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The Collation

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: 

  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

William Ray — June 10, 2014


“More specifically, it is Shakespeare’s left eye”

^ isn’t it his right?

Simran Thadani — June 11, 2014


Oops! Yes, it was his right eye that I used, not his left. Thanks for the correction (now updated in the post)!

Sarah Werner — June 11, 2014


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)

Erin Blake — June 11, 2014


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