Special Collections Department
FORGING A COLLECTION
William Henry Ireland and the Shakespeare Fabrications
Frank Tober maintained a lifelong fascination with the life and work of William Shakespeare. The mysteries surrounding Shakespeare's life, the uncertain publication history of the plays, disputed authorship of Shakespeare's writings, and a variety of related subjects intrigued him and merged, naturally, with his collecting interests. He acquired material on all of the above topics, but was drawn particularly to the controversies surrounding the forgeries of William Henry Ireland and John Payne Collier.
Perhaps the most brazen literary forgeries of all were those of William Henry Ireland. William Henry Ireland was born in London in 1777, the son of Samuel Ireland, a self-taught artist who had achieved considerable commercial success with a series of illustrated travel books. Samuel Ireland also fancied himself an antiquarian. He collected books and artwork and had an enthusiasm for William Shakespeare which bordered on idolatry. His devotion was such that he read nightly to his family from the works of Shakespeare and sought memorabilia and artifacts relating to the Bard. During a research trip to Stratford, for what was later published as Picturesque Views on the Upper, or Warwickshire Avon (1795), Samuel Ireland is alleged to have been duped into purchasing such fraudulent artifacts as a purse and chair formerly belonging to Shakespeare. His son William accompanied him on this trip and was able to witness firsthand his father's passion and, perhaps gullibility, towards any and all things relating to Shakespeare.
William Henry Ireland, like his father, was an avid reader and a collector of books and antiquities. His biographers suggest he was also familiar with James Macpherson's Ossian poems and with the life and work of Thomas Chatterton. At some point, the younger Ireland apparently decided to emulate these two figures in an effort to satisfy his father's desire to obtain a document in Shakespeare's handwriting. William Ireland had been apprenticed to a lawyer who specialized in property transfers and his duties allowed him access to countless mortgages, deeds, and other documents, many of them centuries old. William began removing blank sheets or portions of parchment documents and experimenting with various formulas for producing ink that would simulate sixteenth-century writing. Once he gained sufficient confidence, he forged several sample documents and presented them to his father who deemed them genuine. The stage was now set for a more ambitious effort.
In December 1794, William Henry Ireland informed his father that he had discovered a cache of old documents in the possession of a wealthy acquaintance. Among them was a deed bearing the signature of William Shakespeare which he accepted as a gift from his friend on the condition that it remain anonymous. William in turn gave it to his father who was beside himself with joy at his son's discovery. William had satisfied his father's lifelong dream to possess an actual specimen of William Shakespeare's signature. Samuel Ireland even managed to have the document authenticated as genuine. If William Henry Ireland had been content simply to provide his father with this single relic, Samuel Ireland would undoubtedly have gone to his grave a happy man. But William Henry Ireland did not stop with this lone example and the events that followed brought disgrace and notoriety to him and his father.
William Henry Ireland subsequently forged a promissory note signed by Shakespeare and later a letter of more than one hundred words in Shakespeare's hand. Both, he claimed, were from his anonymous friend's chest of treasures. These documents were followed by the most spectacular find to date, a profession of faith entirely in the hand of Shakespeare in which he revealed himself to be a loyal Protestant. Ireland hinted of even greater treasures and soon produced other documents in Shakespeare's hand, including love letters to Anne Hathaway, and a letter to Shakespeare from Elizabeth I. He also turned up books from Shakespeare's library with extensive annotations in the margins. As if these were not sufficient, he next produced several pages of Shakespeare's manuscript for Hamlet and eventually the entire manuscript for King Lear. Astonishingly, all of these manuscripts were deemed authentic by those who had the opportunity to examine them.
The forgeries of William Henry Ireland might have gone years without being discovered, if Ireland had ceased his activities or continued simply to forge documents or even occasional manuscripts of known literary works. But his reach clearly exceeded his grasp when suddenly he produced the manuscript for a hitherto unheard of play by Shakespeare titled Vortigern and Rowena. This discovery dwarfed all the rest of William Henry Ireland's finds. The great Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan secured the rights to mount the first production of the play at his Drury Lane Theatre and the stage was set for one of the most sensational openings in the history of the English theater.
Prior to the opening of Vortigern and Rowena, several things occurred which had a profound effect on the upcoming production. First, Samuel Ireland published Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare in January of 1796. Although many of the most prominent scholars and literary notables of the day had viewed the manuscripts and deemed them genuine, few had examined them in depth. With the publication of the Miscellaneous Papers, debate over the authenticity of the manuscripts entered the public arena. Various supporters and critics of the Irelands vied in the press and interest in Vortigern and Rowena heightened.
Problems with the production of Vortigern and Rowena also began to occur. Sheridan, who had the opportunity to view the manuscripts and was even a subscriber to the publication of the Miscellaneous Papers, began to have concerns about the quality of the play. At best, Vortigern and Rowena seemed to be a raw, early work by Shakespeare, but if other suspicions proved correct, the play might not even have been written by Shakespeare. Others involved with the production, notably the actor John Philip Kemble, who was also the manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, had severe doubts about the play's authenticity and made them known. But if all this were not enough, on March 31, 1796, two days before Vortigern and Rowena was scheduled to open, Edmond Malone, perhaps the foremost authority on Shakespeare's plays, released An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments which was the most severe attack to date upon the legitimacy of William Henry Ireland's discoveries. Malone's Inquiry was an exhaustive critique, running to over four hundred pages, on the authenticity of the alleged Shakespeare manuscripts. More than five hundred copies of An Inquiry were sold in the two days prior to the play's opening. When Vortigern and Rowena finally opened on April 2, 1796, it did so to a packed house. Although the audience was responsive at the outset, the production quickly went downhill and ended in disaster. The reviews were crushing and Vortigern and Rowena closed after its only performance.
The Irelands never recovered from this disaster. Most critics initially believed Samuel Ireland had produced the Shakespeare manuscripts. In an attempt to accept full responsibility for the forgeries, William Henry Ireland quickly wrote and published An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts (1796), in which he acknowledged that he was the sole author of all of the manuscripts. Samuel Ireland also fought back with Mr. Ireland's Vindication of His Conduct Respecting the Publication of the Supposed Shakspeare Mss (1796), but he would die, in 1800, estranged from his son and with his reputation permanently tarnished. Five years later, his son wrote The Confessions of William Henry Ireland (1805) in which he tried to put the entire affair to rest; however, he continued to find himself ostracized in England and left for France where he resided for nearly a decade. Following his return to England in 1832, William Henry Ireland published a second edition of Vortigern and Rowena to very little notice. By then the controversy had died down and he led a quiet life until his death in 1835.
W. H. (William Henry) Ireland, 1777-1835.
In this collection Samuel Ireland published most of the manuscripts and documents his son claimed to have discovered; Vortigern and Rowena, which had yet to be staged, was a notable exception.
Walley Chamberlain Oulton, 1770?-1820?
Vortigern under Consideration: with General Remarks on Mr. James Boaden's Letter to George Steevens, Esq., Relative to the Manuscripts, Drawings, Seals, &c. Ascribed to Shakespeare, and in the Possession of Samuel Ireland, Esq. London: Printed for H. Lowndes ..., 1796.
In the months prior to the production of Vortigern and Rowena, various critics and supporters of the Irelands squared off in print over the controversy. One of the harshest attacks on the authenticity of Vortigern was written by the dramatist and journalist James Boaden, who had initially been deceived by the manuscripts. This response to Boaden, by the young Irish dramatist Walley Chamberlain Oulton, attempts to provide a rationale for the authenticity of Vortigern and Rowena and the other Ireland discoveries.
Edmond Malone, 1741-1812.
An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments: Published Dec. 24, MDCCXCV. and Attributed to Shakspeare, Queen Elizabeth, and Henry, Earl of Southampton: Illustrated by Fac-similes of the Genuine Hand-writing of that Nobleman, and of Her Majesty: a New Fac-simile of the Hand-writing of Shakspeare, Never Before Exhibited: and Other Authentick Documents: in a Letter Addressed to the Right Hon. James, Earl of Charlemont.... London: Printed by H. Baldwin, for T. Cadell, jun. and W. Davies (successors to Mr. Cadell) ..., 1796.
Edmond Malone, the greatest Shakespeare scholar of his time, was the most formidable adversary of the Irelands in the matter of the Shakespeare manuscripts. His Inquiry is an exhaustive assault on the authenticity of Ireland's alleged discoveries which appeared a mere two days before the opening production of Vortigern and Rowena. This copy bears Malone's presentation inscription.
W. H. (William Henry) Ireland, 1777-1835.
An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts, &c. London: Printed for J. Debrett..., 1796.
William Henry Ireland wrote his Authentic Account shortly after the disastrous production of Vortigern and Rowena in an attempt to restore his father's damaged reputation. Although William Henry Ireland accepted full responsibility for producing the Shakespeare forgeries, many critics still believed he was incapable of producing such sophisticated work and that the forgeries must have been written by Samuel Ireland or his associates.
Samuel Ireland, d. 1800.
Mr. Ireland's Vindication of His Conduct Respecting the Publication of the Supposed Shakspeare Mss. Being a Preface or Introduction to a Reply to the Critical Labors of Mr. Malone, in His "Enquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Papers, &c., &c." London: Published by Mr. Faulder and Mr. Robson ..., 1796.
Samuel Ireland's reply to Malone's charges did not appear until after his son's admission that the Shakespeare manuscripts were his own forgeries. This copy bears the author's presentation inscription.
W. H. (William Henry) Ireland, 1777-1835.
The Confessions of William Henry Ireland: Containing the Particulars of His Fabrication of the Shakspeare Manuscripts: together with Anecdotes and Opinions (Hitherto Unpublished) of Many Distinguished Persons in the Literary, Political, and Theatrical World. London: Printed by Ellerton and Byworth ... for Thomas Goddard ..., 1805.
With his Confessions, William Henry Ireland provides a detailed account of his actions in an attempt finally to set the record straight and restore his own reputation.
W. H. (William Henry) Ireland, 1777-1835.
Vortigern: an Historical Play, with an Original Preface. London: Joseph Thomas, 1832.
Vortigern was first published in 1799 with a preface by Samuel Ireland. This second edition includes a lengthy preface by William Henry Ireland in which he again recounts the events that occurred thirty-three years earlier.
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Last modified: 12/21/10