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September 20 , 2007

The Man Who Would Be Shakespeare

(The Enigmatic Tale of William-Henry Ireland)


In the 1760s, James Macpherson, a Scottish poet, gained dubious fame by forging The Works of Ossian, a forgery that was revealed by Dr. Johnson, of Dictionary fame. At about the same time, Thomas Chatterton forged the Rowley poems and fooled many of the London literati. These forgeries were also exposed and the young writer committed suicide aged eighteen. 

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However, these single attempts at forgery fade into insignificance when compared to the many dubious writings of William-Henry Ireland (1777-1835). Son of an obsessive collector of Shakespearean artifacts, the emotionally starved young legal clerk was ignored by his father. To ‘buy’ his father’s love, William-Henry exploited his own calligraphic skills and forged many ‘Shakespearean’ deeds and letters. Telling his father he had received them from a mysterious Mr.H, his father pushed him to obtain even more documents which he could display to his fellow antiquarians. William-Henry agreed and forged a copy of King Lear stating this pre-dated the 1623 version that appeared in the First Folio. 

The insatiable father demanded more, so William-Henry produced a hitherto unknown Shakespearean play Vortigern & Rowena. Using his connections, Samuel Ireland persuaded the writer and theatre-manager, Richard Brinsley Sheridan to stage this play at his Drury Lane theatre. Word got out and literary London was divided between the ‘believers’ and their opponents. Famous believers included Dr. Johnson’s biographer, Boswell and two future kings, George IV and William IV. Opposing them were several well-known literary critics such as George Steevens, Joseph Ritson, while the influential Shakespearean scholar, Edmund Malone, wrote a scathing 450-page attack on the play. Vortigern was staged in April 1796 with the then famous actors John Philip Kemble and Dorothea Jordan the playing key rôles. When Kemble proclaimed the line, “And when this solemn mockery is o’er,” riots broke out in the theatre and the play was never staged again. 

Samuel Ireland refused to believe that his son had forged Vortigern, and died three years later, ridiculed, but still believing in his son’s innocence. Soon after, William Henry married Alice Crudge and ran a lending-library for a few years before her death. He remarried, had two daughters and spent his remaining years writing sixty books while shunting between England and France. One of these was a detailed Confession which related to Chatterton's influence on him. In 1815, William-Henry witnessed Napoleon’s triumphant return to Paris and was later awarded the ‘Legion d’Honneur’ by the Emperor. In addition to his forgeries, William-Henry also claimed descent from the Bard and even invented an illegitimate child for him. 

Dying in April 1835, at the age of 55, William-Henry Ireland was buried in Southwark, London, close to where Shakespeare’s ‘Globe’ had once stood. He never regretted his forgeries and was proud that, as an 18-year old, he had succeeded in fooling many of the alleged Shakespearean experts of the time. 

D. Lawrence-Young

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