William-Henry Ireland's Great Shakespearean Hoax In 1795, a young man named William-Henry Ireland signed a tattered piece of paper "Wm Shakespeare." It was the first of hundreds of documents that he forged and passed off as William Shakespeare originals. Doug Stewart tells his story in The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare.

William-Henry Ireland's Great Shakespearean Hoax

William-Henry Ireland's Great Shakespearean Hoax

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/127931669/127955997" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

William-Henry Ireland forged hundreds of documents and passed them off as William Shakespeare originals. After his confession, he went on to publish a series of Gothic novels and some romantic poetry. Courtesy of Doug Stewart hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Doug Stewart

William-Henry Ireland forged hundreds of documents and passed them off as William Shakespeare originals. After his confession, he went on to publish a series of Gothic novels and some romantic poetry.

Courtesy of Doug Stewart
The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale Of Forgery And Folly
By Doug Stewart
Hardcover, 229 pages
Da Capo Press
List price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt

In the winter of 1795 a young, talented and cheeky man named William-Henry Ireland signed the bottom of a tattered piece of paper "Wm Shakespeare." It was the first of hundreds of notes, poems and plays that Ireland forged and passed off as William Shakespeare originals.

The world was so desperate to read more of the Bard's work that the trick actually worked -- for a time.

In The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, author Doug Stewart recounts the rise, fall and daddy issues of William-Henry Ireland.

Did It For Dad?

Stewart tells NPR's Guy Raz that William-Henry Ireland wanted to impress his pompous, emotionally chilly father, Samuel Ireland. So, knowing his father was a collector who more than anything wanted to own something signed by Shakespeare, William-Henry Ireland brought him his forgery -- a deed he had written on an old piece of parchment using watered-down ink to make it look old -- which he claimed to have found in the mansion of a wealthy friend.

After having a friend look at the deed and the particularly convincing seal William-Henry Ireland had placed on it, Samuel Ireland was convinced his son had given him a genuine Shakespeare artifact.

"It's important to understand that there had been a nationwide manhunt to find these papers," Stewart says. "So when the boy said, 'I found them,' instead of being astounded, people's reaction was, 'Oh good. We were looking for those. It's about time.'"

A love letter was among the Shakespeare documents William-Henry Ireland fabricated to impress his father. Courtesy of Doug Stewart hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Doug Stewart

A love letter was among the Shakespeare documents William-Henry Ireland fabricated to impress his father.

Courtesy of Doug Stewart

The Fall Of William-Henry

When Samuel Ireland decided the deed and other papers his son produced should be published, he marked the beginning of the end of William-Henry and his hoax.

"Once the papers were printed, it gave everyone a chance to see engraved facsimiles of all these works in bright sunlight, if they wanted to, and to really study them and see the quality of the work," Stewart says.

Devoted Shakespeare fans had doubts about the poems the Irelands published and whether they had truly come from the Bard. Still, it wasn't until William-Henry Ireland "unearthed" the lost Shakespeare play Vortigern that everything came crashing down.

"If you read it," Stewart says, "there are passages that seem fairly plausible: 'Fortune, I thank thee, now is the cup of my ambition full,' and so on and so forth."

Those passages were, in fact, plausible enough for a London theater to decide to put on the production. It didn't matter that the owner of the theater wasn't entirely convinced by the play -- not that he doubted its validity so much as he believed Shakespeare had been quite young when he wrote it. What did matter was that the sensation surrounding the play and the claim that he was putting on the first Shakespeare premiere in 200 years would fill the house night after night, week after week.

"Historians later wrote that it was booed off the stage, which really is not true," Stewart says. "Many people in attendance were there to denounce this play as a forgery, but many other people arrived believing they were witnessing a Shakespeare premiere."

Still, the play's run lasted only one night. After that, William-Henry Ireland finally delivered his proud confession.

"If you read the confession, he's not contrite in the slightest," Stewart says. "It's more of a boast. He's saying, 'I wrote these papers -- me -- these papers that have been praised by critics.' And many people, seeing the confession, refused to believe him. They thought he was claiming credit for something that somebody else had done."

Cheaters Never Win

William-Henry Ireland had two motives when he decided to hustle the literary world -- to help launch his own literary career and to win the respect and admiration of his father. On both counts he was sadly disappointed. Without the restriction of trying to imitate Shakespeare, William-Henry Ireland's writing was pretty bad -- overwritten and full of purple prose, Stewart says. And, in the end, not even his own father believed him capable of pulling off such a successfully elaborate hoax.

Excerpt: 'The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare'

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare
The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale Of Forgery And Folly
By Doug Stewart
Hardcover, 229 pages
Da Capo Press
List price: $24.95

William-Henry Ireland had never intended to be a second Shakespeare. For much of the past year, he had nurtured one overriding ambition, to get his hands on the Bard's autograph. Now Shakespeare's ink-on-parchment signature was to be on display at Norfolk Street as the centerpiece of his father's collection. Samuel Ireland would, at last, feel a sense of fulfillment, as well as gratitude.

He owned something that England's greatest collectors had coveted for decades, and he had his long-overlooked son to thank for it.

That William-Henry should seek to win his father's approval by making him the target of a hoax suggests how tortured their relationship was. On the surface, the boy treated his father respectfully, as any future gentleman must. But he was aware that the man was too easily impressed by titles and power, too eager to ingratiate himself with those who could help him, and too ready to reach conclusions without evidence. In Stratford, William-Henry had been a silent witness to his father's foolishness. Yet in his father's eyes it was William-Henry who was the simpleton, the half-educated drudge who lacked his father's intellect and sophistication.

In his original confession in late 1796, the boy dismissed his turn to forgery as a whimsical practical joke that "might occasion a little mirth and shew how far credulity would go in the search for antiquities." In hindsight, he was obviously trying to downplay the seriousness of what he'd done. Who, exactly, would have found mirth in his doctored manuscripts? Not his father, certainly, nor any of his father's friends, nor many of Shakespeare's admirers.

Though people at times mistook William-Henry's boredom and taciturn manner for obtuseness, he never doubted his own intelligence. He was accustomed to being underestimated. Still, he resented being judged by those who were too closed-minded and status-conscious to see his intellectual promise -- foremost among them, his father.

Even as he had sought to ingratiate himself with the collector by helping him in his search for Shakespeareana, a part of the boy relished the idea of taking advantage of his greed. By fooling his father with a well-made facsimile of a Shakespeare heirloom, William-Henry would now be doubly rewarded: His father would be forever grateful to him, and the boy would have the satisfaction of proving to himself that he, William-Henry, was the superior connoisseur. And the simple truth was: The boy always loved a good prank, even if the mirth it aroused was mostly his.

William-Henry Ireland was becoming a well-practiced liar, as one deception led to another. He had to concentrate in order to keep his stories straight. Yet he didn't see himself as a swindler. Indeed, like Chatterton, William-Henry saw nothing harmful or immoral in what he was doing. He had fulfilled his father's dream, had he not? From now on, however, enhancing his father's collection -- and getting credit for it -- began to recede as a motive for his fakery. He was an undistinguished clerk who had taken pen in hand and produced a document judged to be priceless. For the first time in his life, he felt powerful and important. "Thus urged, partly by the world, and my own vanity, I determined on attempting something further."

His next forgery was a departure. Instead of closely mimicking old documents, he was ready to give the world the Bard's own language, fluent and impassioned. The two-page profession of faith, the yellowed document that the worthy Doctors Warton and Parr were to bless as indisputably Shakespeare's, was William-Henry's attempt to fill a troubling gap in the writer's biography. For years, critics had mused that England's national poet might have been a closet Catholic. To the English establishment, the idea was nearly as odious as suggesting that he was a bloody-minded French spy, or even an atheist. One reason for suspicion was the ghost's soliloquy in Hamlet:
I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

Good Protestants dismissed the concept of purgatory as a popish fairy tale. A more recent hint of apostasy had appeared in Edmond Malone's 1790 Shakespeare opus. A document found above a rafter in the birthplace at Stratford and purporting to be the last will and testament of John Shakespeare, the poet's father, suggested the family was secretly Catholic. Like many of Shakespeare's English admirers, William-Henry was fiercely anti-Catholic, considering the religion a witch's brew of "superstition and bigotry." He refused to believe that Shakespeare was anything but a good Protestant. He resolved to use his personal proclamation in the Bard's own hand to settle the matter.

The young forger sat down at New Inn with facsimiles of Shakespeare's signatures before him as a guide, his vial of special ink, and two halfsheets of seventeenth-century paper free of any watermarks (from his father's friends he had learned the danger of anachronistic watermarks). Then, without a first draft, he wrote almost without pause a pious, selfabasing declaration. In it, he had the Bard admit: "O omnipotente and greate God I am full offe Synne I doe notte thynke myselfe worthye offe thye grace." In a closing plea to the Almighty, he invoked a striking religious metaphor: "O cheryshe usse like the sweete Chickenne thatte under the coverte offe herre spreadynge Wings Receyves herre lyttle Broode ande hoverynge overre themme keepes themme harmlesse ande in safetye -- Wm Shakspeare."

The script was the boy's own version of the secretary hand. To be safe, he repeated the ten lowercase letters in Shakespeare's signature as frequently as he could. "I was also particular in introducing as many capital doubleyous and esses as possible," he recalled. Later, after the hoax was exposed, critics would mock the boy's habit of affixing e's to almost every word (as his hero Chatterton had done), as well as his habit of avoiding nearly all punctuation.

When his father and others saw the manuscript -- William-Henry presented it to his father on Christmas Eve 1794 -- details like spelling, punctuation, and poultry metaphors were far from their minds. They were already believers in the sacred trunk. Now the fluid, quasi-Elizabethan script filling the pages made a stunning impression on all who beheld it. William-Henry, as usual, had prepared his father, telling him in advance of his startling discovery of the avowal of faith among the other papers at Mr. H.'s townhouse. Embellishing the story, he reported being so moved and heartened by the Bard's words that he had memorized them. In fact, he told his father, he had begun reciting them each evening as a prayer before bed.

The boy was gaining confidence in his subterfuge. He spent less time worrying that he might at any moment be exposed as a forger. Overriding any possible quibbles about his latest document's bona fides, he knew, was the general urge to believe it to be authentic -- to confirm finally that, yes, the Bard was a God-fearing son of Protestant England, as he had to be. After Warton and Parr's benediction, the possibilities opening up to William-Henry seemed limitless. He had reached a point of no return, and with his father's deluded encouragement, he raced past it. With each new forgery, he was becoming further entangled in "the gilded snare which afterwards proved to me the source of indescribable pain and unhappiness."

Excerpted from The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale Of Forgery And Folly by Doug Stewart. Copyright 2010 by Doug Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Da Capo Press.