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.[]

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