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Illyria Online

"What is, or was, a 'bad' quarto (with reference to The Merry Wives Of Windsor)?"

Juliano Zaffino

As with my previous post, this "essay" (/series of words) is adapted from a presentation made and delivered during my Shakespeare Studies MA, this time for the Textual Studies class. The brief was to answer the above question by providing a critical chronology pertaining to 'bad' quartos with specific focus on Irace, Marcus and Maguire, and to do so quickly! The presentation slides are screenshots (hence the black border), and each slide is here preceded by the spoken part of my presentation with which it corresponds. As ever, I apologise for any errors or oversights on my part, please be forgiving.


In order to discuss what is or what was a bad quarto, with specific reference to the first Quarto of Merry Wives, I’m going to take a chronological look at the critical appraisal of this issue, taking snapshots from the past century-or-so through to the present, focusing on and drawing attention to arguments by such critics as P.A. Daniels, W.W. Greg, Paul Werstein, Kathleen O. Irace, Leah Marcus and Laurie Maguire.

Daniels argues, in 1881, that the first Quarto and the Folio ‘each in turn convicts the other as imperfect’, and that it is impossible to determine whether they represent departures from one common original, or from two separate versions.

Greg seems highly influential, in that Irace, Marcus and Maguire all separately refer to him extensively in their later arguments. He sees both Q1 and F as ‘unoriginal’ texts, Q1 based on a text ‘shortened for stage representation’ while F is a revised version of Q1 which attempts to return to the “Original Text”.

I didn’t have time in preparing, and knew I wouldn’t have time in presenting, to cover adequately this period of time. Greg (and Pollard) continue to have a say, and Paul Werstine also comes into the mix. See also Hardin Craig in 1961 – Q1 is ‘both good and Shakespearean’? But it gets interesting again in 1994.

Irace insists on taking the ‘bad’ quartos seriously as ‘theatrical scripts in their own right’. She prioritises explanations for the shortness of the text that don’t undermine its value: simpler staging due to theatrical limitations and the improvement of pace.

Marcus says ‘The transvaluation of “bad” Shakespeare quartos is proceeding more slowly than for the similarly “bad” A text of Doctor Faustus: it seems that we as a culture demand far greater perfection of Shakespeare than we do of Marlowe. And, as most Shakespearean editors are still agreed, Q1 Merry Wives is one of the worst of the “bad” quartos.’ She takes issue with its “lack” of courtly associations, and with how action has been systematically relocated from one printed version to the next, though the alteration in place is not clear-cut. She sees the Quarto as one that “lacks” and “truncates”.

Marcus argues Q1 ‘needs to be considered as distinct from the folio rather than a mere corruption, vastly different in terms of its dramatic patterning and ideological functioning’. But for Marcus, Q is ‘merrier than’ F.

Maguire responds directly, at least twice, to Leah Marcus’ Unediting The Renaissance, and also refers often to Irace. Maguire draws on Greg’s reporter-adapter-reviser trio and expands on this systematically. Maguire presents a table examining such factors as external echoes, internal repetitions, formulaic constructions, insertions, omissions, speech length, stylometrics, unconformities, length, stage directions and speech prefixes to “diagnose” the play. With the evidence, Maguire determines it to have “a strong case for memorial reconstruction”.  Maguire concludes by preferring the term “suspect texts”, and states that her diagnostic tabulation precludes the ability to generalise, that these texts are not suspect in any uniform way.

Melchiori, in his introduction to the 2000 Arden Third Series edition of Merry Wives, he rehashes the history, reaffirms much of the work of Irace, Marcus and Maguire, and discredits work by those such as Eric Sams, who believed in the ‘bad quartos are early versions by Shakespeare’ argument. He sees Q1 as based on ‘an acting version for the stage’ (p.36) and goes on to confirm Gerald Johnson’s 1987 ‘plea for a fresh reappraisal of the relationship between Quarto and Folio in view of “[t]he probability that the Quarto represents a memorial reconstruction of an alternate, adapted version of the play”’ (p.41) So, nearly 100 years after Greg, we find the ‘bad’ quarto circle has become… a literal circle.

It seems like the general consensus has not changed in the intervening years – though, as with all things, I could well be mistaken. To take the easy route again: it is beyond the scope of this presentation… Which, the eagle-eyed amongst you may notice, has not yet addressed the actual question/title of the presentation.

So. What is or was a bad quarto? Now that the bare chronology has been laid out, we can see how ideas of what constitutes a bad quarto, as well as what contributes to its “badness”, have shifted over time to become less dismissive of what is now often referred to as the “short” Quartos. The idea of memorial reconstruction has fallen in and out of favour, and is accepted in a slightly different sense than it was first posited. A so-called ‘bad quarto’ can generally be characterised by its often “garbled” nature, its clear imperfections (independent of inference from later versions such as the Folio), and crucially a shortened text – though this aspect in particular can challenge the term “bad”, as there could be a causal relationship between the shorter nature of a text and dramatic or theatrical simplicity/suitability.

The argument now seems, more-or-less, to channel a lesser-known protagonist whom Maguire quotes in the preface to her book... "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Hamlet, TLN 1295-6).

*All references have been included within the presentation slides.*