Why is bibliography important? If it is to be more than a list of titles, what use is it? The question has acquired new pertinence now that texts have become both more available and less trustworthy, thanks to the Internet. Students usually download texts from computers without asking where they came from, and they frequently get garbage. But the problem is not new.
Here is a passage from the first printed version of King Lear (the quarto edition of 1608, Act III, scene 4): “swithald footed thrice the old a nellthu night more and her nine fold bid her, O light and her troth plight and arint thee, with arint thee.” It is seventeenth-century garbage, which probably was almost as incomprehensible to seventeenth-century readers as it is to us. To make sense of it, textual editors have drawn on folklore, philology, paleography, the history of religion, and their own intuition. They have concluded that Shakespeare meant to evoke the notion of Saint Withold driving away a female demon and her brood during a tempestuous night. This kind of textual criticism, accompanied by commentary and variants in footnotes and appendices, is familiar to any reader of Shakespeare. What can bibliography contribute to it?
Consider another example of trash in Shakespeare, the quarto edition of The Merchant of Venice published in 1619. In Act I, scene 3, Antonio asks Bassanio whether Shylock knows how much Antonio wants to borrow: “are you resolu’d, How much he would haue?” In the original edition of The Merchant of Venice, a quarto of 1600, the lines read: “is hee yet possest How much ye would?” Which to prefer? We cannot know what Shakespeare intended, because no manuscripts of his plays survive—except perhaps three pages, written in his hand, from the unperformed tragedy Sir Thomas More. But we can identify the most corrupt passages in the early printed versions.
By analysis of the physical copies, bibliographers have determined that the type of the 1619 quarto was set by the same compositor, a particularly slipshod workman whom they call Compositor B, who set nine other quartos of Shakespearean or pseudo-Shakespearean plays in the same year, using earlier editions as his copy. When he came upon a phrase that he considered deficient, he “improved” it. So the 1619 version of those lines is pure Compositor B, and the text of the play as a whole (it has an average of one significant error in every twenty-three lines) is very impure Shakespeare. Moreover, B also composed about half the text of the First Folio, our main source for reconstructing Shakespeare’s oeuvre. To make sense of Shakespeare, therefore, it is not enough to be a literary critic. One must also be a bibliographer—or at least understand enough of bibliography to know how books came into being in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
This kind of bibliography—usually called “descriptive” or “analytical” bibliography to distinguish it from the book-listing or “enumerative” variety—became a …