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Shakespeare’s True Face

March 14th, 2011 5 comments


Almost no one is pleased by Martin Droeshout’s engraving of our beloved “Star of Poets”.  Here’s the anonymous opinion of a writer for The Sun, reviewing Basil Brown’s Supposed Caricature of the Droeshout:

The abominable eidolon which appears in the First Folio, opposite BEN JONSON’S sly advice to the Reader to look rather upon the Booke than upon the picture, has been for nearly three hundred years the despair of everybody wondering what SHAKESPEARE’S physiognomy really was like. No human being ever even faintly resembled the Droeshout print. The face is as impossible as is the doublet of riveted boiler iron.  ~Feb. 23, 1911, The Sun

Much to be preferred would have been something more closely modeled on the movie-star handsome face in the Cobbe Portrait, or the immediately likable fellow teasing us with his ever-so-sweet-and-shy smile in the Sanders portrait.

Dream on, my friends.  Ben Jonson, who surely knew “The AVTHOR”, says this is our man:

TO THE READER:

This figure, that thou here seest put,

It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;

Wherein the Graver had a strife

with Nature, to out-doo the life:

O, could he but have drawne his wit

As well in brasse, as he hath hit

His face; the Print would then surpasse

All, that was ever writ in brasse.

But, since he cannot, Reader, looke

Not on his Picture, but his Booke.

Is Honest Ben playing with us?   As a shrewd observer of his own times, and passionate imbiber of classic and continental literature, he’s our best contemporary witness to what the real “Shakespeare”  – whoever you believe that may be – looked like, inside and out.   After all, these two enormous poetic egos haunted the same London taverns and bookstalls.  They wrote their comedies and tragedies for the same actors.  Both were born poets, as well as “made”.

In the 1590s, both collaborated with that irrepressible satirist, Thomas Nashe.  And both knew Francis Langley, lord of the manor of Paris Garden and owner of the magnificent Swan Theater.  But there was one significant difference in each man’s recorded acquaintance with this pugnacious entrepreneur.  William Shakespeare and his side-kick Langley were never arrested for their threats of bodily harm to William Wayte in 1596.  A year later, however, Ben Jonson went to prison for his part in writing the disastrous Isle of Dogs, which played at Langley’s Swan. Soon after, the Poetomachia began, during which Shakespeare gave Jonson that famous, if elusive, literary purge.

No doubt about it, Ben knew our Author, and had reason to envy, and even resent him.  When he assures us that the figure we see gracing Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was “cut” for “gentle Shakespeare”, he speaks from a uniquely privileged position.  We sense that he expects posterity will know this, and thus take him at his word.  With a poetic genius of Jonson’s caliber, however, taking him “at his word” requires us to enter his own peculiar labyrinth of associative language.

Just as we do today, Jacobean followers of Jonson’s irreverent parodies would have sifted his contribution to the First Folio for the inevitable left-handed compliment to the master.  For example, why, in such a short piece of verse, does Jonson use the word “brass” twice?  As I’ve learned by following one of the most brilliant Oxfordian researchers we have, by the time the word “brass” works its way through Jonson’s literary digestive tract, he’s wholly transformed its surface connotations.

Since 2002, Nicole Doyle has been sharing her insights into the mysteries of the Droeshout engraving -  from its mismatched eyes to its “impossible doublet” -  with members of the late Robert Brazil’s Elizaforum.  By placing these visual puzzles alongside Jonson’s words, both in the poems he wrote for Shakespeare in 1623 and where he’s used them in other works, she has shown – persuasively, in my view – that Jonson intended the reader to “read” Droeshout’s disproportionate engraving as an emblem of  Shakespeare’s deformed literary “manners”.

For Oxfordians, this means that Droeshout wasn’t hired to cut a mockery of “the Stratford Man”.   His model – and Jonson’s target – was “The AVTHOR”, whom Jonson belatedly embraces as “his beloved” for this grand occasion.  What we are seeing in this iconic emblem isn’t Edward de Vere as he saw himself in the mirror, or the achingly human and noble being he made of himself in his art, but Edward de Vere through Ben Jonson’s eyes: sans Right, sans Romance, sans Idolatry.

Most likely, Martin Droeshout began his task with an image already in existence, as the British Museum’s website explains:

An engraving is not worked directly from life, but from a flat model, either a painting or a drawing. Droeshout must have been given a painting or drawing of Shakespeare as a young man, from which to engrave his plate.

Since Oxfordians do possess the advantage of a painting or two of our “Shakespeare as a young man” – one when he was twenty-four or so, and the other from when he was in his early thirties – we can readily compare these relatively honest (if not flattering) images of Edward de Vere with the First Folio’s satiric cartoon.  Here they are, left and right profile, side by side with Droeshout’s engraving:








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After viewing the Welbeck Portrait (top, right) in 1920, J. T. Looney suggested that:

…a very strong case might be made out for Droeshout having worked from this portrait, of Edward de Vere, making modifications according to instructions.

(Appendix II of Shakespeare Identified).

What do you think?

~Marie Merkel


To the Reader.
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut,
Wherein the Graver had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life :
O, could he but have drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face ; the Print would then surpasse
All, that was ever writ in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his Booke.

A Most Auspicious Star

March 7th, 2011 8 comments

But stay, I see thee in the Hemisphere
Advanc’d, and made a Constellation there !
Shine forth, thou Starre of Poets…

~ Ben Jonson, “To the memory of my beloued, The AVTHOR…”

This week, it’s my pleasure to publish a delightful Oxfordian find that landed in my mailbox a few days ago.  I do believe that what follows contains a vital new clue to the perennial mystery surrounding “The AVTHOR” of Shake-speare’s Sonnets.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A Most Auspicious Star

by Richard J. Kennedy

In 1640, the publisher John Benson put forth a curious edition of Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. This was more or less the 2nd edition of the 1609 Sonnets, with a few omissions and some extra text in praise of the poet.  Amongst the many small changes in this later quarto, there are questions for the close lookers-on who have a suspicion that the makers of this 1640 edition were puzzling with the reader.

The book opens with several questions. First, there’s the frontispiece portrait. The proportions are all off and the gentleman poet, if taken to be the Stratford man, is wearing the cape of a courtier, much above his station. The verse below says that “This Shadowe is renowned Shakespear’s ?” Yet the man casts no shadow, but like some gothic undead-creep who shows no reflection in a mirror, so it is with the sitter, unless that white space is meant to be a halo.

Well, the writer poses Shakespeare’s name as a question anyway, and follows with two more question marks (the applause? delight?) where none would be wanted. Then the concluding couplet of the frontispiece poem lays out a couple of trim anagrams for Vere, precious in the sight of Oxfordians:

For ever live thy fame, the world to tell,

Thy like, no age, shall ever parallel.

In the 1609 edition of the Sonnets, the dedication page was found out by John M. Rollett to hide a cipher, which reads: “THESE SONNETS ALL BY EVER” – playing on the same ‘ever’ anagram for Vere.

Given these several visual and typographic examples of playfulness on the frontispiece of the 1640 Poems, perhaps there’s more to be found out in the front matter of that edition.  On the next page, we find a letter “To The Reader”, signed by “I.B.” (presumably John Benson) , in which the text is all italic except, in the fifth line, where the name of ‘William Shakespeare’ is straight up Roman, and on the second page, first line, the word ‘Seren’ is set in the identical font.


When the text is glossed by the scholars, they often take ‘Seren’ to be a misspelling, and report the word as ‘serene’, which is fine in context, but perhaps the writer is playing with us and he really means ‘Seren’ exactly as it’s printed.

Those two exceptions may only be the sort of haggard type-setting and approximate spelling often found in texts of that time. Yet if not a mere fumbling of some apprentice printer’s devil, why set the name William Shakespeare and Seren in typographic company, perhaps drawing Seren to our special attention in this large field of otherwise italic type?

A pleasing answer might be that Seren is the Welsh word for “Star”…

…and that we are to take the word as an epithet for De Vere because a single star is quartered in his shield, and we might remember that the Chorus in Henry V proclaims the king to be “this star of England”. The phrase is also the happy choice for the title of the Oxford biography by Charlton and Dorthy Ogburn.

The 1640 Poems can be found in facsimile at the Rare Book Room

yn seren mwyaf addawol — Prospero


Richard Kennedy, independent researcher and prolific writer of children’s books, known for his “wit, iconoclasm, wild exuberance, narrative skill and poetic prose” (Children’s Books and their Creators), was the first to identify John Ford as the author of The Funeral Elegy by “W.S.”, (NY Times, 2002) and the first to propose that Shakespeare’s Stratford Monument is actually a bust of William’s father, John Shakspere, the “Woolpack Man” (TLS 2006).