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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A full house—a first for Drury Lane’s vast new building—was on hand for the opening, Saturday, April 2, 1796. At least as many people were turned away. With all the dignity he could muster, Samuel Ireland forced his way to a large box in the center of the theater, visible to everyone. William-Henry slipped inside through a stage door and watched from the wings.

The first two acts of the five-act play went well enough. There was little of the London theatergoers’ customary heckling and catcalling, and several of William-Henry’s speeches were applauded. The echoes of familiar Shakespeare plays were impossible to miss—it was Macbeth crossed with Hamlet, with touches of Julius Caesar and Richard III. The very familiarity of the characters and situations, in fact, may have reassured many in the audience.

But not everyone. Vortigern was obviously not a theatrical masterpiece, regardless of who had written it. The first hint of disaster came in the third act, when a bit player—a skeptic, like Kemble—overplayed his lines for laughs. The crowd grew more restive in the final act, when Kemble as King Vortigern addressed Death with mock solemnity:

O! then thou dost ope wide thy hideous jaws,
And with rude laughter, and fantastic tricks,
Thou clapp’st thy rattling fingers to thy sides;
And when this solemn mockery is ended—

The last line he intoned in a ghoulish, drawn-out voice, which provoked several minutes of laughter and whistling. Kemble repeated the line—leaving no doubt as to what mockery he was referring to—and the crowd erupted again. The performance might have ended there, but Kemble stepped forward to ask the audience to permit the show to go on.

The final curtain brought enthusiastic applause as well as prolonged booing; not all of those on hand had joined in the disruptions, and many undoubtedly believed they had just witnessed a new work by William Shakespeare. But then an onstage announcement that Vortigern would be repeated the following Monday evening was shouted down. In the pit, fighting broke out among believers and nonbelievers. The chaos lasted for nearly 20 minutes, and subsided only after Kemble took the stage to announce that Sheridan’s own School for Scandal would replace Vortigern on Monday’s bill.

The reviews that began appearing in the newspapers that Monday were scorching. Taking their cue from Malone, commentators denounced Vortigern as fabricated nonsense. A few responses were more temperate. Poet laureate Pye observed that the audience’s unruliness was no proof of forgery. “How many persons were there in the theatre that night,” he asked, “who, without being led, could distinguish between the merits of King Lear and Tom Thumb? Not twenty.”

To his own surprise, William-Henry was relieved by the fiasco. His long-running subterfuge had reduced him to a state of bitter exhaustion. After the audience’s judgment, he later wrote, “I retired to bed, more easy in my mind than I had been for a great length of time, as the load was removed which had oppressed me.” But the debate over the Shakespeare papers’ authenticity persisted for months—until William-Henry confessed, to the astonishment of many, that he had written them himself.

Unable to face his father, he told his sisters, his mother and ultimately an antiquarian friend of his father’s. When they told Samuel, he refused to believe that his simple-minded son was capable of such a literary achievement.

William-Henry, infuriated, moved out of his father’s house and, in a letter, dared him to offer a reward “to anyone that will come forward & swear he furnish’d me even with a single thought throughout the papers.” If the papers’ author deserved credit for showing any spark of genius, he continued, “I Sir YOUR SON am that person.”


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