Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
We all love Shakespeare,
And hope you do too!
Well, it is not for us to tell you what to think, but we can probably all agree that Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, and what better Shakespeare play to consider on Saint Valentine’s day than Romeo and Juliet! But what is it? A love story? Love certainly appears to be one of the main themes. A comedy? It’s definitely full of humour. A history? Certainly the Romeo and Juliet story in various forms predates Shakespeare. Or (spoiler alert) a tragedy? Best not give away the end, although Shakespeare does right at the start of the play in the prologue, so I’m not sure why we’re worried!
In King’s Library we are lucky enough to have two early sources for this well-known play. The first is a quarto edition published in 1622 by John Smethwicke in London. The play is thought to have been written in the 1590s, and certainly performed by 1597 when the first quarto edition was published. Sometimes known as the ‘bad quarto’, that edition is considered to be an unreliable source, but a more reliable quarto edition (the second quarto) appeared in 1599. It was reprinted in 1609 (the third quarto) and our 1622 fourth quarto is mainly based on that.
The second source we have for Romeo and Juliet is the First Folio edition of 1623, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays without which about half of his dramatic output would be unknown to us today because only about half of his plays had previously been published. We have recently digitised our copy of the First Folio and it will be available to consult online very soon because, like many other institutions, King’s Library is marking the 400th anniversary of the printing of the First Folio in 1623 (see https://folio400.com/) throughout this year.
The famous prologue (with all the spoilers!) appears in the 1622 edition, but not in the First Folio:
Here we see two of the famous moments in the play, the first when Romeo and Juliet first meet at the Capulets’ House, and the second, that iconic balcony scene:
As you might expect, there are significant differences in typography, spelling and punctuation between the two editions, and it is interesting to see them here by comparing the final two pages of each:
Whether you’re observing Saint Valentine’s day today or not, you could do worse than spending a little time reading some Shakespeare, and we hope you have an enjoyable day whatever you’re doing!
The digitisation of the King’s copy of the First Folio was made possible thanks to a donation from Fanny Greber in memory of her husband, Lloyd D. Raines (KC 1972).