Medieval & Early Modern History Research article

What went wrong with Shakespeare’s Folio Picture?

Troubles in the First Folio’s opening pages include a sweaty Shakespeare and a misplaced poem

6 minute read

Shakespeare’s First Folio, published seven years after the great man died, gave us eighteen plays that we would not otherwise have had. On its 400th anniversary, we are celebrating and honouring this world-changing book. But being wonderful is not the same as being good. The First Folio has errors, each of which tells a story. Here are two, which also constitute the book’s first two pages: a poem in the wrong place, and a fairly disastrous author-picture.

An open book displays the title page of Shakespeare's First Folio in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, USA.

William Shakespeare, by Martin Droeshout, after an unknown artist (1623). Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library (Creative Commons License).

Let’s start with the above picture. An engraving by Martin Droeshout, it may well be apprentice work (Droeshout was twenty-two when the Folio was printed and was perhaps still learning his trade). But that hardly explains why Shakespeare’s face is so … damp, light pooling on a sweaty spot on the bald upper temple, a shiny crevice under the left eye, the greasy sheen along the length of the nose, a dot of moisture on the lower lip. Droeshout’s engraving will have been based on a portrait, as was usual at the time (he was fifteen when Shakespeare died and is unlikely ever to have seen his subject). Was the portrait behind the picture itself unflattering, perhaps showing Shakespeare when he was ill? Or were the spots of light Droeshout’s early, unsuccessful, experiments with visual contrast?

The lower half of the picture has different problems. Containing no points of light at all, it seems to have an entirely different origin from the face. It gives Shakespeare massive upper arms and shoulders that edge so far under the rebato (the starched collar used to protect clothes and highlight the face) that there is barely or no neck, hinting at Shakespeare’s future as a Bobblehead toy. The body takes up a good half of the picture, and yet conveys no information: the dark clothes are without ornamentation or jewellery; and the arms do not extend to hands, so cannot display rings or hold tools of the craft – pens, books, actors’ parts. The Folio Shakespeare portrait as a whole consists, then, of a bad(ly) copied head, and, under it, an ungainly body apparently supplied by Droeshout himself.

In order to understand what has gone wrong, it is helpful to look at other, better author-portraits. William Jaggard, who was both the printer of Shakespeare’s Folio and one of its four publishers, had published two good author-pictures before he printed Droeshout’s. They show what he might have expected when he, or someone else (it’s not clear whose job it was to identify an engraver) commissioned Droeshout.

On the right is an author-portrait for George Chapmen, made for The Whole Works of Homer (printed by Richard Field and William Jaggard in 1616). This engraving, by William Hole, advertises that it is from an actual portrait by putting the image inside an engraved frame. An explanation of picture and subject both is provided underneath in ‘handwriting’. The effect is to suggest we are looking at a portrait on a wall with explanatory text below.

A line engraving of a person with a large beard and a thinning head of hair.

George Chapman, by William Hole (Holle), after an unknown artist (1616). © National Portrait Gallery, London (Creative Commons License).

An engraving of Sir Walter Ralegh / Raleigh holding a truncheon.

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh), by Simon de Passe, after an unknown artist (1617). Credit: John Carter Brown Library (Creative Commons License).

Here’s another engraving, this one for the title page of Sir Walter Ralegh’s The Historie of the World, a book first published with this picture in 1617, and republished by Jaggard in 1621. This picture, by Simon de Passe, also broadcasts the fact that it is a copy of a portrait, and places Ralegh’s image within an engraved frame; it then likewise supplies, below, a hand-engraved written text with further information. Inside the frame is Ralegh’s head and upper body, the latter rich with information: the doublet’s lavish embroidery shows Ralegh’s wealth and social standing; the truncheon clasped in the right hand signifies his position as a navel commander; the fingers, resting on a globe, indicate broadly the subject of this book, the world, and point specifically at Guyana, the country Ralegh claimed to have ‘discovered’ in his hunt for El Dorado.

So what went wrong with Droeshout’s Shakespeare portrait? At a guess, Droeshout copied Shakespeare’s head and rebato with a view to encircling the picture and writing the poem – now to be found printed on the page before – underneath, in standard fashion. And then something or several things went wrong. The head is too close to the top of the picture. Were there troubles with spacing? The poem is substituted by Shakespeare’s ungainly body– a deeply cross-hatched dark doublet in a dark background – effectively a scribble, hiding whatever has gone wrong underneath. Did Droeshout miss a crucial word, botch a spelling, transpose a rhyme? Correcting small errors on a brass plate was possible but involved scraping down the plate itself; correcting many or repeated errors would lower the height of the plate, potentially affecting the printing process. At some point Droeshout seems to have cut his losses, and – we have the result.

That the poem is supposed to be under the picture is clear from its content: ‘This Figure, that thou here seest put, / It was for gentle Shakespeare cut’, it starts, as though sharing a page with the image; given its actual position on the opposite page, its subject is actually ‘that Figure … there’. Its main point, that the picture cannot convey its author’s wit so one should read the book instead, would be a joke if under the picture; where it is, before the picture, it is rude, dispraising what we are yet to focus on. Starting the First Folio with a poem by someone else is anyway odd. It has the unfortunate result that William Shakespeare’s famous book now begins with poetry by one of his rivals. Indeed, because of the poem is signed, the first author name in the Folio is ‘B.I.’ (Ben Jonson, ‘I’ and ‘J’ being interchangeable at the time), rather than William Shakespeare.

An engraving of William Shakespeare Shakespeare holding a laurel wreath.

William Shakespeare, by William Marshall, after Droeshout (1640). Credit: Wikimedia commons (Creative Commons License).

It is notable that later publications self-consciously ‘correct’ the Folio picture and poem. In John Benson’s edition of Poems … by … Shakespeare (1640), the picture is engraved anew by William Marshall. He gives it a frame and writes out some complimentary verses underneath (from Ben Jonson’s other Folio poem, but here unsigned). He also supplies Shakespeare with a hand (which clutches a large, symbolic laurel wreath, the symbol of poetic success), and some socially elevated clothing (a rich, possibly velvet doublet set off by a stylish cloak). The moisture problem somewhat remains, however, presumably because his source for the face is Droeshout’s earlier engraving.

What are we to do with the fact that the First Folio begins on a double page spread that is so problematic? The answer is: celebrate. Perfection – and the Folio has lots of that too – tells no stories; it is error that reveals actual craftsmen at work, often, as with Droeshout, young, and working under pressure. The Folio’s mistakes remind us of the many people whose hard work and troubled as well as brilliant decisions put the text together, and gave us Shakespeare warts (or, in this instance, sweat) and all.