The Martin Droeshout Engraving - William Shakespeare First Folio
The "First Folio" is of major importance to William Shakespeare as it is the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays. The copper-engraving picture of William Shakespeare is signed Martin Droeshout on the title-page of the ‘First Folio’ (1623). It can be confidently attributed to Droeshout. It must be remembered that during Shakespeare's era that only engravings could be used to illustrate such documents, it was not possible to reproduce paintings of portraits.
The famous picture engraving, prefixed to the First Folio of Shakespeare plays, is said to contain many strange clues as to the possible authorship of its content - often referred to in the web of intrigue surrounding the mystery of the William Shakespeare as the 'Identity Problem'.
The Engraving Picture
Before you read any further take a good, hard look at the picture of the engraving at the top of the page. And form an honest opinion of the engraving...
Many opinions have been expressed about the copper engraving picture - and they are far from complimentary. "Ludicrous" and "Monstrous" are some terms that have been consistently applied. Sam Schoenbaum the author of Shakespeare's Lives, wrote the following:
"...a huge head, placed against a starched ruff, surmounts an absurdly small tunic with oversized shoulder-wings...Light comes from several directions simultaneously: it falls on the bulbous protuberance of forehead ... that 'horrible hydrocephalous development', as it has been called ... creates and odd crescent under the right eye..." - Sam Schoenbaum
"A hard, wooden, staring thing." - Richard Grant White
"Even in its best state, it is such a monstrosity that, I for one, do not believe that it has any trustworthy exemplar." - C. M. Ingleby
"The face is long and the forehead high; the one ear which is visible is shapeless; the top of the head is bald, but the hair falls in abundance over the ears." - Sir Sidney Lee
Well, at first glance one cannot help but agree! So what on earth was Martin Droeshout the engraver thinking of? Surely such an illustration, on an important 900 page document, commissioned by the powerful Pembroke family would have been immediately rejected as quite grotesque? Why did they choose Droeshout as the engraver? Would they really have entrusted such an important task to a raw apprentice, apparently incompetent, with no talent and no sense of proportion or perspective?
Who was Martin Droeshout?
Martin Droeshout (1601 - 1651) came from a Flemish family of painters and engravers. His grandfather, Michael and his elder brother, John were both engravers and his father, John, was a painter. Martin had two nephews, sons of his brother Michael. The eldest son, John Droeshout (1599–1652), was also an engraver. Clearly a strong family business and an artistic family. Martin would have been trained at an early age in the family business. Martin's family came from Brussels as Protestant refugees. Martin Droeshout was 22 years old when the First Folio was published - well beyond the age of an apprentice and in fact reasonably mature for a role which required natural artistic talent. Shakespeare died in 1616 and there are no claims that Droeshout had ever met Shakespeare. It was therefore likely that Droeshout had been provided with a description of the required picture / illustration which was to be conveyed by the engraving. Ben Jonson, John Hemminge and Henry Condell, who were involved in the publication of the First Folio, all knew William Shakespeare personally and were therefore likely to have provided the engraver with a description and perhaps an existing likeness. The Burbages, when writing a letter to the Earl of Pembroke, referred to Shakespeare as "the man they all knew, the former actor and businessman from Stratford..."
Other work by Martin Droeshout
Martin Droeshout made engravings of many famous and important people. These included John Donne, the Duke of Buckingham, the Bishop of Durham, the Marquis of Hamilton and Lord Coventry. Most significant is that in 1631 Martin Droeshout was commissioned with the second edition of Crooke's "Mikrokosmographia" this was a massive folio containing over 1000 pages. He therefore must have had an excellent reputation as an accomplished engraver. So is there may be more to the First Folio engraving than meets the eye.
Ben Jonson's Commendation of the Droeshout engraving
To the Reader.
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut,
Wherein the Graver had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life :
O, could he but have drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face ; the Print would then surpasse
All, that was ever writ in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his Booke.
But to gain a deeper insight into the 'First Folio' we must ignore Ben Jonson's words "...Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his Booke".
A Closer Look
There are many peculiarities about the engraving which have strengthened the arguments of the Shakespeare Identity and Authorship Problem. The following comments and speculations have been made by various experts about the engraving.
The Head - The head is out of all proportion with the body. There is a peculiar line running from the ear down to the chin. Does this signify that the face is in fact a mask? The mask speculation was suggested by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence (author of Bacon is Shakespeare) who stated that it was a cunningly drawn cryptographic picture. Could it be an Actor's mask or even someone's Death Mask? Is it a mask attached to the back of someone's head? It has also been suggested that the eyes are wrong as they are in fact two left eyes. So we start the trail of the possible concealed messages in the Martin Droeshout engraving of William Shakespeare...
The engraving on the doublet is quite intricate but on closer inspection it seems to show according to Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, author of 'Bacon is Shakespeare', the front of the right arm is on one side but, 'without doubt', the back of the left arm on the other side. The picture was given to two tailoring journals. 'The Tailor and Cutter', March 1911 and 'The Gentleman's Tailor', April 1911 . Both these trade journals agreed that the figure was clothed in a coat composed of the back and the front of the same left arm. This was proved by cutting out the two halves of the coat and showing them shoulder to shoulder.
The Collar - It has been suggested that the type of collar depicted on the engraving did not exist. This is not a style of collar that has ever been traced to any one else during this era, it appears to be completely unique. The head does not appear to be connected to the body but is sitting on the collar. We were intrigued by the Droeshout picture. The collar, as depicted, would have been an impossible part of Shakespeare's apparel - the collar looks solid, it has no fastenings, how would you put this on? So we looked at the collar at all angles - if it was not a collar what else could it possibly be?
The Plot Thickens
The next interesting connection is the strange changes to the Droeshout image of William Shakespeare by the engraver William Marshall on the second edition (1640) of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Please click the link to find out more. Our own research has uncovered some new material and some unique ideas. These are explained in The Collar Theory. In view of all the speculation about Shakespeare we have also included a section called the Identity Problem which we hope will guide our visitors through the maze of speculation.