The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Four states of Shakespeare: the Droeshout portrait

So the mysterious eye of this month’s crocodile belongs to no other than Shakespeare, as some readers immediately recognized:

Droeshout's engraving of Shakespeare on the title page of the First Folio
Droeshout’s engraving of Shakespeare on the title page of the First Folio

More specifically, it is Shakespeare’s left right eye as depicted in the third state of the Droeshout engraving from one of the Folger’s copies of the First Folio. If you’re wondering why I chose his eye as the June crocodile, that previous sentence is key: the portrait of Shakespeare engraved by Martin Droeshout for the First Folio exists in 4 different states, 3 of which can be seen in copies of the First Folio (the fourth state wasn’t introduced until the Fourth Folio in 1685).

The first thing to remember in understanding this series of images is that copper plates can be altered, even in mid-production, so that changes can be introduced to an image. (To refresh your understanding of how engravings and etchings are made and how long copper plates can be used, read these posts from Erin Blake.) So it was possible for Martin Droeshout to introduce the following change from the first state of his Shakespeare portrait to the second: 

comparing states 1 and 2 of Droeshout's engraving
comparing states 1 and 2 of Droeshout’s engraving

Do you see the difference? In state 1, on the left, the head seems disconcertingly to be floating above the collar; in state 2, a shadow has been added behind the head to help it appear to “sit” better on the collar. There are only four surviving impressions of this earliest state (two at the Folger, one at the British Library, and one at the Bodleian), so it seems likely that Droeshout made the change fairly early in its run through the press, and thank goodness for that.

Spotting the differences between states 2 and 3 is a bit trickier:

comparing states 2 & 3
comparing states 2 & 3

That’s not entirely fair, since the differences are really in the details, and it’s hard to spot details in the image I just gave you. (But you can also see all four states in our digital image collection, where you can zoom in to glorious closeups.) The difference that is the easiest to spot is in the eyes. In state 3, a line has been added to the pupils to change the highlights in the eyes:

a subtle change in the eyes
a subtle change in the eyes

The other difference, however, is much harder to find, and even though I knew what it was, I didn’t see it until Erin pointed it out to me. 1 In state 3, there’s an extra strand of hair. Yep, a single strand:

an even subtler alteration to the hair
an even subtler alteration to the hair (don’t worry about the copy-specific patch circled above)

Please don’t ask me why a single strand of hair was added, because my imagination is failing me. Perhaps one of you can supply an answer? I’m also not entirely sure why stopping the press and pulling the plate to change the eyes was necessary, either. I do appreciate the less glaring highlights in the later state, but it seems a small detail to change in what is, frankly, not a particularly well-done portrait.

In any case, state 3 continued to be used for the rest of the First Folio (1623), the Second Folio (1632), and the Third Folio (1663). When it came time to print the Fourth Folio (1685), however, the engraving was in need of retouching, and someone strengthened worn-out lines on the forehead, cheeks, and clothing. (The engraving was also moved off of the title page to face it, along with Ben Jonson’s poem of praise.)

state 4 of the portrait
state 4 of the portrait

The workspace below will let you compare the first three states side-by-side so you can study them to your heart’s content (you can play with it below or open it in a new window). And remember, if you’re struggling to identify whether the portrait you’re looking at is in its second or third state, the eyes have it.

  1. And my thanks to Erin for sharing her expertise with me and for generating this helpful image.


  • Thank you for the interesting and important discussion. In answer to your question, why is the single hair added to the second state engraving important––the hair bifurcates six of the tiny O’s that align next to the hank of hair dropping down from the peculiarly bald skull. What does this “mean”? As in several other instances on this image, it is an “IO” device, in this case with six repetitions to add together “deux” and “vier”, to total six “IO”s. IO is the Italian fps for English “I”. The author declares himself “IO” via the devices. In Italian, the article IO is pronounced E’O. Thus, we have the initials for the Earl of Oxford, illustrated six times, with the two and four to equal six translated into French and German. Their sounds simulate his surname, de Vere (deux vier). A very clever in-your-face message to the knowing reader of the Elizabethan era.

    As to the other “IO” instances which I hinted at: 1) the thick embroidery strip under the figure’s chin is right next to a moon-shape O; 2) next to them is a narrower strip, for which the O is supplied by a button, visibly moved out of line to serve the purpose; 3) the left eye (sinistra in Latin) has a strange circular illumination around it=I [eye] O; at the top of the hairline is a Roman numeral I, which looks like “I” in type, and next to it is another moon-sphere=IO. Finally, if we follow the top lines of the embroidered arm strips, we find the left arm embroidery top line aims at the figure’s right eye, and that the right arm embroidery top line points to the thick “I” under the chin, and that similarly the bottom lines of the arm strips point to O’s–the moon-sphere by the thick chin strip and the left nostril, a nominal O. So two more IO’s. There are more, but this is the idea. I invite interested readers to read my essay about the Droeshout:

    with best wishes, William Ray

  • The extreme minor-ness of the changes between states 2 and 3 could well be additional evidence that the print was commissioned by people with good intentions but not a lot of money. I like to imagine a conversation between the publishers and Martin Droeshout going something like this:

    Publishers: Hey, Marty! Thanks for adding the shadow, but it still doesn’t look very lively. Can you fix it up some more?

    Martin D.: Sure! Happy to give it the same amount of detail I’m putting into this here portrait of the Marquis of Hamilton. Here’s what it’ll cost you.

    Publishers: Gee, we don’t have that kind of money.

    Martin D.: Well, I’ll tell you what… I can do some minor touch-ups if you buy me a beer.

    Publishers: Great!

    Martin D: [Scratch, scratch, scratch] Ta dah!

    (For properly supported evidence that the picture was done on the cheap but meant to look impressive, see Erin C. Blake and Kathleen Lynch, “Looke on his Picture, in his Book: The Droeshout Portrait on the Title Page” in Foliomania (Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011), 21-31)

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