All the world's a web page as the Bard goes online

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The earliest editions of Shakespeare's plays provide a fascinating insight into how the playwright reworked his masterpieces over time, but until now, due to their age and fragility, access has been restricted to serious scholars.

Now the British Library has made 93 copies of early quarto editions of 21 Shakespeare plays available to the public via the internet.

The quartos have been digitally reproduced allowing visitors to the library's website to feel as though they have the physical texts before them, turning the pages, and enabling Shakespeare scholars to compare them with later texts on screen.

"There is particular concern with the quarto editions because they are the closest to Shakespeare himself," said Moira Goff, head of British Collections 1501-1800 at the library. "This is the nearest you can get to the plays as they were in the time of Shakespeare. "Scholarly interest has been growing in the quartos and having them as very good images on the web is going to make it much easier to work on them. One hopes it will enable scholars to discover things they didn't already know. We couldn't make the originals available to everybody, but this gives you a real sense of what they were like - of their ephemerality."

The quartos were small booklets that would have been bought by Shakespeare's contemporaries and people who attended the early performances of his plays.

Academics have already spotted significant differences between the quartos and the First Folio of 1623 , which is generally regarded as the definitive edition. In the first quarto edition of King Lear , published in 1608 eight years before Shakespeare's death, it is the Duke of Albany, Goneril's husband who speaks the lines: "The oldest have borne most; we that are young/ Shall never see so much, nor live so long." But in the first folio, the lines are given to Edgar, son of the Duke of Gloucester, who is seen by some commentators as the leader of a new generation.

Many of the British Library's quarto editions were originally collected by the great 18th century Shakespearean actor David Garrick while others were drawn from the collections of King George III. The project has been made possible by Octavo, a not-for-profit company specialising in digital facsimiles of rare books.