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

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)
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If the collector was less than convinced, his doubts soon vanished. The next morning, he showed the deed to a friend, Sir Frederick Eden, an expert on old seals. Eden not only pronounced the deed authentic, but also identified the image stamped in the seal directly below Shakespeare’s signature. The indistinct T-shaped outline in the wax (whichWilliam-Henry hadn’t even noticed) was a medieval device called a quintain, Eden explained, a swiveling horizontal bar mounted on a post at which a young horseman would aim his lance when learning to joust.

As to why the Bard had chosen it as his insignia—why, of course, it was an object at which a rider would “shake” his “spear.” The two men were exhilarated by their discovery. How could the Bard’s signature be anything but authentic, sealed as it was with his own distinctive emblem?

From this William-Henry drew an important lesson: people tend to see what they want to see. All the forger does is suggest a plausible story; his victims fill in the details.

Word spread quickly that the deed had been found, and small groups of Samuel Ireland’s friends and fellow collectors would convene in the drawing room in the evenings to discuss it.

“Several persons told me,” William-Henry wrote two years later, “that wherever it was found, there must undoubtedly be all the manuscripts of Shakspeare [sic] so long and vainly sought for.” He said he had found the deed while rummaging in an old trunk belonging to a Mr. H., a wealthy gentleman friend who wished to remain anonymous. Mr. H., he added, had no interest in old documents and told him to keep whatever he fancied.

His father badgered him relentlessly for more papers. “I was sometimes supplicated; at others, commanded to resume my search among my supposed friend’s papers,” William-Henry recalled years later, “and not unfrequently taunted as being an absolute idiot for suffering such a brilliant opportunity to escape me.”

To appease his father, William-Henry promised him new treasures from the trunk. Cutting the flyleaves from old books to supply himself with antique paper, he produced an array of fakes: contracts with actors, letters to and from Shakespeare, even a love poem to the Bard’s fiancée, Anne Hathaway, complete with a lock of hair. To produce the manuscript of a well-known play, the young forger would simply transcribe the printed version into longhand. Voilà—the long-lost original! To imitate Elizabethan spelling, he sprinkled terminal e’s everywhere. He tinkered with the plays’ language as he copied them, omitting lines and adding a few short passages of his own here and there. In short order, he presented his father with an entire first draft of King Lear, followed by a fragment of Hamlet.

Many of those who came to Norfolk Street to judge the papers’ authenticity were unsure of what they were looking for, because drastically rewritten versions of Shakespeare’s plays were widespread. That same year, for example, the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane had staged King Lear with a happy ending: Cordelia marries Edgar, and Lear, Gloucester and Kent all survive to enjoy a peaceful dotage.

Like hoaxers before and since, William-Henry noticed that the grander his claims, the more eagerly people believed them. His most daring undertaking was that of the unknown play in Shakespeare’s handwriting that he claimed to have discovered in Mr. H.’s trunk. “With my usual impetuosity,” the forger later confessed, “[I] made known to Mr. Ireland the discovery of such a piece before a single line was really executed.” Facing his father’s growing impatience to see the play, the young man delivered a scene or two at a time, “as I found time to compose it.”

William-Henry chose as his subject a fifth-century English warlord-turned-king named Vortigern and a young woman named Rowena, with whom, according to legend, the king fell in love. Like Shakespeare before him, William-Henry drew on Holinshed’s Chronicles, a copy of which he borrowed from his father’s study. The young man wrote the play on ordinary paper in his own handwriting, explaining that it was a transcript of what Shakespeare had written. The supposed original document he produced later on, when he had time to inscribe it on antique paper in a flowery hand.


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