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

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

In the winter of 1795, a young Englishman named William-Henry Ireland found this lost love poem from William Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) Is there in heaven ought more rare than thy sweet nymph of Avon fare? Is there on Earth a man more true than Willie Shakespeare is to you?

RAZ: The letter captivated the literary set in London. Never before had a manuscript written in the bard's hand been found. And young William-Henry Ireland kept finding more and more, including Shakespeare's lost 37th play. The problem was that William-Henry Ireland was a fraud. The supposed works of Shakespeare were forgeries.

Doug Stewart tells the story in his new book, "The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare." And he says William-Henry did it to win the respect of his father, Samuel.

Mr. DOUG STEWART (Author, "The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare"): He wanted to impress his father, who was a rather pompous and emotionally chilly man. And his father was a collector and wanted more than anything to own something signed by Shakespeare.

RAZ: So what happens? I mean, William-Henry comes to his father with a piece of paper and says, I have found William Shakespeare's signature.

Mr. STEWART: Right. He produced this deed that he wrote on a piece of old parchment using watered down ink, so it looked old. But the father wasn't sure until a friend took a look at a wax seal that was part of this deed and the friend said he could see in the seal a Quinton, which is an object that a horseman would aim his lance at practicing for a tournament.

And the friend said, of course, this is something which a horseman would shake his spear and therefore must be an authentic deed because it had Shakespeare's personal emblem in the wax seal.

RAZ: Now, as you described, Samuel Ireland was delighted to have this document authenticated. Before I ask you more about how William-Henry, his son, went on to create this elaborate scheme, place this into context. What did people think about William Shakespeare in Britain at the end of the 18th century?

Mr. STEWART: Well, just in the last few decades there had been a sort of Shakespeare mania that had swept the British Isles. And this is something that wasn't true in Shakespeare's own lifetime when he was a rather ordinary middle class writer. But by the end of the 1700s, Shakespeare was considered the immortal bard.

He was exhibit A proving that there was no genius like English genius. But if he was a deity, where were his holy relics?

RAZ: And of course...

Mr. STEWART: And the fact that nothing from his life had turned up was very frustrating to Shakespeare's many admirers.

RAZ: William Shakespeare's 37 plays - there is not one copy in his own writing. All of a sudden, this young man starts to come up with fragments of Shakespeare's writing. What was the back story that William-Henry was giving to his father? I mean, presumably his father and others were asking him, okay, where are you finding this material?

Mr. STEWART: Right. He claimed he was finding it in an old oak trunk in the mansion of a wealthy gentleman friend who lived in London, who was insisting on anonymity. And it's important to understand that there had been sort of a nationwide manhunt to find these papers. 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.

RAZ: William-Henry Ireland started to become quite well known. He decides to collect these papers and publish them, and at that point some serious doubt is cast on the authenticity.

Mr. STEWART: Actually, it was his father who wanted to publish the papers. And this led to sort of the beginning of the end because 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.

For example, the poems who Anne Hathaway begins: Is there in heaven ought more rare than thou, sweet nymph of Avon fare? And it's sort of like roses are red, violets are blue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: So - and there were people that, especially the people who really knew Shakespeare who believed these things were forgeries from the start.

RAZ: Now, of course, the culmination - I guess, not the culmination but the kind of the apex of this ruse was when William-Henry unearthed a lost Shakespeare play called "Vortigern." And if you read it, I mean, 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.

I mean, it goes on to the point where a theater in London decided to mount this production.

Mr. STEWART: That's right. And the owner of the theater was not totally convinced by this play. He didn't think it was a forgery. He thought perhaps Shakespeare had been very young. But he did know there was a huge sensation surrounding it. And by booking this play in his theater and presenting it as the first premiere of a Shakespeare work in 200 years, he was counting on having a full house for night after night and week after week.

RAZ: How did audiences react?

Mr. STEWART: Well, it only lasted one night, I have to say. And historians later wrote that it was booed off the stage, which really is not true. It was a little bit like a premier league soccer match in England maybe where you have camps that arrived to cheer one side or the other. 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.

RAZ: Doug Stewart, nobody definitively exposed these as fraudulent, but William-Henry Ireland decided to confess. Why did he do that?

Mr. STEWART: Well, when the boy finally confessed, if you read the confession, he's not contrite in the slightest. 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.

RAZ: But he had thought that if I only confess people will realize how talented I am as a playwright and they'll sort of overlook that and I'll get work doing other things.

Mr. STEWART: Exactly. He thought he would be launched on a new career.

RAZ: That did not happen.

Mr. STEWART: Right. In fact, his own father didn't believe the confession and continued to badger him about where he'd found the papers.

RAZ: And whatever happened ended up happening to William-Henry Ireland?

Mr. STEWART: William-Henry, as an adult, he lived another 35, 40 years. He wrote a string of gothic novels, which were then very popular. And some of them sold well and some of his own romantic poetry. Interesting thing is once he wasn't in a straightjacket of trying to imitate Shakespeare and was able to write what he wanted, his writing tended to be terribly overwritten, real purple poetry, I guess.

RAZ: That's Doug Stewart. He's the author of "The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly."

Doug Stewart, thank you so much.

Mr. STEWART: My pleasure, Guy.

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