A few days ago, I read Richard III. I read it in the first printed edition—the First Quarto (Q1), which was printed in 1597. It was not a facsimile; it was not on-line. It was a copy that was on sale in London in 1597. And it was astonishing.
The librarians and curators at the Huntington have been effusively kind and helpful, and I'm enormously grateful to be here—and I'm particularly grateful to have been able to handle this copy and to make a few photographs of it. The image above is one of them—it's a bit blurry, I'm afraid, but click on it to enlarge it, and you'll see that it contains the oft-quoted line "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
The pages have been removed from their binding and pasted on larger sheets, that have rectangular holes cut in them to allow viewing of both the recto and the verso of each page and that were, in their turn, bound as a book. I could feel the graininess of the paper, note the occasional imperfections, hold it up to the light, and make scholarly determinations about it. I could also smell it. If you'd like a rough approximation, take a modern cereal box, tear it slightly, and sniff. That faint odor is similar to the smell of the Huntington's copy of Q1 of Richard III.
I was also able to establish, to my own satisfaction, that some of the quires of this copy of Q1 are older than the related quires in the British Library's copy. For example, the Huntington Library's copy has this typographical error on Signature L3v, line 12: "Good lordsc onduct him to his regiment.” The British Library's copy corrects the line to read “Good lords conduct him to his regiment.” There are other, similar corrections to the British Library's copy that are not made to the Huntington Library's copy, but I don't want to give the game away completely, so I'll keep those under my hat for now.
[Shakespeare, William.] The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. London: Printed by Valentine Sims, for Andrew Wise, dwelling in Paules Chuch-yard [sic], at the Signe of the Angell, 1597. Sig. L3v. Huntington Library Call Number 69350. Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Digital Image by Keith Jones. Original housed in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. No copies may be made.
At some point during the print run, this error was noted and corrected; newer printings from the slightly-altered block do not have the error.
There are two ways of looking at this. 1. The British Library has a "better" (i.e., less error-filled) copy of Q1 of Richard III. 2. The Huntington Library's copy of Q1 of Richard III is, in some quires at least, incrementally older than the British Library copy. If antiquity counts for anything, the Huntington scores bonus points!
The other work I'm doing here is also exciting, but you'll have to wait until I gather more material and draw some preliminary conclusions. And I'll see if they'll let me look at Q2 of the play next week!
Links: The Huntington.