1st October 2021 | news

What is a Quarto?

“What’s in a name?”

In Romeo & Juliet, Juliet famously asks this question about Romeo’s surname, Montague, which positions them as enemies, not lovers. In Shakespeare as in branding, names have power. I’ve been asked the same question about Qvarto – what’s in this name?

When I came up with the idea of combining two of my passions i.e., gin and Shakespeare, I mused over what catchy name to call the gin in order for it to stand out amongst others, while paying homage to the greatest poet of all time.

We know Shakespeare’s plays thanks largely to the First Folio, which included 36 plays and was published in 1623 by his friends and colleagues after his death. 

However, eighteen of his plays had already been printed in Quarto, including many of his most famous and enduring works:

These included Tragedies Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, King Lear, Othello, Titus Andronicus and Troilus & Cressida, the History plays Richard III, Henry V, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and 2, Henry VI Part 2 and 3, and the Comedies A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the controversial Merchant of Venice.

But what does Quarto mean?

What is a Quarto?

 In a Folio book, the full sheet of paper was folded once to create two leaves (or four pages). This larger format was popular for literary and scholarly volumes, often expensively bound. By contrast, the Quarto (abbreviated Qto, 4to or 4º) is folded twice to produce four leaves (or eight pages). The smaller size made them cheaper and more accessible – think of them as popular paperback editions, rather than hard back collector’s items. 

The popularity of the Quarto format is clear: the earliest known European printed book is a quarto, the Sibyllenbuch, believed to have been printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1452–53, before the Gutenberg Bible, though it survives only as a fragment.

Due to their accessibility in both price and size, plays and poems were commonly printed as separate works in Quarto format throughout the Elizabethan era, until the mid-seventeenth century.

But how did they come to be printed?

William Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote their plays for live theatre performances, rather than for publication. There were risks involved in printing: the risk of a rival acting company staging the work, or theatregoers gaining access to the script to read at leisure, thereby diminishing the theatre’s potential to profit from future staged performances. 

However, if a play was really popular, a printed edition gave publishers the chance to make a profit, and they would buy the texts to these plays from the writers for the equivalent of 40 days’ wages

Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, the most popular play of the era, was first published as a quarto in 1598, with a second quarto edition in 1599, followed by a number of subsequent quarto editions. 

Other playwrights in this period also published their plays in Quarto editions. Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, for example, was published as a Quarto in 1604 (Q1), with a second quarto edition (Q2) in 1609. The same is true of poems: Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis was first printed as a quarto in 1593 (Q1), with a second quarto edition (Q2) in 1594 – indeed, during his lifetime, he was probably best known as “the poet who wrote Venus and Adonis” outside of London. 

The Lucrative Black Market for Plays

Because playwrights were reluctant to sell their works, unscrupulous publishers were known to buy ‘pirate’ copies of plays, from actors who had obtained a handwritten copy of the play or had written it down from memory. A publisher might attend a play and copy the script himself during the performance while actors played their parts. For example, the crooked publisher John Danter, hoping to make money by selling copies of Romeo and Juliet, used notes taken during performances of the play around late 1596 to early 1597 and pieced them together to create a copy of the play for public sale. The unscrupulous Danter was raided by the Stationers’ Company and his presses destroyed in February or March 1597, for printing books without their authority. 


These methods of acquiring a copy would inevitably result in the publication of scripts containing many errors. To preserve the integrity of a play, the acting company that owned the script sometimes made its own arrangements to publish the text. Consequently, different printed versions of the play—some accurate, some inaccurate—were in circulation. Shakespeare's poetry also appeared in different versions. In at least one instance, a printer even published poems of other authors under Shakespeare's name in hopes of capitalising on the magic of his success. 

Did you know?

The Quarto copies of the plays showed that Shakespeare enjoyed great success in his own lifetime, and that there was an appetite for these plays that the performances alone couldn’t satisfy. 

The Quarto as a ‘paperback’ edition showed that these plays were so popular, people wanted to take them home. 

The Quarto plays have an exciting history that captures the imagination. All this speaks to the moreish, surprising and memorable qualities we wanted to evoke in our gin. 

Most importantly, the Quarto meant anyone could read and enjoy a Shakespeare play. I want our gin to be one that anyone can enjoy. T

That’s why we’re called Qvarto. 

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