Ireland Shakespeare Forgeries

Ireland Shakespeare Forgeries

The Ireland Shakespeare Forgeries were a cause célèbre in 1790s’ London, when author and engraver Samuel Ireland announced the discovery of a treasure-trove of Shakespearean manuscripts by his son William Henry. Among them were the manuscripts of four plays, two of them previously unknown. Such respected literary figures as Johnson biographer James Boswell and poet-laureate Henry James Pye pronounced them genuine, as did various antiquarian experts. Sheridan, the leading theater manager of his day, agreed to present one of the newly-discovered plays with John Philip Kemble in the starring rôle. Excitement over the biographical and literary significance of the find turned to acrimony when it was charged that the documents were forgeries. Edmond Malone, the greatest Shakespeare scholar of his time, showed conclusively that the language, orthography, and handwriting were not those of the times and persons to which they were credited, and William Henry Ireland, the supposed discoverer, confessed to the fraud.


Although Shakespeare’s works were readily available in versions both for the learned and for the general public, no satisfactory biography could be constructed. In spite of an intensive search by would-be Shakespeare biographers from Nicholas Rowe to Edmond Malone, only scraps and legends turned up. There was an intense hope and expectation that some documents would surface to fill the gap.

Possibly no one felt this hope more keenly than Samuel Ireland. An eager collector of antique relics—his collection included a piece of Charles II’s cloak, Oliver Cromwell’s leather jacket, and Joseph Addison’s fruit knife [Bernard Grebanier, "The Great Shakespeare Hoax", pp. 42-43.] —he was also a Shakespeare enthusiast. While gathering material for a forthcoming book, "Picturesque Tours of the Upper, or Warwickshire Avon", he passed through Stratford on Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, by then already capitalizing on this claim to fame, and made inquiries about the life of the dramatist. Although he had the satisfaction of being the first to introduce Shakespeare’s crabtree and Anne Hathaway’s cottage to the general public, Shakespeare documents eluded him. [Schoenbaum, "Shakespeare’s Lives", pp. 191-192.]

His son William Henry witnessed his father’s frustration first-hand. One moment, in particular, struck him forcibly. Knowing that the furniture and papers from New Place, Shakespeare’s last residence, had been moved to Clopton house when New Place was demolished, Samuel Ireland reasoned that Shakespearean MSS might well be found there. [Samuel Ireland, "Picturesque Views on the Upper, or Warwickshire, Avon" (London 1796), p. 204; William Henry says that old residents told them papers had been moved there at the time of the Stratford fire.] Upon visiting however, he was informed by the current tenant that all the old papers—many of them Shakespeare’s—had recently been burned. Samuel Ireland’s distress at this news made a strong impression on the young man—even though it later turned out that this story was a nothing more than a joke at Ireland’s expense. [William Henry Ireland related this story in the "Authentic Account" (pp.5-6), the "Confessions" (pp. 30-33), and the unpublished "Full and Explanatory Account" (according to Schoenbaum, p. 192). Edmond Malone investigated the incident, writing to the owner about the propriety of a tenant destroying his landlord's papers; the tenant denied the incident and admitted it was a practical joke. Mair, pp. 19-20, and Schoenbaum, p. 193, have brief accounts of the subsequent investigation of the incident.] According to the younger Ireland’s confessions it was to please his father that he embarked on a career of literary forgery that would ultimately ruin them both. ["Confessions", p. 302.]

The First Documents

From a chance acquaintance met at a book-binder’s the young man learned of a technique for simulating the appearance of ancient writing by using a special ink and then heating the paper. [William Henry Ireland, "Authentic Account", p. 4.] After a trial run creating a couple of relatively insignificant documents, he set out to devise something with Shakespeare’s signature. His work at a legal firm gave him access to Elizabethan and Jacobean parchment deeds, so in December 1794 he cut a piece of parchment from one of them, used his special ink to write with and heated it over a candle. The result was a mortgage deed between Shakespeare and his fellow-actor John Heminges on one side, and Michael Fraser and his wife on the other. The text and signature he copied from the facsimile of the genuine 1612 mortgage deed printed in Malone’s edition of Shakespeare. [Schoenbaum, p. 197; in his published accounts William Henry Ireland claims to have used the Johnson-Steevens edition, but the Blackfriars mortgage deed he used as a basis for the forgery did not appear there, and was first printed in Malone's edition. In his unpublished accounts he admitted to using Malone's edition.] Ripping a seal from another early deed, young Ireland attached it to this concoction and presented the result to his father on 16 December. Samuel Ireland accepted it as authentic, and the next day took it to the Heralds’ Office, which approved it as genuine. [Mair, pp. 27-29.]

Asked where he had turned up this deed, William Henry replied that he had found it in an old trunk belonging to a chance acquaintance who did not wish to have his name revealed. Mr. H., as he called him, had freely given him this deed. The young discoverer suggested that there might well be more documents where this had come from, [Jeffrey Kahan, p. 57, based on Samuel Ireland's unpublished records; William Henry later revised this in his "Confessions" (p. 55) to claim that he never would have continued had not others suggested to him to possibility of finding more documents.] and quickly followed this up with a promissory note from Shakespeare to Heminges—the only such note (had it been genuine) ever discovered from the period. [Bernard Grebanier; "The Great Shakespeare Forgery", pp. 81-82.]

Further Forgeries

With his next discovery William Henry moved from mere forgery to original art. [Mair, "The Fourth Forger", p. 31.] Having learned—apparently from a chance remark by one of his father’s friends rather than by research—that Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton had been Shakespeare’s patron, he decided to create correspondence between them. [William Henry Ireland, "Confessions", p. 78.] “Doe notte esteeme me a sluggarde nor tardye for thus havyinge delayed to answerre or rather toe thank you for youre greate Bountye,” he has Shakespeare write sans punctuation. “ [G] ratitude is alle I have toe utter and that is tooe greate ande tooe sublyme a feeling for poore mortalls toe expresse O my Lord itte is a Budde which Bllossommes Bllooms butte never dyes.” The Earl of Southampton replies in a similar vein, also sans punctuation, and with a similar spelling: “…as I have beene thye Freynde soe will I continue aughte thatte I canne doe forre thee praye commande me ande you shalle fynde mee Yours Southampton”. [Text from Samuel Ireland, "Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakspeare", 1796.] To explain how both letters could end up together in the same collection William Henry added a note explaining that Shakespeare’s was a “Copye” of the letter he sent. Samuel Ireland and his friends admired the style of the letters but not the earl’s penmanship; William Henry, not knowing that handwriting of the earl was extant, had written Southampton’s reply with his left hand. ["Confessions", pp. 78-83.]

A flood of documents now followed, all coming from Mr. H’s miraculous chest. Shakespeare’s “Profession of Faith” proved he was a Protestant, a letter to fellow-actor Richard Cowley showed he was a “a perfect good natured man” [William Henry Ireland, "Authentic Account", p. 15.] , and a letter from Queen Elizabeth made it clear that he was favored by the most powerful person in the land. A sketch of himself that accompanied his letter to Cowley showed that he was a wretched draftsman with an impenetrable sense of humor. Described in the letter as a “whysycalle conceyte”, it was (as Malone put it) “most truly whimsical, being a miserable drawing of our poet done by himself with a pen, from Martin Droeshout’s print of him engraved seven years after his death….” [Edmond Malone, "An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Papers and Instruments Attributed to Shakespeare", p. 209.] There were also theatrical receipts, contracts, a letter and poem to his future wife, "Anna Hatherrewaye", and even books from Shakespeare’s library, complete with marginal annotations actually signed by the bard himself. Of most interest however were a manuscript of King Lear Shakespeare had prepared for the press, a few stray leaves of "Hamblette", and two previously unknown plays, Vortigern and Rowena and Henry II.

The Artifacts on Display

From the moment of discovery Samuel Ireland invited friends in to see his new possessions. On 20 December 1794 Sir Frederick Eden came to examine the seal on the Fraser lease. He announced that it represented a quintain, a device used in lance practice, and the conclusion was that Shakespeare had used it as a play on his own name. [Samuel Schoenbaum, "Shakespeare’s Lives", p. 199.] In February 1795 however he issued a general invitation to literary men to come to his house and examine them. The exhibition was a roaring success. Samuel Parr and Joseph Warton on hearing Samuel Ireland read the “Profession of Faith” proclaimed it superior to anything in the English liturgy. James Boswell got down on his knees to kiss the relics. Scottish antiquarian George Chalmers and educator Richard Valpy visited frequently, and editor James Boaden, author Herbert Croft, and poet-laureate Henry James Pye (among others) testified publicly to their belief in the authenticity of the papers. [DNB, p. 33.]

One hitch developed when an alert visitor noted that a document supposedly written by the Earl of Leicester was dated 1590, whereas the nobleman had died in 1588. [Kahan, "Reforging Shakespeare", p. 86; Samuel Schoenbaum, "Shakespeare’s Lives", p. 206.] When Samuel Ireland confronted his son with this information, William Henry wanted to burn the document, but his father demurred. He suggested that the document might have been misdated at some later time, and the two agreed to tear off the date. [William Henry Ireland, "A Full and Explanatory Account", MS, cited in Schoenbaum, op. cit.] The item was displayed, and subsequently printed, in this mutilated form. At least two scholars, antiquary Joseph Ritson [Ritson to Paton, 21 July 1795 in "The Letters of Joseph Ritson", volume 2, pp. 91-93.] and classicist Richard Porson [Bernard Grebanier, "The Great Shakespeare Forgery", p. 137.] , correctly recognized the documents as forgeries, and editor Henry Bate Dudley started lampooning the papers as early as 17 February 1795. [Grebanier, p. 127, Schoenbaum, p. 212; Mair, p. 59.]

As Samuel Ireland did not invite the two greatest Shakespeare scholars of the day, Edmond Malone and George Steevens, to examine the manuscripts, suspicion was aroused. As one writer noted "The publick would certainly have been gratified to know, that these extraordinary MSS. had been deemed genuine by Dr. Farmer, Messrs. Stevens or Malone; whose literary characters might have served as letters of credence." ["Gentleman's Magazine", March 1795, p. 210.] Samuel Ireland later observed that he was "of a different sentiment with regard to the sanction, which his [Malone's] inspection would afford them." [Samuel Ireland, "An Investigation of Mr. Malone's Claim to the Character of Scholar, or Critic", p. 3.] He did however attempt to get Richard Farmer to look at the papers without success. [Grebanier, pp. 136-7.]

The exhibition, which roused much public excitement, continued for more than a year. On 17 November Ireland and his son carried the papers to St. James’s Palace, where the Duke of Clarence and Mrs. Jordan examined them, and on 30 December Ireland submitted them to the Prince of Wales at Carlton House. [DNB.]

"Vortigern and Rowena"

As early as 26 December 1794 William Henry had announced the existence of Shakespeare's unknown play, "Vortigern and Rowena", but it was not until March that he was able to present his father with the manuscript. It came with Shakespeare's correspondence with a printer purporting to explain why the play was unpublished. [Kahan, pp. 62-66.] Both Sheridan of Drury Lane Theater and Thomas Harris of Covent Garden expressed an interest in producing the play. Sheridan was the winner in this competition. Prompted by fears that a descendant of Shakespeare might surface to claim the rights to his productions, William Henry produced a deed to prove that one of his ancestors, coincidentally named William Henry Ireland, had saved Shakespeare from drowning, and that Shakespeare had rewarded him with all the newly-discovered manuscripts. [William Henry Ireland, "Authentic Account". pp. 22-23.]

Publication of the MSS

Samuel Ireland announced the publication of the papers on 4 March 1795, and the volume itself appeared in December of that year. William Henry had bitterly opposed this move, but his father was determined. Included were such items as the "Profession of Faith," the letter from Queen Elizabeth, and the manuscript of "King Lear". "Henry II", "Vortigern", and the marginalia were excluded from this volume.

Shortly after the appearance of the book Samuel Ireland's neighbor, Albany Wallis, who had discovered one of the few authentic signatures of Shakespeare, came up with a new and startling discovery. He had turned up a genuine John Heminges signature, and of course it looked nothing like the signatures William Henry had produced. When the forger learned of this problem, however, he soon produced Heminges signatures that resembled the authentic one. It seems, William Henry explained, that there were "two" actors named John Heminges active at the time—hence the dissimilar signatures.

The Controversy

The volume was not well-received. The first reply was James Boaden's "A Letter to George Steevens" (16 January 1796). [Eu. Hood, "Fly-Leaves, No. XXXI: Pseudo-Shakspeare," in "Gentleman's Magazine", May 1826, p.421.] Boaden concentrated on the manuscript of "Lear", observing that if this is Shakespeare's original, and the printed versions contaminated with alterations by the actors, then the players are "at once converted ... into the most elaborate and polished masters of versification, and Shakspeare into a writer without the necessary ear for rhythm—a man who produced a series of harmonious versification by chance, and lost the supreme ascendancy in his art, from the not being able to number ten syllables upon his fingers." He also took aim at the spelling. [James Boaden, "A Letter to George Steevens", pp. 7, 21; summary in Grebanier, pp. 185-7.] Samuel Ireland's friends and supporters raced in with replies. Colonel Francis Webb, writing under the name "Philalethes," argued that as the paper was old the documents must have belonged to Shakespeare's time; there would have been no reason to forge them then; therefore they must be genuine. [Summary in Grebanier, p. 189ff.] Matthew Wyatt took potshots at Boaden by contrasting his views as a believer with those after his conversion. Walley Chamberlain Oulton maintained that the papers were so voluminous that forgery was out of the question. He expressed a hope that "Vortigern" would turn out to be genuine, as it might well revitalize contemporary drama. He looked to the judgment of the audience for the play's vindication.


The crushing blow—or rather blows, as there were two strokes—came quickly. The first was the publication of Malone's volume of over four hundred pages on 31 March 1796. Exposing the forgeries in detail, he showed one by one that each document was flawed in its handwriting, its language, its orthography, and its history. The spelling of the documents was not only not that of Shakespeare's time, it was that of no time whatsoever. Numerous historical inaccuracies—not least of which was the reference to the Globe before that playhouse had been built—exposed the forger's ignorance. The handwriting of the Queen and Southampton did not at all resemble authentic examples. Words used in the forgeries—"upset", for example—were not used in Shakespeare's time, or were used in a different sense than that of the papers. [Malone, "An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments", "passim". For the general objection to the spelling of the papers, see p. 33. For the anachronistic reference to the Globe see pp. 184-8. For Queen Elizabeth's handwriting see pp. 103-116. For the word "upset" see pp. 219-220.]

"Vortigern’s" Failure

The second blow came two days later, on 2 April, with the failure of "Vortigern" at Drury Lane Theatre. The excitement was intense and the crowd volatile; tickets had sold out early and seats were hard come by. While at first the play seemed to be a success with the audience, soon fits of laughter were heard and at one point the play came to a complete halt till order was restored. When Barrymore announced another performance of the play, the audience rebelled, and chaos reigned until the management substituted something else. [Joseph Farington, diary entry for 2 April 1796, in "the Farington Diary" (London 1922-28), p. 145; James Anson Farrer, "Literary Forgeries" (London, 1907), pp. 226-232.] William Henry Ireland blamed the actors, particularly Kemble, along with a "Malone faction," for the failure of his play. ["Confessions", pp. 156-159.] Others attributed it to the quality of the play itself. [Farington, "op. cit."; William P. Marsh, "Clubs of London" (London, 1828), volume 2, pp. 107-111.] "Vortigern's" opening night was also its final performance.


For the Irelands, father and son, the failure of the play, coupled with Malone's exposure of the hoax, was an unmitigated disaster. Samuel Ireland still believed the papers to be Shakespeare's, and refused to listen to anything his son had to say. William Henry confessed the forgery to his sisters, to his mother, and to Albany Wallis, but his father did not believe his story. The public, not surprisingly, accused Samuel Ireland of the fraud. Sales of his books suffered. [DNB p. 34.]

Blaming Malone for his misfortunes, Samuel Ireland set out to write a book that would destroy the scholar's reputation. With the aid of Thomas Caldecott he attacked Malone for using forensic techniques like handwriting comparison to settle a literary question, rather than relying on taste and aesthetic sensibilities. [DNB, p. 35; Samuel Ireland, "Investigation"; see especially 46-49.] Concerned for his father's reputation William Henry rushed into print with a pamphlet confessing to the forgeries, and his father replied immediately with a vindication of his conduct in the whole affair. [Hood, p. 422. William Henry Ireland says in the opening statement to the "Authentic Account" that his motive is "to remove the odium under which my father labours".] This combination roused suspicions. George Steevens accused the two of collusion:

The hopeful youth takes on himself the guilt of the entire forgery, and strains hard to exculpate his worthy father from the slightest participation in it. The father, on the contrary, declares that his son had not sufficient abilities for the execution of so difficult a task. Between them, in short, there is a pretended quarrel, that they may not look as if they were acting in concert on the present occasion. [George Steevens to Bishop Percy, 26 December 1796, in John Bowyers Nichols, "Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century" (London, 1848), volume 7, pp. 7-8.]
The charge would stick. George Chalmers' "Apology for the Believers" and Samuel Ireland's "Investigation" concentrated on attacking Malone rather than exonerating Samuel, and the public verdict was probably summed up in a print by John Nixon depicting the entire Ireland family engaged in forging the papers. [DNB, p. 35. The Nixon print, "The Oaken Chest, or, The Gold Mines of Ireland a Farce is available at the [ Folger Library web site] .]

amuel Ireland's Culpability

The culpability of Samuel Ireland remained a controversial topic for years to come. Although his son's "Confessions" (1805) did a great deal to establish his innocence, not everybody was convinced. Accounts by Clement Mansfield Ingleby in 1859 and George Dawson in 1888 took the position that the father was responsible for the forgeries and the son's "Confession" was a tissue of lies. The acquisition of Samuel Ireland's papers by the British Museum in 1876, however, provided a wealth of evidence that Samuel was the victim rather than the perpetrator of the fraud, and Ingleby changed his position in his 1881 paper on the Ireland Affair. ["The Literary Career of a Shakespeare Forger" in volume 2 of "Shakespeare: the Man and the Book." This issue is covered on pp. 156-163. See also Farrer, p. 236.]


In the following DNB refers to Sidney Lee, “Samuel Ireland” in "Dictionary of National Biography", London, 1892, volume 29, pp. 31-36.

Controversial Literature

* James Boaden, "A Letter to George Steevens", London, 16 January 1796.
* Philalethes (Francis Webb), "Shakspeare’s Manuscript, in the possession of Mr. Ireland, examined", 28 January 1796.
* F. G. Waldron, "Free Reflections on Miscellaneous Papers", 1 February 1796. ( [ Page images at] )
* Matthew Wyatt, "A Comparative Review of the Opinions of Mr. James Boaden", 3 February 1796.
* Walley Chamberlain Oulton, "Vortigern Under Consideration; with general remarks on Mr. James Boaden’s Letter", 15 February 1796.
* Anonymous, "Precious Relics; or the tragedy of Vortigern rehearsed", 15 March 1796.
* Edmond Malone, "An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments", London, 30 March 1796.
* Samuel Ireland, "Mr. Ireland’s Vindication of His Conduct", London, 6 January 1797. ()
* George Chalmers, "An Apology for the Believers", London, 1797. ( [ Page images at Google] )
* Samuel Ireland, "An Investigation of Mr. Malone's Claim to the Character of Scholar, or Critic", London, August 1797.

Accounts of the Ireland Shakespeare Forgeries

* William Henry Ireland, "Authentic Account of the Shakespearian MSS", 1796. . [ Page images at Google.]
* William Henry Ireland, "Confessions", 1805. ( [ Page images at Google] )
* Frederick Lawrence, “Remarkable Literary Impostures No. II,” in "Sharpe’s London Magazine", December 1848.
* Anonymous, “The Successful Forgery,” in "Bizarre", 23 and 30 April 1853.
* Clement Mansfield Ingleby, “W. H. Ireland's Confessions,” in "The Shakespeare Fabrications", London, 1859, pp. 99-103. ( [ Page images at Google] )
* T. J. Arnold, “The Ireland Forgeries,” in "Fraser's Magazine," August 1860, pp. 167-178. ( [ Page images at Google.] )
* Anonymous, “Two Impostors of the Eighteenth Century,” "Eclectic Magazine", July 1879.
* Clement Mansfield Ingleby, "The Literary Career of a Shakespeare Forger," in volume 2 of "Shakespeare: the Man and the Book" (London, 1881).
* George Dawson, “Literary Forgeries and Impostures” in "Shakespeare and Other Lectures", 1888.
* James Anson Farrer, “The Immortal Hoax of Ireland,” in "Literary Forgeries" (London, 1907), pp. 226-249. ( [ Page images at Google] )
* John Mair, "The Fourth Forger", New York, 1939.
* Frank E. Halliday, “Shakespeare Fabricated” in "The Cult of Shakespeare", New York, 1957.
* Bernard Grebanier, "The Great Shakespeare Forgery", 1965.
* Samuel Schoenbaum, "Part Three: Edmond Malone" chapters VII through XI, in "Shakespeare's Lives", New York, 1970.
* Jeffrey Kahan, "Reforging Shakespeare", London, 1998.
* Patricia Pierce, "The Great Shakespeare Fraud", 2004.

Other Works Cited

* Samuel Ireland, "Picturesque Views of the Upper, or Warwickshire Avon", London, 1795. ( [ Page images at Google] )
* Samuel Ireland, "Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakspeare", 1796.
* Eu. Hood, "Fly-Leaves, No. XXXI: Pseudo-Shakspeare," in Gentleman's Magazine, May 1826, pp.421-423. ( [ Page images at Google] )
* Sidney Lee, “Samuel Ireland,” in "Dictionary of National Biography", London, 1892, volume 29, pp. 31-36. ( [ Page images at Google] )

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