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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

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In the spring of 1795, a parade of London notables—scholars, peers, a future bishop, England’s poet laureate—called at the curio-filled home of an antiquarian named Samuel Ireland. They had come to see some papers that Ireland’s 19-year-old son, William-Henry, said he had found while rummaging in an old trunk. Scribbled in faded ink on yellowed paper, they included letters, poetry and other compositions apparently written and signed by William Shakespeare. Until now, nothing in the Bard’s own hand was known to survive, except four signatures on legal documents. Most astonishing of all was part of an unknown play purportedly by Shakespeare—a thrilling new addition to the playwright’s canon.

James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s esteemed biographer, was one of the visitors. Seated in the Irelands’ study, Boswell, now portly and double-chinned, held the various papers up to the lamp and squinted at the florid penmanship for long minutes. Several times, William-Henry would recall, the great man interrupted his inspection to gulp hot brandy and water. Finally, he set the documents down on a table, lowered his bulk unsteadily in genuflection and kissed the topmost page. “I shall now die contented,” he breathed, “since I have lived to see the present day.” He died three months later at age 54, presumably content.

Much later, William-Henry would say he had been astonished by the brouhaha the “discovery” caused. What had started as a ploy to win the respect of his chilly, Shakespeare-worshiping father grew quickly into one of the most audacious literary hoaxes in history. In a burst of manic energy in 1795, the young law clerk produced a torrent of Shakespearean fabrications: letters, poetry, drawings and, most daring of all, a play longer than most of the Bard’s known works. The forgeries were hastily done and forensically implausible, but most of the people who inspected them were blind to their flaws. Francis Webb, secretary of the College of Heralds—an organization known for its expertise in old documents—declared that the newly discovered play was obviously the work of William Shakespeare. “It either comes from his pen,” he wrote, “or from Heaven.”

William-Henry Ireland was an unlikely Shakespeare. He dreamed of being an actor, a poet or perhaps a playwright, but he had been a dismal student, rarely applying himself to his lessons and regularly caned for misbehavior. One of his headmasters, he later recalled, told his father “that I was so stupid as to be a disgrace to his school.”

Even the boy’s parents saw him as a dullard. Samuel Ireland, a self-important and socially ambitious writer, engraver and collector, went so far as to hint that William-Henry was not his son. The boy’s mother did not acknowledge her maternity; as Samuel’s mistress, she raised William-Henry and his two sisters by posing as a live-in housekeeper named Mrs. Freeman. Samuel had found the boy an undemanding job as an apprentice to a lawyer friend whose office was a few blocks from the Irelands’ home on Norfolk Street in the Strand, at the edge of London’s theater district. At the lawyer’s chambers, William-Henry passed his days largely unsupervised, surrounded by centuries-old legal documents, which he would occasionally sift through, when asked.

He might have lived out his days in obscurity had it not been for his father’s obsession with collecting antiquities. To call on the Ireland home was to step inside Samuel’s cabinet of curiosities. Here were paintings by Hogarth and Van Dyck, rare books, a piece of a mummy’s shroud and a silver-trimmed goblet carved from the wood of a mulberry tree that Shakespeare was said to have planted in Stratford-upon-Avon.

“Frequently,” William-Henry recalled in 1832, “my father would declare, that to possess a single vestige of the poet’s hand-writing would be esteemed a gem beyond all price.”

Exactly when the idea of forgery took root in William-Henry’s mind is unclear. For all his dreams of being a writer, he had produced at most a handful of poems. Shortly before Christmas in 1794, he decided to try his hand at something new. In one of his father’s books, he had noticed Shakespeare’s wobbly signature on a facsimile of an old deed. William-Henry quietly carried the book to the law chambers, where he practiced tracing the signature until he could copy it with his eyes shut. Using blank parchment he cut from an old rent roll, he used ink diluted with bookbinders’ chemicals to write a new deed. He darkened the ink by holding the parchment close to a flame, then attached wax seals he had cut from an old deed in the office.

After dinner a few evenings later, William-Henry walked into the Ireland drawing room, pulled the new deed from inside his coat and gave it to his father, saying more loudly than he intended, almost as if in defiance: “There, sir! What do you think of that?”

Samuel unfolded the deed and examined it in silence for several minutes, paying special attention to the seals. At last, he refolded the parchment. “I certainly believe it to be a genuine deed of the time,” he said, more calmly than William-Henry had hoped.

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