Internet users will soon be able to access all 75 Quarto editions of William Shakespeare’s plays printed before 1641.
The Bodleian Library in Oxford and Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC have teamed up to give the public free internet access to all of the texts, many of which are currently only accessible to scholars.
The Quartos are said to be the earliest printed editions of Shakespeare’s work and are believed to be closest to the versions performed on stage during Shakespeare's lifetime. It is thought the first Quarto edition was published in 1594 when Shakespeare was 30 years old.
The two libraries will build on the work of the British Library, which digitised its collection of Quartos in 2004. They will begin digitising the first of these plays in April, and said the process will take a year to complete.
Once this has happened, online visitors will be able to compare documents side by side, search plays and mark and tag the texts, the institutions say. This will allow people to highlight minor differences between copies of the same Quarto and make it easier to study their differences.
Oana Romocea, a representative of the Bodleian Library said: “At the Bodleian we have about 55 copies, although some of them are duplicates.
"Each Quarto is different, so it's very interesting from a research perspective to compare them.
"For example, some of the famous lines in Hamlet exist in one Quarto and in another they don't, or they are very different," she said.
However, Dr Catherine Alexander, academic manager of The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, said the Quartos are likely to remain an academic rather than a general resource.
“Print editions, which have modernised spellings, act and scene divisions, line numbers, notes and introductions by a specialist editor, are likely to remain the common way of reading Shakespeare,” she said.
Shakespeare died in 1616 and is believed to have written at least 37 plays and collaborated on several more between around 1590 and 1613.