Watkinson Library Acquires Copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio

Only 170 Copies are owned by American Institutions

Two pages from Shakepeare's Second Folio. 

​​HARTFORD, CT, May 4, 2012 – Trinity’s Watkinson Library has joined some rarified company in acquiring a copy of William Shakespeare’s Second Folio, which is not only limited in number but is famous for the dedicatory poem to Shakespeare written in 1630 by English poet John Milton.

Altogether, there are Four Folios of Shakespeare’s works, with the First Folio, also known as the first edition, being the most celebrated, having been published in 1623. However, the First Folio is tremendously expensive, putting it beyond the reach of most institutions such as Trinity. A complete copy in good condition can sell for as much as $5 million.

The First Folio included 36 of Shakespeare’s 38 known plays, half of which had never before been printed and might have been lost to history if they had not been included. It’s basically a catalog of all of Shakespeare’s comedies, histories and tragedies.

The Second Folio, a copy of which the Watkinson acquired from a Rhode Island family, was printed in 1632 when the First Folio sold out. The family in Rhode Island had been in possession of the Second Folio since the Civil War.

Richard J. Ring, head curator of the Watkinson Library, said the folio is the most studied book in the history of English literature with the exception of the Bible.

Ring came upon the Second Folio by serendipity. He happened to be talking to a book dealer in New York who asked Ring if he was looking for anything in particular. Ring mentioned that one of the gaps in the Watkinson’s vast collection was that it didn’t have a Shakespeare folio. The book dealer mentioned that he had appraised one for a family about 10 years ago and he would check as to its availability. 

“He asked if they would be interested in selling it to us,” said Ring, “and they said ‘we would love for it to be at a college. It would be a very valuable teaching tool’.” 

Thus, the Watkinson was able to buy the Second Folio for about one-fifth of its normal auction value, Ring said. The reduced cost can be attributed, in part, to the absence of a title page and portrait of Shakespeare. But it is nonetheless an extraordinary addition to the Watkinson’s collection.

According to Ring, only 170 copies of the Second Folio are owned by American institutions, of which 57 are in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

“The Shakespeare Folios continue to be at the heart of Shakespearian scholarship, and we in the library are thrilled to have acquired this Shakespeare Second Folio,” said Trinity College Librarian Richard S. Ross. “One of the goals of the Trinity Library is to give our students and faculty the opportunity to use original materials in their research, and to acquire a Shakespeare Folio affords our students and faculty access to one of the earliest editions of the most influential writer in English literature. It is thanks to the generosity of our library supporters and President [James F.] Jones [Jr.] that we were able to go forward and purchase this folio.”

What makes the addition of the Second Folio so important is its value as a teaching tool, especially for professors of English.

“We could all quite easily use it as a pedagogic tool, a text to share with students of all levels as we teach our various courses on early modern literature and culture, Shakespeare, and the history of the book,” said Chloe Wheatley, associate professor of English. “Undergraduates understand full well the cultural centrality of Shakespeare; they are often surprised and interested to find out how the significance of Shakespeare’s plays has been imagined and reimagined not only on the stage but also on the page. This specific copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio seems a particularly rich and interesting acquisition in this regard.”

Ring said the copy that the Watkinson acquired is particularly interesting because of what previous generations of owners have done to it. At least two former owners were women, one having dated her signature in 1716. Other names are written in the book, and there are comments scrawled in the margins. At the end of the folio are clippings from newspapers and sections of later editions of some of Shakespeare’s plays.

And, of course, it contains the Milton poem, which was his first publication of English verse and was written when he was 24 years old.

The Watkinson Library is a separately endowed unit of the Trinity Library, and serves as a public research library, the rare book and special collections department, and the repository of the College archives.

Its mission is to preserve, augment and provide access to the collections, and to provide a hub in which visitors explore the cultural materials that are there. Ring said about 30 to 40 classes visit the Watkinson each year. “The Second Folio,” said Ring, “adds to our arsenal.”

The Watkinson holds more than 175,000 printed and manuscript volumes ranging from the 11th century to the present, 4,000 linear feet of manuscript and archival material, 25,000 pieces of sheet music, more than 5,000 sound recordings and thousands of maps, prints, broadsides, postcards, greeting cards, trade cards, ballad sheets, playbills and posters.