The Great Shakespeare Fraud: Patricia Pierce Tells the Tale of William-Henry Ireland, Whose Teenage Angst Led Him to Pull off an Unlikely Hoax

By Pierce, Patricia | History Today, May 2004 | Go to article overview

The Great Shakespeare Fraud: Patricia Pierce Tells the Tale of William-Henry Ireland, Whose Teenage Angst Led Him to Pull off an Unlikely Hoax


Pierce, Patricia, History Today


IT WAS THE MOST BRAZEN AND EXTENSIVE Shakespeare forgery ever, comprising notes, deeds, even a complete new play by 'Shakespeare'. Late in 1794 William-Henry Ireland, a dim-looking youth of nineteen, began forging Shakespeare in an attempt to win the love and respect of his father, Samuel Ireland. Ireland senior was a collector and engraver, whose own works are still collected. His son supposedly found the items, known as the Shakespeare Papers, at the home of a mysterious 'Mr H'. The awkward, insecure lad, who was rejected by one headmaster as being 'so stupid as to be a disgrace to his school', felt that he did not have the love of his parents; indeed, the relationships in the Ireland household were somewhat uncertain.

Earlier in the century two famous forgers had made a lasting impact, for both contributed to the beginnings of the Romantic movement. James Macpherson (1736-96) forged volumes of the Gaelic 'Ossian' poems and Thomas Chatterton (1752-70) the fifteenth-century 'Rowley Poems'. Chatterton, who began forging at eleven and committed suicide by eighteen, was William-Henry's hero. But unlike him, Ireland junior was a survivor.

The eighteenth century has been termed the Age of Reason, engendering a relaxed confidence that also made it the age of imposture. This vividly applied to anything connected to Shakespeare, whom Ireland senior considered to be 'a divinity'. Shakespeare-worship or Bardolatry had taken firm root at the time of David Garrick's extraordinary Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769. Interest became increasingly intense, but Shakespearian scholarship lagged far behind. Years later the Irelands, too, visited Stratford to be entranced as they trod 'this fairy scene', and giving Ireland junior the final push to begin forging.

William-Henry maintained that he had intended to create only the first forgery, a deed signed by 'Shakespeare' and 'John Heminge', to present his father with a longed-for signature of the Bard. However, he relished the attention and praise this success brought him, and his obsessive, domineering father always pushed him to find more at the invented source. Somewhat maddened by his success, the lad carried on, always 'improving' and cleaning up Shakespeare's language and making him a perfect, oddly eighteenth-century gentleman. Young Ireland was soon trapped by 'the gilded snare' and convinced of his own genius: he was nothing less than the new Shakespeare.

Details of Shakespeare's life had been frustratingly short on detail. People had long suspected that a cache of Shakespearian material existed somewhere. It appeared that William-Henry had found it.

In the romp to keep an extraordinary number of balls in the air the son found a faster way to help to satisfy his father: he began to create Shakespeare's personal library which would total 1,100 volumes. Always skilled at finding rare books for his father, William-Henry now turned such finds into signed and annotated copies from the precious library. Where there had been only six authentic signatures by Shakespeare, now there were more than 600! Still, people believed because they wanted to, although doubts were rising, and the greatest expert, Edmond Malone, was not permitted to view the books.

Literary London was divided into determined believers and non-believers. …

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The Great Shakespeare Fraud: Patricia Pierce Tells the Tale of William-Henry Ireland, Whose Teenage Angst Led Him to Pull off an Unlikely Hoax
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