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Why is this the definitive image of Shakespeare?

The Magazine answers...

The old and the young. Reveal the Droeshout in full by clicking below.

A newly authenticated portrait of William Shakespeare sheds new light on the playwright, but where does it leave the enduring Droeshout image that's so familiar?

Suddenly Shakespeare does not look how we imagined.

Gone are the receding hairline and the tired eyes, replaced by a man flush with youth and good health. Even his nose and chin are jauntily pointed.

The discovery of what's believed to be the only portrait of Shakespeare painted in his lifetime - found in the Cobbe family collection - means the Martin Droeshout image so embedded in our collective consciousness has a rival.

Droeshout's brass engraving is the title portrait on the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays, the First Folio published in 1623, seven years after the playwright's death.

Droeshout's engraving appears on hugely important First Folio
Its likeness to Shakespeare praised by Ben Jonson
No evidence that friends or family disagreed with his assessment

It has had its critics. Some have found it hard to reconcile the haggard and joyless face with the vigour and genius of the Bard.

So why has the Droeshout engraving endured for so long, and will it now fall by the wayside?

"It's an iconic image, I'm not surprised it's endured," says Professor Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

"The only two images with any strong claims of authenticity are the Droeshout and the bust in the church in Stratford.

English engraver of Flemish descent
Born in 1601, he was about 15 when Shakespeare died
His father was also an engraver
As was his uncle, Martin Droeshout the Elder, who some attribute the engraving to

"Droeshout's has become iconic because it was approved by Ben Jonson. There are lines [by Jonson] praising the engraving for capturing the likeness, and we have no evidence that his friends and family disapproved of it."

The engraving - which in those days was the only method to mass-produce an image - is on the right-hand side of the title page. And opposite is a small poem by Jonson:

This figure that thou here seest put,
it was for gentle Shakespeare cut,
Wherein the graver had a strife
With nature, to out-do the life:
Oh but he could have drawn the wit
As well in brass as he hath hit
The face: the print would then surpass
All that was ever writ in brass:
But since he cannot,
Reader, look Not on his picture, but his book.

Mr Wells believes the Cobbe painting in a way strengthens the authenticity of Droeshout's engraving - both cut off at the waist, and have the Bard dressed in very similar sleeves and shoulder pads.

"It means that the Droeshout is based on a painting, or a version of one, that was done during Shakespeare's life."

Stanley Wells
Mr Wells believes the new image will gain currency

Droeshout's image will always be important, he says, because it's published on the First Folio, which published half of Shakespeare's plays for the first time.

He expects the portrait of the younger Shakespeare to take hold in our imagination. And it weakens the stance of those who believe Shakespeare was too ill-educated to write so well, as the sitter's collar of fine lace suggests a man of some social standing.

Some conspiracy theorists claim Droeshout's clumsy depiction of shoulders indicates the engraving was based on a tailor's dummy. But the National Portrait Gallery says Droeshout probably worked from a head and shoulders portrait, and added the body himself.

Stuart Hampton-Reeves, of the British Shakespeare Association, says Droeshout's is still the only reliable image we have, and it will take a long time for the new painting to undermine it.

"This was an image that would have been recognised to his friends, family and contemporaries. We are as confident as you ever can be that it's accurate, without the people here to validate it.

"The First Folio sold for a pound a copy, which in 1623 made it a high-value object. So I would imagine that they saw the Folio as a high-quality publication, and by putting his face as prominently as on the cover was them announcing who Shakespeare was to the general public."

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The reason why there is so much interest in his appearance is because it is hard to tell much about the author from his works.

"He can look into the minds of murderers and the imagination that shapes them, and find sympathy with that extreme form of humanity.

"With some authors you can say, 'This is them' - but with Shakespeare it's hard to find that. So there's a sense that the image of Shakespeare gives us what we want."


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