2016 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and Shakespeare-related exhibitions have been popping up across London and beyond. Although Shakespeare’s work is known and loved throughout the English-speaking world, we have surprisingly little material evidence about his life. Only six documents bearing his signature survive. This lack of evidence, combined with his humble origins, has led some people to believe that he could not have written the plays and poems which bear his name. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there have always been those who are only too eager to believe even the most dubious claims of Shakespearean authorship.
In 1623, a group of friends and admirers published a large-format edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays: the First Folio. The book sold well enough to merit a second edition in 1631, and a third in 1663. By that time, the public was mad for all things Shakespeare, and the third edition included seven new plays: Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Locrine; The London Prodigal; The Puritan; Sir John Oldcastle; Thomas Lord Cromwell; and A Yorkshire Tragedy. Of these seven plays, only Pericles is now widely accepted as part of the Shakespearean canon.
Every time a new piece of Shakespeareana surfaces, it attracts plenty of media attention. Most recently, in 2014, two New York booksellers, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler announced to the world that they had found Shakespeare’s dictionary: a copy of John Baret’s Alvearie with anonymous handwritten notes in which they found parallels to certain lines in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Unlike the media, however, the scholarly community is often reluctant to accept any but the most definitive proofs of authenticity, and for good reason. The popularity of all things Shakespearean (and our willingness to pay top dollar for them) has led to the “discovery” of several new Shakespeare manuscripts down through the ages. Sometimes, these discoveries are made in good faith by over-enthusiastic or gullible collectors, while others are deliberate forgeries.
Perhaps the most famous of these cases is that of William Henry Ireland, who in 1794 presented his father Samuel Ireland with an antique deed bearing the signature of William Shakespeare. William Henry claimed that it had been found in an old trunk belonging to a wealthy gentleman who wished to be known only as “Mr. H.” Mr. H. purportedly had no interest in old documents, and invited William Henry to take whatever interested him. Samuel Ireland, who was an antiquary and a devoted admirer of Shakespeare’s work, was overjoyed, and other documents soon followed. He proudly displayed the papers for the likes of James Boswell, Henry James Pye, and John Pinkerton, who inspected them and deemed them genuine.
In early 1796, Samuel Ireland published Miscellaneous papers and legal instruments under the hand and seal of William Shakspeare. It contained transcriptions and detailed reproductions of several of the documents, including a letter to the earl of Southampton, a confession of faith, theatrical contracts, a love letter and poem to ‘Anna Hatherrewaye” accompanied by a lock of hair, a letter from Queen Elizabeth, an original manuscript of King Lear, and various other business receipts. Ireland even went so far as to produce a deed which ceded all property in Shakespeare’s papers to a fictional ancestor, also named William Henry Ireland, as a reward for saving the poet from drowning. Another deed of gift mentioned an illegitimate child, hinting that Ireland himself might be a blood relative of the poet.
The volume sold so well that it went through a second edition that same year. A “lost” play, entitled Vortigern and Rowena, was performed at Drury Lane on 2 April. By then, however, rumors had begun to circulate that the documents were forgeries, and the play failed catastrophically. On 31 March, two days before the performance, Edmond Malone had published An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers, an exhaustive 424-page critique which pointed out anomalies in the language, orthography, and palaeography of the documents.
Later that year, in an attempt to restore his father’s reputation, William Henry Ireland claimed full responsibility for the forgeries in An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts, &c. In spite of this account, sceptics doubted that William Henry, only 19 years old when he produced his first forgery, could have so successfully imitated Shakespeare’s language and handwriting. His own father insisted that the manuscripts were genuine, on the grounds that his son was too stupid to have fabricated them.
In 1805, William Henry published one further attempt to set the record straight, entitled The Confessions of William Henry Ireland. In this autobiographical account, he explains how he became familiar with 16th century handwriting and language by examining old documents in the legal office where he worked. From that same source, he cut out blank endleaves from antique books and removed wax seals from authentic documents for use on his fabrications. He experimented with various formulas for “Elizabethan” ink and methods of making it appear darkened with age.
Following his exposure as a forger, William Henry Ireland gradually fell into poverty, working as a hack writer and producing some ninety literary works in various genres—this time under his own name. In spite of the scandal, he looked back on his forgeries with considerably more pride than contrition, fondly remembering a time when his own writing was (mistakenly) praised as that of the greatest English poet. Throughout his life, Ireland continued to produce “Elizabethan” documents on demand as curiosities, and to authenticate his claim that he alone was responsible for the manuscripts.
Cardiff University holds a copy of the 1795 first edition of Miscellaneous papers and legal instruments under the hand and seal of William Shakspeare (London, 1796). It is an impressive volume measuring nearly 43 cm tall, with wide margins and painstakingly detailed engravings. More than 120 names appear in the list of subscribers, many of them bearing titles of nobility. When originally published, it cost four guineas, approximately two months’ wages for a working man. In the preface, Samuel Ireland states that, “It might have been produced at a lower price; but it was his [i.e. Samuel Ireland’s] earnest desire to give such a variety of fac-similes of the hand writing, as to enable the reader to form a complete judgment of the general character of the manuscript.” Incidentally, a mere seven paragraphs are spent sincerely reassuring the reader as to the authenticity of the manuscripts.