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Just as the Elizabethan period is called a Golden Age in British history, the time period in which Shakespeare wrote, acted, and produced plays is a Golden Age of British, and even world, drama. Ironically, hard on the heels of this flowering of Elizabethan drama, the Puritans shut down the theatres in England during the English Civil War. Thus, a dearth of drama quickly followed the wealth of Shakespeare’s time period.
None of Shakespeare’s plays exists in manuscript format. Instead, Shakespeare’s plays have come to us through early published copies, some of which were inaccurately recorded by actors or others who thought to profit by publishing their own copies of the popular plays. During the 16th century, copyrights as we know them didn’t exist. The Stationers’ Company, a city guild for printers and book sellers, controlled what was printed, thus providing a means of government censorship. The Folger Shakespeare Library provides a video explaining Renaissance printing techniques.
Many of the early publications were in quartoa sheet of paper folded into quarters, creating 4 leaves (8 pages), a sheet of paper folded into quarters, creating 4 leaves (8 pages). The British Library and The Shakespeare Quartos Archive provide digital images of all the plays published in quarto.
A folioa sheet of paper folded in half, forming a larger sized book was the same piece of paper folded in half, forming a larger sized book. In 1623, the First Foliothe first complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays, the first complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays, was compiled and published by John Hemminge and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors. Digital images of Shakespeare’s First Folio are available from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Perseus Digital Library, and from the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image, Furness Collection.
Shakespeare’s plays are generally divided into three categories: tragedies, comedies, and history plays, a division first seen in the First Folio. George Mason University’s Open Source Shakespeare lists the plays by genre.