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Celebrating Shakespeare 400: Faces and Folios

Celebrating Shakespeare 400: Faces and Folios

Mr William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. : Published according to the true originall copies.

London : printed by Tho. Cotes, for Robert Allot, 1632

Canterbury Cathedral Library H/O-4-24


“I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.”                                                                                              (Hamlet, act III, scene I)

With these words, from the famous ‘Nunnery Scene’ in Hamlet, the beleaguered prince berates Ophelia for the way in which women paint themselves a new face with cosmetics, thus covering the true likeness. With this image of William Shakespeare in the Cathedral Library copy of his Works the viewer also has a dilemma in knowing how genuine the likeness is to the true physiognomy of Shakespeare (1582-1616). Though not masked by cosmetics, the face depicted here as ‘the bard’s’ was made after Shakespeare’s death and very probably by an artist who had never seen him. The engraver, who signed his work ‘Martin Droeshout sculpsit London’, is one of either uncle or nephew (Elder or Younger) from the Droeshout family who moved to England from the Netherlands. Argument has been put forward for both men as the engraver of the Shakespeare portrait, but Martin Droeshout the Younger, who was just twenty-one at the time of its original production, is considered to have been the most likely of the two to have created the image.

While the Droeshout portrait was neither produced in Shakespeare’s lifetime nor is a particularly accomplished piece, it is generally accepted as one of two depictions of Shakespeare, among the many that exist, that are likely to bear a true likeness of him. The other is the funerary monument erected to Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. As was fairly common practice, the Droeshout Portrait was likely to have been based on a different, now lost, image of Shakespeare; this, along with the relatively quick production of the engraving after Shakespeare’s death (c. six years) and also that the image is vouched for by Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson as a true resemblance, all count in its favour.

First Folio

The engraving, and accompanying verse by Jonson, was first produced in 1623 specifically to be included in the printed collection of Shakespeare’s plays known as the First Folio.  A folio edition is simply the term for a higher quality edition than a quarto edition. The terms come from the paper: a folio is a full sheet only folded once making one double spread of four pages ; a quarto is folded twice, in half and then in half again, and then cut, so the pages are smaller and there are eight of them.

The First Folio edition was the first time that Shakespeare’s thirty-six plays were put together in one volume, it was collated from various individual copies of the plays in their various forms, including quartos, prompt versions and manuscripts, by his friends and acting colleagues, John Heminge and Henry Condell. They also supervised the printing and acted as editors and the grouping of the plays into genres of Comedies, Tragedies and Histories stems from this time. We owe them a debt of gratitude, as eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays that appear in the First Folio (including Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest) had never before appeared in print and may well have been lost forever. Unfortunately, none of Shakespeare’s plays are extant in his own handwriting, although an estimated 223 of roughly 750 original copies of the First Folio edition survive.

In 1632, a Second Folio was printed by Thomas Coates; this updated version included a poem by John Milton to Shakespeare and contained around 1,700 amendments to the text from the First Folio; it is this version that is held in Canterbury Cathedral Library. The text was verified as a Second Folio by the British Library and Short Title Catalogue (bibliographic resource used for books) as the page or paragraph which holds the details of date and printing (the colophon) has been lost. Shakespeare

Also lost were the original title page and portrait, but when the book was rebound in the eighteenth century, it seems to have acquired these elements from a later edition. So, how then can we know where the replacements came from? For this, we need to return to the Droeshout Portrait for clues.

Just as with the various folio editions, different versions, or states, of the Droeshout Portrait exist. There are four states, and three of them can be found in First Folio editions. The first state (1623), of which only four copies survive, shows Shakespeare’s head as almost balanced on his collar; there is no shadow to connect it to the shoulders beneath. The second state has the shadow added in order to anchor it; the third state has a further tiny difference in the highlighting of the eyes and the minute addition of one loose hair to the right side of his coiffure; and finally, the fourth state (1685) has a general tidying up of the whole image and is moved from the title page to become a page in its own right with Jonson’s poem underneath (see below link for fuller explanation and images).

The portrait replacement in this Canterbury book is a fourth state version. Indeed, looking at the Canterbury copy,the difference in pages is immediately apparent. Also particular to the Canterbury edition are marks of the previous owners. Although donated to the library in 1887 as a part of Benjamin Harrison’s collection, one Nan Sanderson, untraced but possibly eighteenth century from the handwriting, has marked her name in the book. Additionally, there are extensive notes inscribed in most of the plays in a hand different to Nan Sanderson. There is evidence that there were even earlier marginal notes that have been cropped when the volume was rebound and someone has taken the trouble to add in information about the First Folio opposite the portrait (pictured right).

Pulling all of this information together in one place can lead to an explanation almost as convoluted as one of Shakespeare’s own comedy of errors, but what is clear from the particularities of Canterbury Cathedral Library’s rebound Second Folio with fourth state Droeshout Portrait, is that the book was much used and loved, so, All’s Well that Ends Well.

Jayne Wackett (‘Picture this …’ Editor and this month’s contributor)

Further Reading:

The Cathedral Library’s copy of the second folio will be on display in the Cathedral Crypt during April.

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