Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The 1623 Droeshout Engraving: William Shakespeare or Freakshow Frankenstein?

Above: the Evolution of the Droeshout Engraving (in 3 stages)
The Droeshout engraving from the 1623 First Folio is the only image of Shakespeare to have been vouched for by a contemporary of the great playwright's. Because of this, the engraving is consider to be Shakespeare's most authentic image and was likely created from a template ad vivum portrait of Shakespeare now lost to history. The search for this template portrait has been going on for 400 years and has inspired a parade of frauds and counterfeits.

Nobody really likes the Droeshout because it makes Shakespeare butt ugly. Traditional scholars keep unearthing more and more dubiously attractive portraits of so-called Shakespeare. As to the gadfly Oxfordians, they are a house divided, but one thing they agree on is their disdain for the Droeshout engraving, which they believe to depict the imposter-actor-puppetmaster-moneylender-wooltrader-illiterate fraud from Stratford they call “Shakspere.” Like all seekers of alternative authors, the Oxfordians have enjoyed exaggerating the Droeshout’s freakishness in order to claim it a visual riddle elbowing us (nudge-nudge wink-wink) toward the true author hidden behind the mask. 

On the other hand, the Oxfordians have made some good points regarding the anomalies found in the Droeshout. Admittedly, the Droeshout face does resemble a mask. And, point given, a guild of British ophthalmologists once proclaimed the Droeshout had two right eyes and no left eye. And, yep, the back of its doublet appears to be facing us instead of the front (on one side), and the doublet does seem too small to support such a galactic head. It has even been suggested the Droeshout face is an amalgamation of poet parts, a Frankenstein monster of collaborative Shakespeares: eye of Marlowe, ear of Bacon, forehead of de Vere, cheek of Elizabeth I, nose of Mary Sidney, chin of Fulke Greville, etc, etc.

I don't buy it. Here's why.
 Above: the Droeshout (left) and Myten's Southampton (right, Folger Shakespeare Library)
Whatever the Droeshout’s faults—and since it was engraved after Shakespeare's death by a teenager who had never met him, I think we can attribute some of its shortcoming to incompetency—the engraving is not the freak show it has been made out to be. Any number of Shakespeare’s contemporaries resembled the Droeshout mug. For instance, Shakespeare’s patron Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, as portraited by Daniel Mytens. Or almost any portrait of William Herbert, the older of the two “incomparable paire of brethren” to whom the First Folio was dedicated.  

It's also interesting, to me at least, that both established candidates for the "fair youth" of the sonnets, Herbert and Southampton, resemble the Droeshout Shakespeare.

 William Herbert by Mytens (Royal Collection)
And there is another Elizabethan portrait, kept in a museum in Somerset (see bottom photo), that seems almost stamped from the Droeshout engraving. The sitter, called Thomas Lyte, is wearing a similar rabato collar. His torso is dwarfed and his eyes heavily lidded and mismatched. The portrait bears all the signs of gross misuse associated with all Shakespeare portraits (extirpation, overpaint, & scrubbing). It’s tempting to think there might be a relationship between the Lyte portrait and the Droeshout engraving, but, try as I might—and I’ve been begging for years—the Somerset Museum refuses to become the least bit curious about their own portrait. In all fairness to the museum, though, they've had some difficulties and were even closed down for a spell, so it might be lack of resources that stop this curious portrait from being tested with x-rays and infrared light.

Above: Thomas Lyte Somerset Museum (left) and the curious Droeshout Engraving (right, Folger Shakespeare Library) 

Click on above images to make them larger

1 comment:

  1. Portraying the back of the doublet as the front can only be deliberate, and can not be attributed to incompetency. Droeshout's other engraving's are expert. This is the only one that is a caricature. He was obviously paid to create this joke. Especially since the picture, which Jonson warns us about on the opposite page, was printed in extra large size on the title page! It was meant not to be ignored.