Pinned Down by a Beagle

Colin Burrow

  • The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
    Duckworth, 368 pp, £16.99, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 7156 4137 8

It’s easy to think of literary forgers simply as greedy people who are good at making bits of paper look old. But there is nothing simple about the history of Shakespearean forgery. It began more or less at the height of the late 18th-century mania for everything Shakespearean – life, works, documents, laundry lists, anything. Some of it was driven by a desire to make a quick buck out of gullible bardophiles, but most of it had more complex origins. This was true of the most spectacular case of Shakespearean forgery. In 1795 a teenager called William Henry Ireland pretended to have found a series of documents connected with Shakespeare. His father, Samuel Ireland, loved making trips to Stratford to pick up dubious Shakespeareana. Indeed he loved everything to do with Shakespeare a lot more than he loved his son. So William Henry set out to give his dad a few treats. Contracts with players, a profession of Protestant faith in Shakespeare’s own hand, even a letter to the bard from Queen Elizabeth herself flowed from his ready quill. And once Ireland had sorted out a supply of ink and techniques for making paper look old, why not write versions of King Lear and Hamlet which omitted the awkward bawdy scenes? Why not even compose a whole new play in Shakespeare’s hand?

Ireland’s highest-risk venture was the discovery of a ‘lost’ historical drama by Shakespeare called Vortigern and Rowena. This was eventually performed before a sceptical audience at Drury Lane. Ireland’s play has the typical features of pastiche. His characters always sound like Shakespeare, and usually like Shakespeare’s biggest characters. When Queen Edmunda goes mad she sounds at first like Lear ripping off his vile lendings (‘And have I need of these vile rags? Off! Off!’), then she segues into Ophelia’s mad scene. Ireland works more with scissors than with paste: he regularly amputates a phrase just before he quotes Shakespeare verbatim. So his mad queen doesn’t quite echo Ophelia’s ‘Sweet ladies, good night, good night.’ Instead she says: ‘Good night, sweet! Good night!’

Like most forgers, Ireland did not always know when to stop. When his father’s ownership of the intellectual property in the manuscripts his son had discovered was questioned, William Henry concocted a deed of gift that bequeathed all of Shakespeare’s papers to one of his father’s ancestors who ‘savedde Shakspeare’s lyfe fromme drownynge whenne onne Thames’ – Ireland’s orthography was soundly of the Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe variety. This, he hoped, meant his dad would benefit from the publication and performance of Vortigern. But once heavyweight Shakespearean scholars, including the pitiless Edmond Malone, began to cast doubt on the authenticity of the manuscripts, Samuel came under suspicion. He wrote reproachful letters to his son asking for an explanation. When William Henry confessed that he had forged the documents and the play, Samuel didn’t believe him. So the son published his Confessions, which offered a full and apparently frank story about how he came to fake Shakespeare. All for love, he claimed; though he was suspiciously keen to record how much cash was made out of Vortigern.

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