The 18th-Century Teen Who Wrote Shakespeare And Fooled London

“I wille keepe ande peruse thye Booke oere ande oere agayne forre Ale is worthye,” —William Henry Ireland writing “Shakespeare’s” notes in the margins of a book

In A Nutshell

William Henry Ireland was 19 when he decided to impress his distant father with a “recently discovered” document written in Shakespeare’s own hand. It went over so well that he just kept writing, eventually forging letters to Anne Hathaway and Queen Elizabeth, marginalia and notes in the books of “Shakespeare’s library,” the original manuscript of King Lear and part of Hamlet, and, finally, an entirely new play. The play was staged in a theater on Drury Lane, and even though there were plenty of people who didn’t believe the hoax at all, William Henry’s father went to his grave refusing that it all could have been the work of his son.

The Whole Bushel

William Henry Ireland was 19 in 1795, and his home life was pretty miserable. His father thought he was little better than a simple-minded dullard, and his mother refused to acknowledge him. (She was too busy posing as the housekeeper, while also playing the part of his father’s mistress.)

The father in question, Samuel Ireland, was a collector of curiosities. There was one thing that he didn’t have, though, and that was a handwritten document by William Shakespeare.

So William Henry created some.

He used paper from old books, mainly, and experimented with his technique for a while until he thought he had gotten the papers to look suitably old. When he presented them to his father, along with the story that they’d been found in the papers of a friend who wished to remain anonymous, his father was ecstatic.

The reaction was so good that the young William Henry just kept going.

He wrote Shakespeare’s love letters to Anne Hathaway, he copied pages and passages from Hamlet and passed them off as the long-lost originals. He even copied King Lear in its entirety, and passed that off as the real thing. He claimed to have books from Shakespeare’s library, which he annotated with comments marginalia, and signed with Shakespeare’s name. He attempted to mimic the already archaic dialogue by adding the letter “e” to just about every word and creating a very, very vivid and opinionated character for his Shakespeare.

His father summoned experts to take a look at the work, and they originally deemed it totally authentic, in part, thanks to an accidental design on a wax seal that William Henry hadn’t even meant to forge.

Article Continued Below

When his father kept insisting on more and more of the work (he’d said there was a whole trunk of it), he kept writing and writing, until eventually he’d written an “original” Shakespearean drama called Vortigern and Rowena. He handed it over piece by piece as he had time to write it, and it wasn’t only his father that was thrilled by it—the new theatre on Drury Lane was thrilled, too.

Looking to recoup some losses, the theatre figured that staging the first original Shakespearean play in ages was the ticket. By this time, there were plenty of doubters, but many of the doubters were keeping their mouths shut, not wanting to be remembered as the one who called Shakespeare’s work phony, on the off chance it turned out to be real.

The play was staged and critically panned. Fistfights broke out in the audience between people who thought it was fake and people who believed it was real. William Henry, who had once hoped to be revealed as the writer who was Shakespeare’s modern-day equal, had grown more than a little tired of the whole thing.

His father never believed that his son—whom he thought was a barely functional dimwit—could have written any of it and went to his grave insisting that the forgeries were real. He kept all of “Shakespeare’s” books in his library, rebound with green goatskin and in a place of honor. Samuel died in 1800, and his relationship with his son would never recover. William Henry left England in dishonor, living in France for a while. In 1832, he returned to England, attempted to publish another version of his Shakespeare-style masterpiece, Vortigern and Rowena, and died in 1835.

Show Me The Proof

The Collation: Shakespeare’s personal library, as curated by William Henry Ireland
University of Delaware: William Henry Ireland and the Shakespeare Fabrications
Smithsonian: To Be…Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!