Detail of an engraving of the interior of a printing shop.
From Nova Reperta (1580). By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The graphic here illustrates one of the problems encountered in Shakespeare's text: the compositor is setting type as his assistant is reading the text itself; mis-hearing on the part of the compositor could result in error.

As well as difficulties in reading Shakespeare's or the scribe's handwriting, the type in the case in front of the compositor could have been put in the wrong box, or he could have reached for the wrong piece (rather like a typo).

Different compositors had different habits of spelling and punctuation (both much freer in Shakespeare's time); up to eight different compositors have been identified in the First Folio, one of whom was apparently an apprentice, and therefore much more likely to make mistakes.

Two major examples of textual puzzles:


  1. One little word

    Hamlet is a jigsaw puzzle for the modern editor trying to reconstruct what Shakespeare actually wrote (Always supposing, of course, that he wrote one thing, and did not revise the play between the various versions). The play exists in three significantly different versions:

    • the "bad" quarto of 1603
    • the authorized quarto which followed (1603), and
    • the Folio text of 1623.

    The first line in Hamlet's first soliloquy reads (in both the first and second quartos), "O, that this too, too sallied flesh would melt"; the Folio subsitutes the more seemingly logical "solid." But "sallied" occurs elsewhere as a variant spelling of the word "sullied." Could it be that the earlier versions are right, and that Hamlet imagines himself, like trodden snow, sullied, dirtied, and capable of purification only if his flesh goes through the cycle of thawing, evaporating, and condensing into dew?

  2. Another war of roses

    Juliet's famous lines about the rose were misquoted for many years from the original, bad quarto: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet"--but the correct reading from the second, good quarto reads ". . . by any other word would smell as sweet." And Bogey never did say "Play it again, Sam," either.