October 4

On or about this day in 1796,William Henry Ireland published in London An Authentic Account of the Shakspeare Manuscripts, in which he confessed the sensational forgery of several Shakespeare manuscripts. Ireland wrote:

“I solemnly declare first, that my father was perfectly unacquainted with the whole affair, believing the papers most firmly the productions of Shakspeare. Secondly, that I am myself both the author and writer, and had no aid from any soul living, and that I should never have gone so far, but the world praised the papers so much and therefore flattered my vanity.”

Ireland, the son of a rare book dealer with a special interest in Shakespeare, had accompanied his father on a trip to Stratford-on-Avon in 1794, where he met John Jordan, who had admitted forging the last will of Shakespeare’s father. The young man, just seventeen years of age, became curious about Jordan’s methods. This forgery so excited his interest that he proceeded, primarily to please his father, to “discover” a number of lost Shakespeare documents, in the form of the actor’s contracts, letters, and notes. His imitation of Shakespeare’s calligraphy was close enough that the foremost bibliophiles and scholars in London accepted them as true copies.

Ireland was so delighted with the results of his forgeries that he even wrote a complete play, entitled Vortigern and Rowena, which was actually performed in the Drury Lane Theatre on April 2, 1796.The London drama critics were considerably more astute than the bibliophiles, with the result that the pseudo-Shakespeare was quickly uncovered. In 1805, Ireland wrote his Confessions, in which he related his methods in duping the experts.

“It became necessary,” he wrote, “that I should possess a sufficient quantity of old paper to enable me to proceed; in consequence of which I applied to a bookseller named Verey, in Great May’s buildings, St. Martin’s Lane, who, for the sum of five shillings, suffered me to take from all the folio and quarto volumes in his shop the fly-leaves which they contained. . . . As I was fully aware, from the variety of watermarks which are in existence at the present day, that they must have constantly been altered since the period of Elizabeth, and being for some time wholly unacquainted with the watermarks of that age, I very carefully produced my first specimens of the writing on such sheets of old paper as had no watermark whatever. Having heard it frequently stated that such marks on paper would have greatly tended to establish their validity, I listened attentively to every remark which was made upon the subject, and from thence I at length gleaned the intelligence that a jug was the prevalent watermark of the reign of Elizabeth: in consequence of which I inspected all the sheets of old paper then in my possession; and having selected such as had the jug upon them, I produced the succeeding manuscripts upon these; being careful, however, to mingle with them a certain number of blank leaves, that the production on a sudden of so many watermarks might excite suspicion in the breasts of those persons who were most conversant with the manuscripts.”

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