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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After studying the papers, Ritson wrote to a friend that they were “a parcel of forgeries, studiously and ably calculated to deceive the public.” He judged them to be the work of “some person of genius and talents”—not one of the Irelands, certainly—who “ought to have been better employed.” But he kept this verdict private; after all, a scholar or antiquary risked lifelong infamy if he denounced as fraudulent a poem or a play that was later proved to be Shakespeare’s. So doubts about the papers’ authenticity took the form of rumors.

To counter them, a core group of believers, including Boswell, drew up a Certificate of Belief stating that they “entertained no doubt whatsoever as to the validity of the Shaksperian [sic] production.” Meanwhile, Samuel kept nagging his son for an introduction to Mr. H. and a chance to dig through the man’s trunk himself. William-Henry reminded his father of Mr. H.’s insistence on complete anonymity, citing the man’s dread that Shakespeare cultists would badger him with “impertinent” questions about the artifacts. After William-Henry suggested an exchange of letters instead, Samuel developed a lively correspondence with the elusive gentleman. In courteous language and graceful handwriting that the collector failed to recognize as his son’s, Mr. H.’s letters extolled William-Henry’s character and abilities.

Samuel announced plans to publish a volume containing the Shakespeare papers in facsimile. The price would be four guineas—about what a workingman earned in two months. William-Henry objected vehemently, claiming that Mr. H. had refused permission. Until now, the papers had been hard-to-read curios, available only to guests of the Irelands. Once William-Henry’s prose and poetry were set in type, the texts would be subject to clear-eyed scrutiny by strangers. “I had an idea of hazarding every opprobrium, and confessing the fact [of forgery], rather than witness the publication of the papers,” he would later write.

And yet he was also beginning to delude himself: the stunning success of his novice compositions was making him feel that he—a poorly educated lad with a pointless job, a dunce and a failure in the eyes of the world—was the Sweet Swan of Avon’s true literary heir. Of course, for the world to recognize his rare talent, he would have to reveal his authorship—and to confess to being a make-believe Shakespeare would expose the Bard’s admirers, and especially his father, to ridicule.

His father published the Shakespeare papers on Christmas Eve 1795. Several of London’s high-spirited newspapers pounced with glee. The Telegraph published a mock letter from the Bard to his friend and rival Ben Jonson: “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.” Such mockery only fanned public interest. On the central question of whether Shakespeare had written the papers, most people had yet to make up their minds. Forgeries, then as now, were notoriously hard to detect from the style and quality of the writing; over the centuries, Shakespeare’s canon would be added to (Pericles) and subtracted from (The London Prodigal) as scholars debated whether the playwright was working with a collaborator and, if so, who might have written what. Samuel Ireland’s claims were no more dubious than much of what then passed for literary scholarship. And his numerous supporters included scholars, collectors, clergymen, poet laureate Henry James Pye, a gaggle of MPs and an assortment of earls and dukes.

To the few voices that had been raised publicly against them, Edmond Malone now added his. The editor of Shakespeare’s complete works, who was widely considered England’s foremost expert on the author, published a book-length exposé on the Ireland papers, attacking them as a “clumsy and daring fraud” riddled with errors and contradictions. Of a thank-you letter to the Bard supposedly written by Queen Elizabeth herself, Malone wrote that the spelling “is not only not the orthography of Elizabeth, or of her time, but is for the most part the orthography of no age whatsoever.” He noted the absurd unlikelihood that so many disparate items would end up in the same magical trunk. He didn’t know who had forged them, but he had no doubt that someone had.

More harmful than Malone’s opinion was his timing: in the hope of inflicting the most damage, he published on March 31, 1796—just two days before the première of Vortigern.

Malone’s exposé sold out before the play opened, and it caused an uproar—but it wasn’t the fatal blow he had hoped for. His arguments were too pedantic and unfocused to win over everyone, and his boastful, insulting tone didn’t help. William-Henry was grimly amused that this “generalissimo of the non-believers,” as he called the critic, took 424 pages to say the papers were such an obvious forgery that one could see through them at a glance.

In any case, few British theatergoers relied on textual analysis. John Philip Kemble, the reigning star of the London stage, doubted the play’s authenticity even as he rehearsed for the lead role, but Sheridan suggested he let the audience decide for itself: “You know very well that an Englishman considers himself as good a judge of Shakespeare as of his pint of porter.”

Vortigern’s opening-night audience would be ready to judge the play’s authorship—and by extension, that of the other Ireland papers—well before the final lines were spoken.


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