The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare
A Tale of Forgery and Folly
Da Capo: 230 pp., $24.95
Was Shakespeare really Shakespeare? Not always. Between November 1794 and April 1796, Shakespeare was actually a teenage ne'er-do-well named William Henry Ireland, who perpetrated one of the most fascinating literary hoaxes in history.
Ireland was a mediocre student from a dysfunctional family who had become a bored law clerk. This was the late 18th century, when England was fascinated as never before by Shakespeare. People longed to discover original documents in Shakespeare's own hand, and none more earnestly than William's bardolatrous but emotionally distant father, Samuel Ireland. Since Samuel wanted a Shakespearean relic, William obliged by "discovering" one. Late in 1794 he took a genuine old legal document from his law office and added to it his own re-creation of Shakespeare's signature.
William presented the deed to his father, who, for the first time in his life, showered him with affection. The rest of the story writes itself. With each new Shakespearean discovery — he said he got the manuscripts from a gentleman known as "Mr. H" — young Ireland received more attention, and therefore more encouragement to produce faux-Shakespearean treasures. The manuscripts ran to hundreds of pages, including legal documents, business letters, a profession of faith, a tender love letter to "Anna Hatherrewaye" and the original manuscripts of "King Lear" and "Hamlet," all on authentic old paper, written in Ireland's fantasy version of old handwriting and spelling ("Toe bee orre notte toe bee"). Prominent literati avowed the papers were genuine, and Samuel, unaware that his son was behind them, published them in a deluxe illustrated edition. William secretly exulted to hear critics praising his scribblings as unmistakably Shakespearean.
The gem of the collection was a complete work that had never seen the light of day. On April 2, 1796, London got its first premiere of a new Shakespeare play in nearly two centuries, "Vortigern and Rowena," with some of England's most famous actors in the leading roles. But after a year and a half of fooling the literary world, Ireland's luck had run out: the most famous critic of the day had just published a devastating critique of the papers, and Drury Lane Theatre was packed with skeptics.
The performance was a disaster. After the failure of "Vortigern," Ireland came clean in a series of confessions. He lived 39 more years, hoping to make a living with his pen. He was reduced to forging his forgeries, selling copy after copy to book collectors as the "original forgeries." He died in 1835, bitter, poor and largely forgotten.
The story of Ireland's shenanigans has been told before, and Doug Stewart has turned up little new evidence. He occasionally makes small mistakes; more disturbing is his habit of embellishing the story with novelistic touches unsupported by any evidence. Most questionable of all is his often-uncritical trust in Ireland's "confessions": It's dangerous to rely on the word of a pathological liar. And he dodges the question that inevitably comes up when people hear about "Vortigern": Was the play any good?
But he more than compensates for these failings with a witty and fast-moving story, by turns hilarious and pathetic. Stewart has read all the relevant sources, and he provides the necessary historical context without making the reader feel bogged down in minutiae. He writes gracefully and vividly, and his book unfolds like a thriller. He is especially good at exploring the strained relationship between Ireland and his perennially disapproving father. Anyone interested in literary fraud or Shakespeare's afterlife will find Stewart's book a compelling overview of one of the literary world's most brazen impostures.
Lynch is the author of many books, including, most recently, "The Lexicographer's Dilemma."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times