Alfred Pollard is one of those names you keep coming across in the annals of bibliographic study, and rightly so. He, along with EK Chambers and RB McKerrow were some of the pioneers of bibliographic studies early in the 20th century, without whom we might still live in an era of catch-as-catch-can textual construction. I stumbled across his lecture The Foundation of Shakespeare's Text, originally read on 23 April 1923, and decided to give it a look.
At the time Pollard offered this lecture, he acknowledged the incompleteness of the bibliographic work that had been done up to that point on the first folio. Any bibliographic answers he can offer must perforce be incomplete (1). It's worth asking the question of how far we've come in the last 80 years or so. Certainly we do know more, but do we know enough to posit anything but incomplete answers? Will we ever?
"The foundations of Shakespeare's text must have been laid in his study and in the playhouse" (2). Pollard goes from there to declare that any piece of text that can be demonstrably linked to Shakespeare or his theatre requires investigation, and that any text that cannot be so derived should not be considered; this immediately rules out any edition following the 1623 folio, as these represent mere reprints of that folio (2).
Pollard establishes the difference between a good quarto and a bad as one that can be demonstrably linked to revisions of Shakespeare's hand. Intermediary quartos typically contain the inclusion of new errors, and where they correct errors of previous quartos, these corrections tend to be simple and mechanical in nature, and would not require access to the author (3).
Intermediary quartos are useful for charting the printing of the folio. As a printer would have an easier time setting type from a printed source, they very likely would have used recent quartos as a base text, and sent those to the playhouse for any corrections that would have been needed: this would have been easier and less expensive than arranging a new fair copy to be made. The result is that some of the errors from intermediary editions of quartos have made their way into the folio (4). If this is true, and Stanley Wells is correct in his assertion that Heminges and Condell printed the plays in the folio as closely as possible to the way in which they were performed, than wouldn't that admit intermediary quartos as evidence for Shakepeare's (or at least the King's Men's) authorship?
Pollard answers my question in the negative, citing the example of punctuation differences in Midsummer; where the punctuation there differs from the first quarto, it tends to come from the 1619 quarto, and thus Pollard proposes that this edition of the play, since it derives from one of less authority than the original, should be regarded as less authentic (4). Clearly, he and Wells would have some words.
Pollard's list of bad quartos include the 1597 Romeo and Juliet, the 1600 Henry V, the 1602 Merry Wives of Windsor, and the 1603 Hamlet (4-5).
Discounting the aforementioned "bad quartos," the other first quartos of Shakespeare are to be regarded as useful sources of comparison and should carry an authority comparable to the folio (5-6).
Pollard notes that there was a thriving industry in manuscript copies of stage plays as early as 1605. The literary stage directions, which often describe locales in detail (i.e. characters enter "atop the walls of Rome" as opposed to "above") may come from these copies as opposed to the author's hand. We have no way of knowing how many of the play texts burned with the first Globe in 1613, or even if any were burnt at all, but we do know that several Beaumont and Fletcher plays were in private collections during the interregnum and had to be purchased for publication (8 - 9). We thus cannot say whether "literary" stage directions are certainly original.
"We have to face the fact that the producers of the Folio preferred the acting-version used in the playhouse, and if lines written by Shakespeare were omitted from that were content that they should perish" (10).
Pollard proposes that there is a distinction between short plays and long ones, and that those written of one category may have commonly be expanded (or cut) to suite the other category. This could plausibly have been for touring performances, court performances, private performances, public performances during the winter months (when they would have to have been shorter to accommodate fewer hours of day light), or Sunday performances. Though Pollard admits these are all purely conjectural circumstances, the presence of extant shorter and longer plays suggests that sometimes shorter performances were called for (10). Fascinating.
Pollard on Shakespeare's revision of other dramatists: "He took over other men's plots, other men's drafts, other men's completed plays, and did t them what he was told, transmuting copper and silver into gold with an alchemy all his own. We applaud what he did, and invent fine phrases to glorify that which, in modern dramatists, we should regard as monstrous" (13).
"It was taken for granted that the stage-manager knew his business, and that the form in which each play had survived at the theatre was the form in which it should be preserved in spirit" (16). This quote, taken with Pollard's earlier remarks about the policies of copying the work of other dramatists, and Shakespeare's contentment to do the same and then to let the same be done to his own works puts the question of authority into a different light (13 - 14).
"Somehow a text was produced which, however far short it falls of what specialists could wish, has yet been good enough to allow Shakespeare to become the most famous dramatist of Englishmen, and the delight of men and women all over the world" (16).
Pollard is not looking for plays of the theatre, indeed, he seems convinced that he has them available, he is looking for the specific words that Shakespeare wrote. This seems a paradox to me; Pollard acknowledges Shakespeare was a man of the theatre, and that he practiced the then common techniques of his craft (albeit remarkably well); why should we then pursue the written word of Shakespeare outside of this context? There is a paradox evident in the quest for the unaltered hand of Shakespeare on the one hand, and the ever present knowledge that his hand was altered (or should I say inspired?) by the works of others from the beginning. Pollard seems to know that Shakespeare's works in the folio were, to some extent, corruptions of his original work, but also acknowledges that they're still among the best work ever written in English.
Pollard, Alfred W. "The Foundations of Shakespeare's Text." Annual Shakespeare Lecture. The Proceedings of the British Academy. Read 23 April 1923.