Shakespeare in the OED

Shakespeare in the OED

The works of Shakespeare (1564–1616) are more widely quoted in OED than those of any other author, and they pose questions for lexicographers and bibliographers concerning date and location.

Treatment of Shakespeare in the OED’s third edition is in line with its bibliographical policy for all other texts: to provide documentary evidence of usage, dated and cited as accurately as possible. However, earlier editions of OED treated Shakespeare differently in some important regards. Here is a summary of our current policy and practice.

Texts used

The texts from which we quote Shakespeare’s plays are the separately printed versions which appeared during his life (the Quartos) or the posthumously published First Folio collected edition.


In the first edition of OED, presumed composition or known performance dates were assigned to Shakespeare’s plays, but they were quoted from the facsimile of the First Folio (1623).

However, the principle underlying our present policy for dating quotations is that dates such as the date of composition or performance of a play are to be avoided, since it is not certain that the OED quotation, let alone the headword, was present in the version first drafted or performed.

Quotations from Shakespeare’s plays are therefore dated according to the publication date of the quarto, for example:

1600 SHAKESPEARE Merchant of Venice v. i. 127 We should hold day with the Antipodes, if you would walke in absence of the sunne.

or dated with a combination of ante-death and publication dates if taken from the (posthumous) First Folio, for example:

a1616 SHAKESPEARE Tempest (1623) v. i. 318 I’le..promise you calme Seas, auspicious gales.

For readers interested in finding out more about the dating of individual plays, OUP’s individual volumes in the Oxford Shakespeare series give useful summaries. The second edition of the Complete Works (2005, ed. Wells, Taylor, Jowett and Montgomery) includes a helpful list of possible dates for all plays.


Plays published in the early-modern period rarely included the conventional divisions of numbered acts and scenes; line numbers were similarly lacking. We therefore give location information (act, scene, and line number) as assigned to the texts in Wells and Taylor’s modern-spelling edition (William Shakespeare, Complete Works, 1986).

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.