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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.

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.

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