So much of our focus when studying shakespeare is on the text. With good reason. The texts are the only real tie we have to Shakespeare. Everything else is so tenuous. We have no diaries, nor any substantial written record of his life. The texts are all we really have, but even those are questionable.
In the 17th century printing was a fairly new technology. To print one page in a book the typesetter (the person who printed the pages) would have to layout thousands of tiny metal stamps onto which the letters were carved. It looked something like this…
Thousands of these pieces would make up a page. No matter how careful the typesetter was, mistakes would make their way into the page. These mistakes were the original “typos”. Now imagine for one moment that you are the typesetter and you are asked to print the complete works of William Shakespeare. AHHH! I’d run away screaming. Luckily for us the brave typesetters hired to print the complete works did not, and they produced the First Folio.
So why then is the First Folio so prized if it contains errors?
Most books have typos in them. Books are made by people, and people make mistakes. The First Folio is no different. The men who set the type for that great tome did make mistakes and it has been the work of subsequent editors producing subsequent editions to try and correct those mistakes. The problem with the editorial process is that the individual editors impart onto the text their own ideas about what Shakespeare meant, or meant to say. Each editor changes the plays in some small way.
Look at the difference that changing the punctuation makes:
We are staying here.
We are staying here?
The change of punctuation at the end of the line fundamentally changes the meaning of the sentence. And if hundreds of editors over hundreds of years make tiny changes like that…well you can see where problems will arise.
So academics and theatre folks are so obsessed with the First Folio, mistakes and all, because it is the closest thing to Shakespeare’s own hand. Without the warping effects of time and editors.
You can get the First Folio transcribed at Wikisource.org