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Two centuries after Shakespeare's death, a lowly law clerk named William Henry Ireland forged the Bard's signature and a seal that convinced skeptics. (Hugh Douglas Hamilton / National Portrait Gallery, London)

To Be...Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery

William-Henry Ireland committed a scheme so grand that he fooled even himself into believing he was William Shakespeare's true literary heir

The new play was choppy and sometimes confusing, the pace uneven, the poetry often trite, but there were passages in Vortigern and Rowena that were undeniably gripping. At a banquet in Act IV, the king’s sons object when he invites comely Rowena to sit next to him in a seat that belongs to their mother, the queen. Vortigern explodes in rage:

Dare you then my power to account!
Must I, a king, sit here to be unkinged
And stoop the neck to bear my children’s yoke?
Begone, I say, lest that my present wrath
Make me forget the place by blood I hold
And break the tie twixt father and his child.

Paternal displeasure was an emotion William-Henry knew all too well. At heart, however, the play was a pastiche of characters and scenes lifted from Shakespeare’s repertoire, and it didn’t add up to much. But to those who were expecting to encounter the Bard’s newly discovered words, it read like a masterpiece.

Norfolk Street soon became a pilgrimage site for Shakespeare lovers; Samuel felt compelled to limit visiting hours to Monday, Wednesday and Friday, noon to 3 p.m. Handling of the parchment deed and the lock of hair was part of the ritual. As for the play, when visitors wondered why Shakespeare had kept this magnum opus hidden from view, William-Henry forged a letter suggesting that the playwright had viewed it as his crowning achievement and wanted more for it than his printer was willing to pay.

Transported by the thought of proximity to Shakespeare’s letters and manuscripts, Francis Webb of the College of Heralds wrote a friend: “These papers bear not only the signature of his hand, but also the stamp of his soul, and the traits of his genius.” James Boaden, a critic and editor of the London daily The Oracle, was equally certain. “The conviction produced upon our mind,” he wrote, “is such as to make all skepticism ridiculous.”

Richard Brinsley Sheridan was not so sure, but the playwright and theatrical impresario needed a hit. A free-spending, hard-drinking gambler and member of Parliament, Sheridan had just expanded the Drury Lane theater to accommodate some 3,500 customers, making it by far the largest in England. The expansion, plus losses from betting, had driven him deeply into debt. Though he’d never been a great admirer of the Bard, he was aware that staging the first première of a Shakespeare play in almost 200 years would fill his cavernous theater night after night.

In the spring of 1795, Sheridan came by the Irelands’ home to evaluate Vortigern. Seated in the study, he read a few pages, then stopped at a passage that struck him as unpoetic—clumsy, in fact.

“This is rather strange,” he said, “for though you are acquainted with my opinion as to Shakespeare, yet, be it as it may, he certainly always wrote poetry.” After a few more pages, Sheridan stopped again and looked up at his host. “There are certainly some bold ideas, but they are crude and undigested. It is very odd: one would be led to think that Shakespeare must have been very young when he wrote the play.”

But then he added that no one could doubt that the collected documents were Shakespeare’s, because “who can possibly look at the papers and not believe them ancient?” Sheridan didn’t think Vortigern was very good, but he nevertheless wanted it for Drury Lane. The play would have its première there the following April.

William-Henry was aware that the steadier the flow of visitors to Norfolk Street, the more likely that doubters would begin to make their voices heard. He was particularly nervous about a visit from Joseph Ritson, a critic known for his biliousness. “The sharp physiognomy, the piercing eye and the silent scrutiny of Mr. Ritson filled me with a dread I had never before experienced,” William-Henry would later write.

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