Shakespeare’s Second Folio


The Second Folio, published by Thomas Cotes and formally titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, is the term which is applied to the 1632 edition of the collected plays of William Shakespeare. The Second Folio contains a portrait of the Bard and provides a page-by-page reprint of the First, however it now includes the earliest appearance of John Milton’s epitaph on Shakespeare. The UBC Rare Books and Special Collections’ copy of the Second Folio is in fairly good condition, excluding the detachment of its back cover. The endpapers are marbled, and there is gold foil on the edges of the pages. There are a variety of marks and stains throughout the book, but overall, most of the pages are clean and legible. Beyond these, there are a number of other particularly interesting aspects of the Second Folio, including the craftsmanship of the book, its publishers and its relation to other Shakespeare publications, and finally its errors and the process of proofreading.





The Second Folio is considered one of the most important works in the English language. Its value and worth is demonstrated in the way it was produced. Much of the folio itself is physically covered in gilt, which is gold leaf or paint. It is contained in a full red crushed case morocco gilt, exquisitely decorated spine, raised bands, marbled endpapers, and all gilt edges. The binding material is goatskin, which is versatile and durable. It also possesses a pebbled texture and visible grain, which can be easily stretched, crushed, and tooled in gilt (Shakespeare – Comedies, Histories and Tragedies).



The Second Folio was printed upon crown paper of good quality and included marbling techniques. The materials first used as receptacles of print were of two main varieties.  First vellum, a fine treated parchment made of the skin of animals (mainly calves or sheep). Second was paper, a trade that had migrated into Europe from the East around the middle of the twelfth century.  Paper was usually made from old clothes such as linen and over a process that would vary in time from days to weeks it would be mashed, pressed and laid out in squares to form pages.  

The practice of marbling paper can be traced back to 12th century Japan and involves blowing ink-droplets on the surface of water to create patterns (“History of Marbling”). This practice evolved and eventually spread to Europe by the 17th century, however there were few people who knew how to properly carry out this technique (“History of Marbling”). The few in England who did were hesitant to share, so bookbinders often imported marbled paper from other places in Europe (“History of Marbling”). The use of this technique in the creation of Shakespeare’s Second Folio ensured that it would be a high quality, valuable manuscript.


Shakespeare’s portrait, engraved by Martin Droeshout, was first printed in the First Folio in 1623 and it exists in four distinct versions (Werner). In order to improve on the portrait, Droeshout created these test printings to help him make alterations. Most copies of the First Folio contain the second version of the portrait, which has heavier shadows and some small changes on Shakespeare’s jawline and moustache (Werner). Later copies were slightly changed with subtle retouching and were also printed from the plate by Thomas Cotes for the Second Folio (Werner). In later Folios, Shakespeare’s portrait continued to be included, however, the plate was beginning to wear out so it was subsequently re-engraved.  After William Marshall, a seventeenth-century British engraver, had copied and accommodated the design on a new plate for Ben Jonson’s edition of Shakespeare’s poems, the later printings were made by duplicating and mimicking the original printed image (William Shakespeare 1640 Sonnets – Marshall Engraving). As Shakespeare’s prominence and fame increased, the portrait was treated as a significant and valuable artifact (Scott-Baumann).



Thomas Cotes took over the printing house owned by William and Issac Jaggard after they died in 1623 and 1627 (Meisei University Shakespeare Collection Database – Meisei Copy). Robert Allot took over the work of Edward Blount, the major publisher of the First Folio, after Blount died in 1632. Blount had sold his rights to the collection of Shakespearean plays to Allot, thus making Allot the primary participant in the making of the Second Folio (Meisei University Shakespeare Collection Database – Meisei Copy). John Smethwick, Richard Hawkins, William Aspley, Richard Meighen, and other participants of the First Folio publishing syndicate continued to participate in the publishing of the Second Folio (Meisei University Shakespeare Collection Database – Meisei Copy). In each copy of the Second Folio, imprints of each publisher are presented in the format following “printed by Thomas Cotes, for Robert Allot.” From what can be surmised based on reading Massey and Todd, each of the different people or firms involved in the syndicate contributed different plays. The contribution of less plays by someone meant that there were less copies of the Folio with their personal imprint (Massey).



Proofreading and the correction of texts were seen as important but varied hugely with the work being published and the amount of time available. Unless it was works of prayer or print in foreign languages most texts weren’t read over for accuracy or fidelity.  Authors were hardly ever present for the act of printing “and proof sheets were not sent out of the print shop for correction … before the eighteenth century” (Williams, 60). Though the Second Folio is known to be an ‘improvement’ of the First Folio based on the preferences of that time, it is also notoriously known among scholars to have introduced several typographical errors, probably as a result of insufficient proof-reading. As mentioned by Matthew W. Black and Matthias A. Shaaber, there are 1,679 alterations from the First Folio, which contains “459 alterations of grammar, 374 changes affecting the thought, 359 affecting meter, and 357 affecting style, and 130 changes pertaining to the action” (Meisei University Shakespeare Collection Database – Meisei Copy).

Regardless of whatever errors found in Shakespeare’s Folios, the people of the Elizabethan era began voraciously reading plays, and this interest extended to the point where playwrights would alter their plays for better readability. The uprise of plays as a form of literature could then be directly related to Shakespeare and his Folios resulting in a massive impact and profound influence on the future of language, literature, and theatre.


There were several different sizes attributed to paper making, one of which is the folio. The folio is “a sheet of paper laid on type and printed to produce two pages” (Williams, 53).  Shakespeare’s works were either split into folios or quartos – a similar method intended to create four pages and four separate blocks of type instead of two. The Folio was a very different approach to what was typical of Shakespearean publications as it was usually reserved for expensive, prestigious volumes. Shakespeare’s works were only ever printed in quartos throughout his lifetime because stage plays were not generally taken very seriously as literature and were not considered worthy of being collected into folios. It was very rare for a drama to both be read as well as performed, and the publishing of a play was not capable of adding social importance or fame to the author.  Playwrights would normally sell their works to a theatrical company who would stage these performances and the only real printed copy would be one official copy in the form of what is known as a prompt-book.  A prompt-book is an annotated copy of a play for the use of a prompter during a performance, hence the name ‘prompt’ book. It is normally cluttered with a plethora of stage directions, instructions for sound effects and the names of actors. These prompt-books were quite frequently stolen by unprincipled publishers resulting in a corruption of the works, as it was often done without consent.

Shakespeare’s plays have been published by hundreds, if not thousands of publishers since their creation in the sixteenth century.  The original Folios were published shortly after the playwright’s death and additions or corrections were made with every re-publication. Literary historians have dubbed “the eleven plays published in incomplete, alternate or variant versions …  as “bad quartos” (Williams, 77).  It is notable to understand that in these publications of the “bad quartos” it is highly assumed that the publications didn’t have any direct link to any of Shakespeare’s transcripts or manuscripts.  These plays either are published incomplete or were superseded by complete texts before or after 1623 – the publishing date of the first folio. This encapsulates all of Shakespeare’s plays except for Pericles.  

There is much mixing and matching that went on with the publication of his works.  Some plays were then reprinted directly from Shakespeare’s notes or transcripts but then pages were used from the bad quartos.  It is safe to say that not one play escaped some sort of page mix-up.  For example in:

“Romeo and Juliet one section of about one hundred lines was reprinted directly from a bad quarto and in Hamlet several passages in act 1 demonstrate influence from the bad quarto in spacing and wording.” (Williams, 79).

The editions and subtractions of pages, lines or passages from Shakespeare’s works tell us much about how theatre was seen and consumed in Elizabethan England. There was very little care put into how the play would read and more about how it would be seen on stage. Sections of Henry V, Henry VI and Merry Wives of Windsor seem purposefully shortened due to lack of actors.




Two actors in Shakespeare’s Company, John Hemnige and Henry Condell, embarked upon creating the first ever complete Folio of Shakespeare’s theatrical works into a single authentic volume known as the First Folio. This volume was available for purchase by 1623, and included a number of plays that had not yet been published (Massey). The First Folio, the compilers explained, was published not for profit but “only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare” (Shakespeare – Comedies, Histories and Tragedies). According to Massey, “Shakespeare’s reputation today rests largely on the publication of the First Folio”. The various ways that Shakespeare’s works were assembled prior to the Folios had a direct impact on the way the works were interpreted by readers, and this “is clear today every time an editor or publisher makes a choice about textual presentation” (Knight 338).


For more information on the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare check out the Colorado Team!

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