favorite little theaters.


A replica of Jacobean theaters, it’s attached to the Globe.  I’ve seen several academic presentations here – lectures, readings, and a memorable performance of Henry V with the original pronunciation.  When I’m planning a trip to London, I always look up what’s on at the Wanamaker.

This time around, I got a ticket to hear a lecture from John Wolfson on “The Bad Quartos.”  He is a rare book collector and playwright, and he spoke specifically on the differences between the Quarto versions of Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V that were published in 1602 & 1603 and the Folio editions published in 1623.  The Folio versions are the ones we’re all familiar with.  The quarto ones are significantly shorter, and Wolfson theorized that they are actually rehearsal texts.  I was already aware of the theory that Shakespeare (and other playwrights of the day) would write as much as possible to have it all approved by the Master of Revels, then would cut the texts down to what they want to use in performance.  It’s a shortcut, a way to make sure you can adapt your plays as needed without having to go through the approval process every time.  Wolfson pointed out the missing prologues, scenes, and characters that would generally, when cut, make each of these plays far more palatable for general audiences.  Not all quarto versions are good (the ones for Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet were “very bad quartos,” he said, as they include scenes that weren’t even written by Shakespeare!), but he did make a good case for these versions to be made more widely accessible.

Plus, bonus fact, he said that the way they distributed scripts to the actors was by having the playwright/manager read the entire script out loud at the first rehearsal while each actor copied down his parts.  It’s an interesting way to get the actors to engage with the text and to kick off the memorizing process, one which I’ll keep in mind for future rehearsals.

The lecture finished earlier than I expected, so I walked the Thames to the National Theater.


Their evening performances had already started, but their gift shop was open.  It’s one of my favorite gift shops, with a large script bookshop (although they had no scripts by the three I always check for – Zimmerman, Ives, and Ruhl) and good gifts.  I picked up an “Introduction to Theater” book with good explanations for middle schoolers, a copy of Present Laughter, and a poster I’ve wanted for a few years now:

Although I didn’t actually get the poster.  They had it available as a tea towel, which I figured would be much easier to pack home and which I had no objections to pinning on my wall.  I’m not entirely too sure what one does with tea towels, but they are certainly plentiful in shops in the UK.

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