Closer Look: William Shakespeare’s Second Folio October 10, 2018

Houston just happens to have a delightful fall lined up for Anglophiles all around the city! You can see the Museum’s new exhibition Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol, enjoy specialty culinary fare from the British Isles, and take in a few William Shakespeare productions around the city! One Shakespeare-themed play—The Book of Will, at Main Street Theater through October 21—inspired us to take another look at one of the rarest yet most influential books in the MFAH collection.

Jon Evans, the Museum’s chief librarian and archivist, chatted with me about the 1632 edition of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies—also known as the Second Folio. Only about 250 copies still exist, including the one currently on the shelves of Rienzi’s Library.

How did the Second Folio help disseminate William Shakespeare’s plays?
The Second Folio is really the story of how a book made a 17th-century London playwright one of the most dominant figures in Western culture. The posthumous publishing by Shakespeare’s friends and contemporaries captured the most accurate accounting of his plays.

It’s called the Second Folio simply because it was the second edition, published in 1632 following the first edition of 1623. The Second Folio featured almost 1,700 changes from the first, and its text is the basis from which all modern versions of Shakespeare derive.

How does the MFAH copy of the Second Folio fit into the rest of the book collection?
Our copy, which is in very good condition, is part of the Masterson Book Collection at Rienzi, the Museum’s house museum for European decorative arts. Rienzi’s founders, Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III, both collected books—she collected cookbooks, while he focused on a few key areas such as English literature and the dramatic arts.

In addition to the Second Folio, Harris Masterson also collected works of Shakespeare’s immediate contemporary Ben Jonson, who set the model for playwrights to produce their work in elaborate volumes. Plays were typically printed in “quarto” formats, which are single-play paperbacks that were small and cheap to print. But in 1616, Jonson produced something more substantive that had previously been used only for Bibles or history books—which, by extension, elevated the status of theater and the work of playwrights.

How does the story of The Book of Will at Main Street Theater relate to the Second Folio?
The play dramatizes the story that made the Second Folio possible! It’s about the development of the First Folio, which—after Shakespeare’s death in 1616—was created by his friends in the acting troupe the King’s Men. At that time, whoever was the first to print a play could go to the stationer’s office (what we would think of as a copyright office today) to claim the rights. The King’s Men gathered up the rights to his plays and gained intellectual control over Shakespeare’s work, effectively preserving his legacy.