We have thought a lot about what a “text” is in literary studies over the last few decades, spurred on by editorial theory, deconstruction, new media studies and book history. A nominalist by inclination, I tend to think of a text (real or digitized) as a provisional state of something, this other something being a hypothetical ideal or a fiction of analysis. So when I encounter a print version of a Shakespeare play, I am encountering an entity (for example, 1 Henry VI) in a state that is more or less suitable to the medium of print. But the printed play is not the performance. Nor is it whatever idea Shakespeare had when he began working with his company on the play.
An additional complication: versions of any given Shakespeare play in print — those found in the 1623 First Folio — may contain variation at the level of the individual word or character, variation that (in the case of the Folio) is corrected during the print run. Whatever is “behind” the First Folio, then, that original is a reconstruction of something that can only be said to exist in an ideal sense. We can think of that meta-object as having a probabalistic character: different letters in particular positions have a likelihood of being x or y, for example. But in the end, the actual identity of even an individual character must be understood as a likelihood.
None of these ideas except the last is particularly novel in Shakespeare studies. Peter Stallybrass and Margareta de Grazia, among many others, have already made the point that the sources behind Shakespeare plays are an editorial ideal — approximated in practice but unreachable in an ideal sense. Less has said, however, about the probabalistic nature of the text itself: its existence as a set of likelihoods that realized provisionally in different cases. A text as a cloud of probabilities. That’s interesting.