Shakespeare's Queer Sonnets and the Forgeries of William Henry Ireland
Michael Keevak, National Taiwan University
In 1795 a young man named William Henry Ireland, then about eighteen years of age, fabricated a series of Shakespearean forgeries that, for the space of few months at least, were enthusiastically believed by both the educated English public and some of the leading scholars and critics of the day. By the end of his meteoric career, Ireland's portfolio of impostures included legal deeds, promissory notes, receipts, letters both to and from Shakespeare, a portrait sketch, and even a "lost" tragedy, Vortigern, written in the bard's own hand. After his exposure Ireland tried to defend his actions first in a pamphlet, and then in an elaborated and rather "improved" version in his Confessions, and the story was reiterated many times until his death thirty years later.1 In each instance we are presented with a teenager driven mainly by a desire to please his unresponsive and greedy father, Samuel Ireland—anti-quarian, book publisher, fervent bardolator—who often reminded his son that he would gladly give away his entire collection in return for just one authentic example of Shakespeare's handwriting.2 The story becomes more and more incredible as it unfolds, and it becomes increasingly clear that Ireland's eventual aim, which failed disastrously, was to put himself forward as a new young bard. The few pieces of modern criticism devoted to him give us a fuller picture of the scandal, both of the moral and psychological character of the perpetrator(s), and of the cultural and literary climate in which so many men and women willingly believed in the impostures.3 In some sense the papers are interesting wish-fulfillments, late eighteenth-century versions of what the poet "should" have been like—not, in other words, the rather uncomplimentary legends that had already grown up around him: poacher, holder of horses, Stratford yokel, and so forth. Ireland thus furnishes a more Protestant Profession of Faith to counteract the disturbingly Catholic or "papist" one purportedly left by the poet's father; a gushing and proto-Romantic love letter to "Anna Hatherrewaye" (including an effusive poem and even a lock of his hair); Deeds of Gift which sound much more generous and intelligent than Shakespeare's actual will; and very informal letters from Southampton and even the Queen herself, which, in the words of one enthusiast, proved once and for all that Shakespeare was "the Garrick of his age."4
The documents make a certain kind of sense in the context of 1795, in other words, but as is often the case with such forgeries it seems surprising in hindsight that anybody could actually have been fooled. For the papers are ridiculously suspect on too many counts, with their dubious source in the house of an invented Mr. H., who freely gave them, one by one, to the worshipful young man (and who even began to correspond with the elder Ireland without the latter recognizing his son's own handwriting); their errors of diction and historical anachronism (a promissory note mentioning the Globe theater ten years before it was built); their laughably exaggerated "Elizabethan" spelling (in the words of Edmond Malone, "the orthography of no age whatsoever");5 and their often preposterous subject matter (a Deed of Gift in which the poet professes his undying gratitude to a contemporary William Henry Ireland who saved him from drowning in the Thames!). By the same token, however, the very speed with which the discoveries had been made—within the space of a couple of months only—was probably the most convincing proof for Ireland's contemporaries that the documents were real (or that they must be the work of more than one person). Actually, the praise which the papers received and the ease with which each new item had been accepted astonished even their maker—despite his own self-perception as a neglected poetic genius—particularly since he had produced them so quickly, and since in many cases one document often necessitated...
(The entire section is 9,385 words.)