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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Samuel Ireland went to his grave four years later maintaining that the Shakespeare papers were genuine. William-Henry struggled to support himself by selling handwritten copies of them. He was considered a minor when he committed his literary deception, and he had not profited in any significant way from his escapade, so he was never hauled into court. Naively, he’d expected praise for his brilliance once he revealed his authorship. Instead, he was pilloried. One writer called for him to be hanged. William-Henry attributed his critics’ venom to embarrassment. “I was a boy,” he wrote in 1805, “consequently, they were deceived by a boy.” What could be more humiliating? Eventually, he wrote several books of poetry and a string of gothic novels, some published, some not. His notoriety as “Shakespeare” Ireland helped win his books attention.

William-Henry never expressed contrition for his escapade. Rather, he was proud of it. How many English boys had known the exhilaration of being likened to a god? For all the social snubs, the money troubles and the literary rejections he endured before dying, in 1835, at age 59, he would always console himself with the thought that once, for a glorious year and a half, he had been William Shakespeare.

Excerpted from The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, by Doug Stewart. Copyright © 2010. With the permission of the publisher, Da Capo Press.


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