One of the most bizarre stories of the late 18th century is that of the celebrated forger William Henry Ireland (1775-1835), who, at the precocious age of 17, managed to con fashionable literary London into accepting bogus papers and signatures as having been written by William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
According to Nick Groom, who wrote an account of the case in his book The Forger’s Shadow, the hoax began in December 1794, when William Henry presented his father Samuel Ireland (1744-1800), an engraver, author and Shakespeare fanatic, with a crude signature in a shaky hand, which he claimed to be that of William Shakespeare.
The boy explained that the paper had come from a trunk of documents unearthed by a ‘Mr H’, who wished to remain anonymous. Soon, other miscellanea appeared — a letter from Shakespeare to his patron the Earl of Southampton (1573-1624), pages of verse and a letter to his future wife Anne Hathaway (1556-1623), a lock of hair and even a letter from Queen Elizabeth I. These items went on display in the family home and the public were charged a guinea to view them.
The discovery caused a sensation and some of the great literary figures of the day, including Samuel Johnson’s biographer James Boswell (1740-1795), proclaimed the papers to be legitimate. ‘I shall now die contented, since I have lived to see the present day,’ trumpeted Boswell, who died three months later.
‘It is a source of incredible frustration to the British public that our greatest literary hero remains so remote from us’ — Sophie Hopkins
Why Ireland’s ruse was not treated with more suspicion at the time is something of a mystery, but Sophie Hopkins, a specialist in Books and Manuscripts, believes it was down to the boy’s ability to concoct a compelling backstory. ‘In tune with all the best lies,’ she says, ‘there was a kernel of truth in the deception.’
A couple of months previously Ireland and his father had made a pilgrimage to the bard’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, where they heard talk of a trunk of documents belonging to Shakespeare being stored at a place called Clopton House. When they arrived at the hall they discovered to their horror that the contents had been burned. But as Ireland senior lamented, his son recognised an opportunity.
Hopkins explains that there is a scarcity of documents relating to Shakespeare: ‘It is a source of incredible frustration to the British public that our greatest literary hero remains so remote from us.’
As far as the specialist is aware, there are only six examples of the playwright’s signature in existence, and not one of the 36 plays that appeared in the First Folio survive in Shakespeare’s own hand, making it very difficult to spot forgeries.
So hungry was the public’s appetite for Shakespeariana to fill the gaps in the bard’s life that Ireland overstretched himself and delivered a long lost play called Vortigern and Rowena — a tragedy set in ancient Britain.
It was enough for the leading Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone (1741-1812) to publish an exhaustive 400-page redaction of the manuscripts, which appeared in 1796 on the eve of Vortigern’s first performance at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. The play was greeted with howls of derision and only ever received one performance.
Newspapers mocked Ireland’s poor prose, and a spoof letter between Shakespeare and his rival Ben Johson was published in The Telegraph: ‘Deeree Sirree, Wille youe doee meee theee favvourree too dinnee wythee meee onn Friddaye nextte, attt twoo off theee clockee, too eattee sommee muttonne choppes andd somme poottaattoooeesse.’
The Irelands — to use Shakespeare’s own phrase — became ‘a laughing stock’. Sadly Samuel Ireland, who as far as we can gather was entirely duped by his son, was broken-hearted and died soon after. Ireland Junior, however, flourished under the attention, publishing a mea culpa and producing duplicates of the offending documents for a delighted public.
The Ireland Shakespeare forgeries offered at Christie’s comprise a part-confession by the ingenious swindler, together with examples of his literary crimes. ‘The original fakes are now held at Harvard’s Houghton Library,’ says Hopkins, ‘but he made further copies for his friends and for sale.’
This set purports to have been that presented to his neighbour Albany Wallis in 1797, but they are in fact what the specialist describes as ‘a kind of double forgery’, as the watermark visible on the present examples date to 1804 — after Wallis’s death.
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Ireland, it seemed, failed to learn from his misdemeanours. ‘He went on to lead a rather a dissolute life,’ says Hopkins, ‘living on his notoriety and constantly in debt.’
When he died in 1835, he had been confined to the margins, and left behind a conman’s legacy as well as a bold and intriguing footnote in the history of literary counterculture.