There have been many forgers of artworks during the past century. There are undoubtedly some forgeries in major galleries but, for the most part, after careful investigation, forgeries are eventually detected. In the same way, over the past few centuries there have been literary forgeries by talented writers who could have been successful as writers in their own right but who saw forgery as a shortcut to wealth and fame.
William Henry Ireland (1775 -1835) was one such forger, and was the perpetrator of what is known as ‘The Shakespeare Hoax‘. He concentrated on creating a broad range of documents and works that he managed to successfully pass off as being written by William Shakespeare. Ireland not only wrote a number of ‘Shakespeare’ poems and a play, which he claimed to have found but also letters and other documents written in Shakespeare’s hand.
Ireland’s father was a publisher and Shakespeare enthusiast – a collector of Shakespeare ‘relics’, memorabilia and anything related to Shakespeare. One day his son told him that an acquaintance had found a box in his attic that contained documents that had been written by Shakespeare, including letters.
Ireland’s father was ecstatic. The remarkable fact was, and is, that the most famous, most studied, most read English writer in history, who had written millions of words, had not left anything personal that he had written, apart from his will. Shakespeare’s signature was very rare on any documents; there were no letters, no diary or journal entries, and not even a single line from any of his plays in his own handwriting. Virtually nothing. That fact ensured that anything written in Shakespeare’s hand would be worth a fortune. And now Samuel Ireland had a priceless treasure trove in his possession.
It began with a forged mortgage deed between Shakespeare and his friend and colleague, John Heminges. William Ireland had met a man who worked in the book-binding business. This new acquaintance described a technique for creating documents that had the appearance of much older documents by using a special ink, then heating the paper. Ireland practiced the technique until he felt he had got it right. He worked in a legal firm that held documents from Elizabethan and Jacobean times. He cut some parchment from one of them, copied the style of the mortgages, using his special ink, copied Shakespeare’s authentic signature then heated it over a candle flame. His father declared it a genuine document and took it to the Herald’s Office where it was approved as authentic.
The documents kept coming. There was a letter expressing gratitude towards the Earl of Southampton for his patronage, a handwritten declaration of Shakespeare’s protestant faith; love letters to his wife Anne Hathaway; a pile of books with Shakespeare’s notes in the margins, and even manuscripts of Hamlet and King Lear. The experts generally agreed that they were genuine, and authenticated everything Ireland produced.
Ireland became bolder and finally went too far. He actually claimed that in his box of documents there was an original Shakespeare play, Vortigern and Rowena. The Irish playwright, Richard Sheridan, leaped at the opportunity to stage it and a deal was made. However, on reading the play he doubted its authenticity, saying that it was shallow and simplistic, completely lacking the depths to be found in all of Shakespeare’s other plays. Nevertheless, the production went ahead, conducted by actor and manager of the Drury LaneTheatre, John Philip Kemble, although he also had his doubts.
The play opened on 2 April 1796. By then some doubts about the documents had appeared among the literary establishment and the performance of the play fuelled that. The play was met with boos and catcalls and didn’t have a second performance.
A Shakespearean scholar, Edmond Malone, published a comprehensive study of Ireland’s documents: An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments. He demonstrated convincingly that the papers were forgeries and convinced the scholarly establishment.
Ireland’s father Samuel came under fire so his son published a confession of what he had done. His father’s reputation never recovered and William, without any credibility, was unable to get work, and died in poverty, aged 59, in 1839.