As some of my more
ardent fans regular readers might know, occasionally I like to shake things up and reference literary forgeries. I thought Shakespeare might be a good choice, what with International Single Awareness Day Valentine’s Day having just taken place, and this particular story is rather a good one.
William Henry Ireland (1775-1835) was an amateur poet with a successful publisher for a father, who was obsessed with the works of William Shakespeare and collected whatever minute relic of the Bard he could lay his hands on. Very little has ever been found in Shakespeare’s own hand, and William Henry the amateur forger exploited this void in the market. Starting small with a lease for a small theatre space which he presented to his father from the collection of an anonymous friend, Ireland went on to more and more challenging and grandiose forgeries, including love letters to and from Anne Hathaway (no, not the recent star of Les Mis, the original Anne Hathaway whom she is named after) and even letters to Queen Elizabeth I. Apparently Ireland Sr. lapped up all the forgeries his son eagerly, and they were authenticated by local experts, and the whole collection was even published.
The story goes that everything was going fine until Ireland decided to write a whole new play for Shakespeare, Vortigern and Rowena, based on the mythical history of Britain and throwing in a few good identifiable Shakespearean tropes: the evil king, the fool, and cross-dressing. There were nay-sayers naturally, as with every forgery since the dawn of time, but the Shakespeare forgeries had prominent supporters as well (like James Boswell, for one). The problem was that two days before the play was meant to open in London, a Shakespearean author named Malone published a 400-page treatise on the Shakespeare papers, exposing them in no uncertain terms as modern forgeries. The play closed after one show.
Here’s the sad part. After Malone’s book was published, Ireland Sr. was accused of all the forgeries, so William Henry publicly confessed to the forgeries, although initially nobody believed him because they thought he was too young to be a cold-blooded forger. Not only did Ireland Sr’s reputation never recover from the scandal, but legend says that he went to his grave believing his son’s forgeries to be authentic Shakespearean documents. William Henry then flitted between honest writing and penury, and died impoverished and largely unrecognized.
On that note, Happy President’s Day Weekend for all my American readers!