John Payne Collier

John Payne Collier

John Payne Collier (January 11, 1789September 17, 1883), English Shakespearian critic and forger, was born in London.

Reporter and solicitor

His father, John Dyer Collier (1762–1825), was a successful journalist, and his connection with the press obtained for his son a position on the "Morning Chronicle" as leader writer, dramatic critic and reporter, which continued till 1847; he was also for some time a reporter for "The Times". He was summoned before the House of Commons in 1819 for giving an incorrect report of a speech by Joseph Hume. He entered the Middle Temple in 1811, but was not called to the bar until 1829. The delay was partly due to his indiscretion in publishing the "Criticisms on the Bar" (1819) by "Amicus Curiae."

Controversial Shakespearian scholar

His leisure was given to the study of Shakespeare and the early English drama. After some minor publications he produced in 1825–1827 a new edition of Dodsley's "Old Plays", and in 1833 a supplementary volume entitled "Five Old Plays". In 1831 appeared his "History of English Dramatic Poetry and Annals of the Stage to the Restoration", a badly arranged, but valuable work. It obtained for him the post of librarian to the duke of Devonshire, and, subsequently, access to the chief collections of early English literature throughout the kingdom, especially to the treasures of Bridgwater House.

These opportunities were unhappily misused to effect a series of literary fabrications, which may be charitably, and perhaps not unjustly, attributed to literary monomania, but of which it is difficult to speak with patience, so completely did they for a long time bewilder the chronology of Shakespeare's writings, and such suspicion have they thrown upon manuscript evidence in general. After "New Facts", "New Particulars" and "Further Particulars respecting Shakespeare" had appeared and passed muster, Collier produced (1852) the famous "Perkins Folio", a copy of the Second Folio (1632), so called from a name written on the title-page. On this book were numerous manuscript emendations of Shakespeare said by Collier to be from the hand of "an old corrector." He published these corrections as "Notes and Emendations to the Text of Shakespeare" (1852), and boldly incorporated them in his edition (1853) of Shakespeare.

Their authenticity was disputed by SW Singer in "The Text of Shakespeare Vindicated" (1853) and by EA Brae in "Literary Cookery" (1855) on internal evidence; and when in 1859 the folio was submitted by its owner, the duke of Devonshire, to experts at the British Museum, the emendations were incontestably proved to be forgeries of modern date. Collier was exposed by Mr Nicholas Hamilton in his "Inquiry" (1860). The point whether he was deceiver or deceived was left undecided, but the falsifications of which he was unquestionably guilty among the manuscripts at Dulwich College have left little doubt respecting it. He had produced the "Memoirs of Edward Alleyn" for the Shakespeare Society in 1841. He followed up this volume with the "Alleyn Papers" (1843) and the "Diary of P Henslowe" (1845).

He forged the name of Shakespeare in a genuine letter at Dulwich, and the spurious entries in Alleyn's "Diary" were proved to be by Collier's hand when the sale of his library in 1884 gave access to a transcript he had made of the Diary with interlineations corresponding with the Dulwich forgeries. No statement of his can be accepted without verification, and no manuscript he has handled without careful examination, but he did much useful work. He compiled a valuable "Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books in the English Language" (1865); he reprinted a great number of early English tracts of extreme rarity, and rendered good service to the numerous antiquarian societies with which he was connected, especially in the editions he produced for the Camden Society and the Percy Society.

His "Old Man's Diary" (1871–1872) is an interesting record, though even here the taint of fabrication is not absent. Unfortunately what he did amiss is more striking to the imagination than what he did aright, and he will be chiefly remembered by it. He died at Maidenhead, where he had long resided, on September 17, 1883.

For an account of the discussion raised by Collier's emendations see CM Ingleby, "Complete View of the Shakespeare Controversy" (1861).


In the later twentieth century, some scholars attempted a re-evaluation of Collier, defending him against the charge of forgery. The main effort was by Dewey Ganzel, in his 1982 study "Fortune and Men's Eyes." [Dewey Ganzel, "Fortune and Men's Eyes: The Career of John Payner Collier," New York, Oxford University Press, 1982.] In Ganzel's view, Collier's accusers were motivated largely by envy and class bias; they were upper-class dilettantes determined to put down a lower-class but ferociously hard-working and talented striver. The case for Collier has relied on the fact that not all of the accusations of forgery against Collier have stood up to critical examination. [The American psychiatrist Samuel A. Tannenbaum accused Collier of forging "all" the accounts of the Master of the Revels, an accusation that went much too far. F. E. Halliday, "A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964," Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 109.] (However, it remains beyond debate that even a "ferociously hard-working and talented striver" who forges is, in the final analysis, a forger nonetheless, no matter who has made the initial accusations, nor for what reason.)

The consensus of scholarly opinion has remained convinced of Collier's guilt. Samuel Schoenbaum, in his discussion of the Collier case, [Samuel Schoenbaum, "Shakespeare's Lives," New York, Oxford University Press, 1970; pp. 332-61.] mentions a damning incident omitted by Ganzel. In his old age in 1875, more than thirty years after the Perkins folio, Collier claimed in a letter to possess a John Milton folio "full of Milton's brief notes and references; 1500 of them." By this time his reputation was so tarnished that he was not able to launch another campaign of forgery; the Milton folio never surfaced. [Schoenbaum, p. 359.]

A two-volume study by Arthur Freeman and Janet Ing Freeman, published in 2004, re-examines the evidence and concludes yet again that Collier was a forger. [Arthur Freeman and Janet Ing Freeman, "John Payne Collier: Scholarship and Forgery in the Nineteenth Century," New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004.]

Perhaps Schoenbaum is correct in leaving the final word to Collier himself. In the last few years of his long life, Collier expressed moments of remorse in his diary. On Feb. 19, 1881 he wrote, "I have done many base things in my time—some that I knew to be base at the moment, and many that I deeply regretted afterwards and up to this very day." And on May 14, 1882: "I am bitterly sad and most sincerely grieved that in every way I am such a despicable offender [.] I am ashamed of almost every act of my life...My repentance is bitter and sincere [.] " [Schoenbaum, p. 361.]


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