One of the ways we fund the podcast is through affiliate links. If you purchase these items through our links, we make a commission. This, and all the posts here on our website, may contain such affiliate links. 

Welcome to Episode #79 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

In Elizabethan England, one very popular art form was that of the woodcut. This art form is an intricate design, taking great skill and talent to produce, and was a huge innovation in the printing industry for the Renaissance time period. Here today to explain for us how woodcuts were made, where Shakespeare might have seen them in print, and where you and I can explore the ones which survive today is our guest Dr. James Knapp.

Join the conversation below.

Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay | iHeartRadio


Subscribe to get the latest updates sent right to your inbox &
I’ll send you this diagram of The Globe Theater to welcome you.

James A. Knapp is Professor and Director of Graduate Programs in the English Department at Loyola University Chicago. He is the author of Illustrating the Past in Early Modern England: The Representation of History in Printed Books (Ashgate, 2003), Image Ethics in Shakespeare and Spenser (Palgrave, 2011), and editor of Shakespeare and the Power of the Face (Ashgate, 2015). His most recent book, Immateriality and Early Modern English Literature: Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2020.

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare’s plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


In this episode, I’ll be asking James about :

  • How are woodcuts created practically speaking, what kind of tools or instruments are used to draw the pictures?


  • I have heard that the Protestant Reformation was to blame for the decline in woodcuts. What was it about the Reformation which did not like this artform?

  • If it is considered a woodcut, meaning a drawing cut from a slab of wood, how was it added to books at all? How did it go from wood to the printed page?

  • … and more!

Believe me, on mine honour, my words express my purpose.


Measure for Measure, II.4

The woodblock engraver from: de: Jost Amman (1539-1591): Everyday description of all estates on earth of high and low, spiritual and secular, of all arts, crafts and trades … (first Frankfurt 1568, also known as: Das Standsbuch) In the book the picture of the following text is accompanied by de: Hans Sachs: I am a mold cutter good, as what one does tear me, with the feathers auff a form bret I cut that with my geret, if one prints for it so sharp are the figurine, as it is designed, that stands, for prints on the papyrus, Artificial rather than auspicious. (Note: for tearing thut = vorzeichnet, geret = device, here: cutting knife, artificially auszufreichen = artfully) Source

Relief Printing

One way woodcuts were created is through relief printing. Relief printing is when everything except the image to be conveyed is cut away from a block of wood. This process was accomplished by hand and required the image to be conceived by the artist in reverse. 

Once everything else was cut away, what remained is an image that was composed of the raised areas of the wood and the valleys were the areas which had been cut away. This block of wood could now be dipped in ink (or have ink applied to it) and the ink would stay on the raised areas, but avoid the valleys. So when you pressed the block of wood into paper it would create an image. The durability of the wood made this method of printing long lasting and resuable. Additionally, the use of a printing press became optional because you could use the woodcut as a stamp and press it against paper by hand or with a roller. 


To you, my good lord mayor,
And your good brethren, I am much beholding


Alls Well That Ends Well III.2

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), The Rhinoceros, woodcut image dated 1515. Source

The original artwork gets destroyed

The picture you see on a woodcut gets designed on paper by an artist before it is made into a woodcut. While there are several methods of taking a drawing from concept to wood block and then carving it out, all the methods destroy the original artwork used in the design. That is why many woodcut illustrations are described in museums or books cataloging the history of this artform as “designed by” rather than “by” a particular artist.

The most famous 16th century woodcut artists are the 16th-century Hieronymus Andreae (who also used “Formschneider” as his last name), Hans Lützelburger and Jost de Negker. All of these men ran workshops and operated as printers and publishers.

After the craftsman who took the design from paper to woodblock finished his carving, he would send the woocut to a specialist whose job it was to print the images onto paper. There were even special craftsmen whose job it was to create the right size and shap blocks for the artists to work with when creating woodcuts.

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare’s plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


Si fortune me tormente sperato me contento.’
Fear we broadsides? No, let the fiend give fire.


Henry IV Part 2, II.4

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) The Four Horsemen probably between circa 1496 and circa 1498. Source

Broadside Ballads

Woodcuts were great for printers because they could be usedmore than once. A collection of woodcuts in the 16th century functioned like a library of public domain images or stock photos for writers and journalists today.

Whenever printers would tell a story they would choose an image from the woodcut library to describe what was being written about. Because the text of the printed work as well as the woodcut worked with movable type, they could easily be combined to print pages together. This system worked especially well for broadside ballads, since both the ballads and the woodcuts often reflected daily life.

Products You Might Like From Our Shakespeare Shop:

[et_pb_shop posts_number=”4″ orderby=”menu_order” admin_label=”Products You Might Like” global_module=”5059″ saved_tabs=”all”][/et_pb_shop]

I warrant he hath a
thousand of these letters, writ with blank space for
different names—sure, more,—and these are of the
second edition: he will print them, out of doubt;
for he cares not what he puts into the press

Mistress Page

Merry Wives of Windsor, II.1

DANIEL CHODOWIECKI 62 previously unpublished drawings of the elementary work of Johann Bernhard Basedow. With a preface by Max von Boehn. Voigtländer-Tetzner, Frankfurt am Main 1922 Source

Woodcuts and The Printing Press


There were two main uses for woodcut art in Shakespeare’s lifetime:

Singe Sheet Prints and Books. For Single sheet prints, woodcuts were excellent because they could be printed for circulation and were often sold as artistic prints where artists could sell individual works of art made from woodcuts.(Single Sheet prints are also the way Broadside Ballads were printed)

For book illlustration the woodcut worked seamlessly with the rise of the printing press and allowed the inclusion of images in books to be mechanical and produced in larger volume.

Books and Resources James Knapp Recommends:

James Knapp’s desert island book selection is:


Start every week with Shakespeare, with updates sent each Monday!
Download this map of the Globe theater to welcome you.

Comment and Share

Please consider rating the podcast with 5 stars and leaving a one- or two-sentence review in iTunes or on Stitcher.  Rating the podcast helps tremendously with bringing the podcast to the attention of others.

We encourage you to join the That Shakespeare Girl community on Facebook. It’s a community of professional Shakespeareans and Shakespeare enthusiasts, as well as fans of That Shakespeare Life.

You can tell your friends on Twitter about your love of Shakespeare and our new podcast by simply clicking this link and sharing the tweet you’ll find at the other end.

And, by all means, if you know someone you think would love to learn about the life of William Shakespeare, please spread the word by using the share buttons on this page.

And remember: In order to really know William Shakespeare, you have to go behind the curtain, and into That Shakespeare Life.