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William Henry Ireland

From Academic Kids

William Henry Ireland (1777 - 1835) was a forger of would-be Shakespearean documents and plays.

William Henry Ireland was born in London 1777. His father Samuel Ireland was a successful publisher of travelogues, collector of antiquities and very enthusiastic collector of Shakespearian plays and "relics".

Son William also became a collector of books. Some of Ireland's biographers also suggest that he had heard about Ossian poems and Thomas Chatterton. When he was apprenticed to a mortgage lawyer, Ireland begun to experiment with blank, genuinely old papers and forged signatures on them. Eventually he forged several documents and presented them to his father, who was fooled.

In December 1794 told his father that he has discovered a cache of old documents belonging to an acquaintance who wanted to remain unnamed and that one of them was a deed with a signature of Shakespeare in it. He gave the document - which he had of course made himself - to his overjoyed father who had been looking just that kind of signature for years. There was at the time, and still is, a great paucity of writing in the hand of Shakespeare. Of his 37 plays, there is not one copy in his own writing, not a scrap of correspondence from Shakespeare to a friend, fellow writer, patron, producer or publisher. Forgery would fill this void.

Ireland went on to make more findings - a promissory note, a written declaration of protestant faith, letters to Anne Hathaway (with a lock of hair attached) and to the Queen Elizabeth - all supposedly in Shakespeare's hand. He claimed that all came from the chest of the anonymous friend. He "found" books with Shakespeare's notes in the margins and "original" manuscripts for Hamlet and King Lear. The supposed experts of the day authenticated them all.

At the age of 18, Ireland became bolder and produced a whole new play - Vortigern and Rowena. Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan acquired rights for the first production of the play at Drury Lane Theatre for 300 pounds, and a promise of half of all profits to the Irelands.

In January 1796, Samuel Ireland published his own book about the papers - Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare. More people got interested about the matter and the plot begun to unravel.

Sheridan read the play and noticed it was relatively simplistic compared to Shakespeare's "other" works. John Philip Kemble, actor and manager of Drury Lane Theatre, had serious doubts about its authenticity. And in March 21 1796 Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone published his own exhaustive study, An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments, about the supposed papers. Vortigern and Rowena opened in April 2 1796 but Kemble used the chance to hint at his opinion by adding a phrase "And when this solemn mockery is o'er" and the play was greeted with the audience's catcalls. The play had only one performance.

When critics closed in and accused Samuel Ireland of forgery his son published a confession - An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts - but many critics could not believe a young man could have forged them all by himself. Samuel Ireland's reputation did not recover before his death in 1800.

In 1805 William Henry published The Confessions of William Henry Ireland but thorough confession did not help his reputation and he moved to France. When he returned in 1832, he published Vortigern and Rowena as his own play with very little success.

William Henry Ireland died in obscurity in 1835.

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