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William-Henry Ireland's Great Shakespearean Hoax

Jun 19, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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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.'"

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.

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