Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Quartos and Folios in the English Classroom

Hamlet. First Folio. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.
Hamlet. First Folio. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

By Sara Lehn

“Stand, who is that?”
“Tis I.”

“Who’s there?”
“Nay, answer me.  Stand and unfold yourself.”

What’s the difference between the two exchanges above?  Either not much or quite a lot, depending on your perspective.  Both indicate two people looking to identify each other.  Therefore, both imply a certain level of curiosity or suspicion, as well as the likelihood that they cannot see each other very well.

Both are the opening lines of Hamlet.

The first set of lines comes from the 1603 Quarto of the play.  The second set of lines comes from the 1604 Quarto, and is the one that appears in the First Folio. The second quarto is commonly considered the more authoritative version of the play.

In talking to some of my fellow teachers, I found that, while most were aware that there are quarto and folio versions of the plays, few had considered using the differences between them as a teaching tool.  Personally, it wasn’t until my time at the 2012 Teaching Shakespeare Institute, when I was able to hear a talk by Dr. Barbara Mowat, co-editor of the Folger Editions, that I really saw the worth of these different versions in the secondary classroom.

English teachers across the United States are feeling the pressure of the Common Core and are searching out techniques and tools to address standards such as RL.11-12.4, which asks students to “determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone.”

Many students find this kind of sophisticated close reading difficult, but by providing them with two different possibilities for just a small section of the play, students are able to see how even the tiniest change in diction can affect layers of nuance in the overall impact of the lines.

So, let’s consider for a moment:  What is the difference between these two sets of lines?  One discrepancy my students notice is that in the 1609 Quarto, the second speaker quite simply proclaims himself with a direct “Tis I,” whereas in the folio version he responds cautiously, insisting that his compatriot be the first to identify. This can lead to questions of why Francisco refuses to identify himself, and how this builds a stronger sense of suspense and suspicion in the opening of the play.

From there, my students and I will go on to imagine the differences in the way these lines might be performed.  What body language would Francisco and Barnardo exhibit with each set of lines?  What atmospheric changes might be made to the set, lighting, or special effects?  How might their vocal inflections change?  Students can then pair off and come up with detailed performances or prompt book notations for each of these openings.  After all, these lines say essentially the same thing… but then again, they don’t.

This type of exercise is certainly not limited to Hamlet.  While about half of the plays appear only in the Folio, there are quite a few that have one or more quarto versions.  There are two quartos of both Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, both of which provide some interesting textual differences. Images of the pages and text of the First Folio as well as some of the quarto versions, can be found in the Folger Library’s Luna database, and the text of both folio and quarto versions of the plays can be easily found with a web search using search terms such as “1603 Hamlet Quarto pdf” or similar.

So, next question:

What is the difference, really, if in Act 1, scene 3 of Othello, Desdemona says, “That I love the Moor to live with him” (Quarto)?or if she says “That I did love the Moor to live with him” (Folio).

Or is there no difference at all?

Sara Lehn teaches at Roslyn High School in Roslyn, New York, where she has worked with all grades from 6 through 12.  She is an alumnus of the 2012 Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Sara can be reached at slehn@roslynschools.org.    


  • It is interesting to note that the Folio/Q2 line forms a perfect pun on “Who’s the heir?” – a reading with obvious thematic applications to the play and therefore most likely intentional on the part of an author who, as Samuel Johnson lamented, was addicted to his “fatal Cleopatra,” the double-tongued pun. Jonson, being a dictionary-maker, had sleight truck with the bard’s habit of epistemological mess-making via such punning evocations of theme and identity.

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