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The Great Shakespeare Fraud

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Patricia Pierce tells the tale of William-Henry Ireland, whose teenage angst led him to pull off an unlikely hoax.

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.

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