Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2007
Among the most familiar portraits of Shakespeare is the engraving that graces the title-page of the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (see illustration). Unlike other portraits purporting to be the playwright, the engraving should present no question of authenticity, for the publication date establishes its terminus ab quo and Ben Jonson’s attendant verses lament the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’ and note the figure ‘was for gentle Shakespeare cut’. Nor is the engraver’s name in question, for below the portrait is his signature: ‘Martin Droeshout Sculpsit London’. Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare on the title-page of the 1623 First Folio, signed in London.
But there are two Martin Droeshouts in the records of early modern London, and the question of which of them engraved the famous title-page has not been settled. Was it the elder Martin, who was born in Brussels but spent much of his life in London? Or was it his nephew, who was born in London in 1601? The London records mention the elder several times, identifying him as the son of John Droeshout, a painter, and brother of Michael, an engraver; he himself is called a painter. The younger is mentioned only once, upon his baptism; but there are several references to his father, Michael, and his older brother, John, who were both engravers.
In 1991, following years of uncertainty and assumption, two articles provided new evidence on the Droeshouts. But the evidence was of two kinds, and the authors came to opposite conclusions: Mary Edmond contended that the elder Martin was the likely engraver of Shakespeare; Christiaan Schuckman believed it was the younger.