Read All of Shakespeare’s Plays Free Online, Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library


Just a few short years ago, the world of dig­i­tal schol­ar­ly texts was in its pri­mor­dial stages, and it is still the case that most online edi­tions are sim­ply basic HTML or scanned images from more or less arbi­trar­i­ly cho­sen print edi­tions. An exam­ple of the ear­li­est phas­es of dig­i­tal human­i­ties, MIT’s web edi­tion of the Com­plete Works of William Shake­speare has been online since 1993. The site’s HTML text of the plays is based on the pub­lic domain Moby Text, which—the Fol­ger Shake­speare Library informs us—“reproduces a late-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry ver­sion of the plays,” made “long before schol­ars ful­ly under­stood the prop­er grounds on which to make the thou­sands of deci­sions that Shake­speare edi­tors face.”

The schol­ar­ly Shake­speare edi­to­r­i­al process is far too Byzan­tine to get into, but suf­fice it to say that it mat­ters a great deal to seri­ous stu­dents which edi­tions they read and the new­er, often the bet­ter. And those edi­tions can become very cost­ly. Until recent­ly, the Moby Text was as good as it got for a free online edi­tion.

Oth­er online edi­tions of Shakespeare’s works had their own prob­lems. has dig­i­tized the 1914 Oxford Com­plete Works, but this is not pub­lic-domain and is also out­dat­ed for schol­ar­ly use. Anoth­er online edi­tion from North­west­ern presents copy­right bar­ri­ers (and seems to have gone on indef­i­nite hia­tus). In light of these dif­fi­cul­ties, George Mason University’s Open Source Shake­speare project recent­ly pined for more: “per­haps some­day, a group of indi­vid­u­als will pro­duce a mod­ern, schol­ar­ly, free alter­na­tive to Moby Shake­speare.” Their wish has now been grant­ed. The Fol­ger Shake­speare Library has released all of Shakespeare’s plays as ful­ly search­able dig­i­tal texts, down­load­able as pdfs, in a free, schol­ar­ly edi­tion that makes all of its source code avail­able as well. Tak­en from 2010 Fol­ger Shake­speare Library edi­tions edit­ed by Bar­bara Mowat and Paul Wer­s­tine, the dig­i­tal plays con­sti­tute an invalu­able open resource.

You will still have to pur­chase Fol­ger print edi­tions for the com­plete “appa­ra­tus” (notes, crit­i­cal essays, tex­tu­al vari­ants, etc). But the Fol­ger promis­es new fea­tures in the near future. Cur­rent­ly, the dig­i­tal text is search­able by act/scene/line, key­word, and page and line num­ber (from the Fol­ger print edi­tions). Fol­ger touts its “metic­u­lous­ly accu­rate texts” as the “#1 Shake­speare text in U.S. class­rooms.” Per­haps some prick­ly expert will weigh in with a dis­par­age­ment, but for us non-spe­cial­ists, the free avail­abil­i­ty of these excel­lent online edi­tions is a great gift indeed.

Not to be ful­ly out­done, Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press offers its own free edi­tion of Shakespeare’s first folio (fron­tispiece above), the first com­plete col­lec­tion of Shakespeare’s plays from 1623, in their orig­i­nal spelling and orthog­ra­phy. These are only avail­able in ePub ver­sions through iTunes, yet it seems utter­ly peev­ish to com­plain about the con­di­tions of such an offer­ing. Read, read, read, and read again instead.

As you know by now, Shake­speare’s plays can always be found in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Course: A Sur­vey of Shakespeare’s Plays

What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like to Shake­speare: Recon­struct­ing the Bard’s Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Dis­cov­er What Shakespeare’s Hand­writ­ing Looked Like, and How It Solved a Mys­tery of Author­ship

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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