To celebrate or not to celebrate

5 Things to Know about Rienzi's Super Rare Copy of Shakespeare’s Works

We chatted with MFAH about the Second Folio ahead of their joint birthday bash for the Bard with Main Street Theater.

By Holly Beretto April 22, 2021

The very name is synonymous with theater: Shakespeare. For more than four centuries William Shakespeare’s place as a master playwright has endured; from comedy to tragedy to history, the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon’s prolific works speak to what makes us human, in all our vanities and victories. And don’t even get us started on his sonnets. 

In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday this month (his 457th, in case you were wondering), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Main Street Theater have joined forces for a Zoom performance of BYOBard on April 23. The special event, which features Houston actors reading Shakespeare’s works, as well as selections from plays dealing with the writer, will also include a special video highlighting the MFAH Rienzi’s Second Folio, a compilation of Shakespeare’s works. 

In honor of this special team-up, we chatted with Ryan Hernandez, MFAH’s learning and interpretation coordinator at Rienzi, to learn all about this super rare book. 

Wait … Second Folio?

The First Folio, the first book to collect the Bard’s works in one place, was originally published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. The edition, put together by Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, included 36 plays, 18 of which had never been published before. It was an instant hit, and nine years later, the Second Folio was created, as publishers looked to capitalize on the popularity of the first edition. “The Second Folio is the most important work in Rienzi’s book collection,” says Hernandez.

There are only about 250 surviving editions of the Second Folio.

It’s estimated that nearly 700 copies were printed, with many lost to time since the first publication in 1632. So, the fact that the Rienzi, the MFAH’s museum of European decorative arts, has one of them is pretty special. “It’s a huge deal,” explains Hernandez. “The previous owners of Rienzi were avid bibliophiles, and this work was discovered in the collection in the early 2000s as the museum was going through all of the books.”

There are thought to be 1,700 changes from the First Folio to the Second Folio.

As you might expect, the First and Second folios aren’t exactly the same. The latter included corrections to dialogue and added in the entrances and exits of characters. According to the Rienzi, it’s this edition that’s become the basis for modern versions of Shakespeare’s works, like the ones you read in school.  

Two other editions would follow the Second Folio.

The Third Folio was published in 1663, while a fourth followed in 1685. “The third and fourth editions added plays that are disputed for various stylistic reasons or lack of concrete information linking back to Shakespeare,” Hernandez says. Of the seven additions, only one, Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, is accepted as part of Shakespeare’s canon today. Academics around the world continue to debate which plays the Bard actually wrote. 

The Second Folio is a prime example of both literary history and homage to a friend.

Both the First and Second folios were created by those who knew and worked with Shakespeare. That means they had first-hand knowledge of the playwright, says Hernandez. “They could say, ‘I remember we did it this way on stage.’” That direct tie to Shakespeare is special since the Third and Fourth folios would come out after the deaths of both Heminges and Condell. 

April 23. Free. Online. More info and registration at

Show Comments