Early in his career, he edited selections from Ovid and Virgil and (in collaboration) the Cambridge Course of Physics (six volumes, 1867–68).
His Shakespearean work began with an edition of George Lillie Craik's English of Shakespeare (1867). This led to the preparation of a complete edition - the Friendly Edition - of Shakespeare (forty volumes, 1870–83; new edition, 1903–07).
He also edited a complete edition of Tennyson (twelve volumes, 1898) and verse by many of the other great English poets. He wrote a very useful Satchel Guide to Europe, revised annually for 35 years; and:
Shakespeare the Boy (1896)
The Elementary Study of English (1896)
Life of Shakespeare (1901)
Life of William Shakespeare (1904)
Shakesperean Proverbs (1908)
William James Rolfe died on July 7, 1910 at the home of a son in Tisbury, Massachusetts. He was the father of John Carew Rolfe, Charles J. Rolfe and George Rolfe.