Facing Shakespeare: The Martin Droeshout Engraving

By Schlueter, June | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Facing Shakespeare: The Martin Droeshout Engraving


Schlueter, June, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


a huge head, placed against a starched ruff, surmounts an absurdly small tunic with oversized shoulder-wings. . . . The mouth is too far to the right, the left eye lower and larger than the right, the hair on the two sides fails to balance. Light comes from several directions simultaneously: it falls on the bulbous protuberance of forehead . . ., creat[ing] an odd crescent under the right eye . . .1

S. Schoenbaum's description of Martin Droeshout's engraving of Shakespeare that fronts the 1623 First Folio could hardly be less charitable. What could one expect, Schoenbaum asks, of this "clumsy, third-rate engraver": the defects of the engraving are "all too gross" and can only be ascribed to the "artist's ineptitude." Schoenbaum expresses his bewilderment: "How young Martin, who was only twenty-two when the First Folio appeared, secured a commission to furnish the portrait to adorn that momentous volume we do not know."2

In 1970, when Schoenbaum offered his remarks, we knew little about Martin Droeshout, and much of what we thought we knew was erroneous. But since 1991, research has uncovered information on three generations of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Droeshouts, one of whom-John (Jan/ Hans) Droeshout-left the Low Countries with his wife Mary (Mayken) De Looze and emigrated to London. While such research, along with new findings presented in this paper, does not definitively respond to Schoenbaum's question of why the young Martin was given the commission, it does secure Martin Droeshout's place within the early modern artistic world, thus moving us closer to understanding how he could have come to engrave the Folio Shakespeare. And it proposes a scenario that could account for the "artist's ineptitude."

Attributing the Engraving

In 1991, Mary Edmond published what might have been the definitive work on the Folio engraving. In "It was for gentle Shakespeare cut," she argued that Martin Droeshout the elder, a member of the Painter-Stainers' guild in London and John and Mary's son, was responsible for the engraving. Until then, the assumption had been that it was the younger Martin Droeshout, the elder's nephew, who was born in London in 1601. But given the younger man's age at the time of the Folio publication-just 22-she thought it improbable that it was he. Moreover, she observed, "there is absolutely no positive evidence that the younger Droeshout ever practiced as an engraver."3

In the course of her research in London, Edmond uncovered valuable information on the Droeshouts. But she was apparently unaware of an essay published a few months before hers in Print Quarterly entitled "The Engraver of the First Folio Portrait of William Shakespeare." In it, Christiaan Schuckman reported his discovery in Madrid of a dozen engravings by Martin Droeswood[e]. Schuckman's reproductions of several of these alongside Droeshout's English prints suggested that all the copperplate engravings were by the same hand-a hand he assumed was that of Martin Droeshout the younger.4

The question of which Martin Droeshout did the engraving of Shakespeare remained unresolved until 2007 when, in an essay in Shakespeare Survey 60 entitled "Martin Droeshout Redivivus: Reassessing the Folio Engraving of Shakespeare," I brought together the discoveries of Edmond and Schuckman with my own research in London, Madrid, and Brussels. The additional documents revealed that several corrections needed to be made in the family chronology: Martin Droeshout the elder was baptized in Brussels on January 7, 1574, one year after his parents married, making him, not Michael, the firstborn son; John and Mary Droeshout, the elder Martin's parents, had four children, not six; John and Mary arrived in London in 1583-84, not in or about 1569; Michael, the elder Martin's younger brother, himself an engraver, was married five times, not four; the mother of Michael's son, the younger Martin, was Michael's second wife, Dominick Verricke,5 not Susanneken van der Ersbek. …

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