London, 16 December 1794. It may be assumed that Samuel Ireland trembled as his teenage son placed the two letters in his hand. For many years he had been searching for the Holy Grail of Elizabethan literature, namely any original documents that might shed some light on the daily life and times of William Shakespeare. Nearly 180 years after the Bard’s death, not a jot of his correspondence or original writing had emerged and, in consequence, Shakespeare himself remained little more than an enigma.
And yet now, just as fifty-year-old Ireland was about to give up the search, his brilliant, illegitimate, only son, William Henry Ireland, had unearthed a cache of incredible importance. First there was a mortgage deed, signed by Shakespeare and others, including his fellow actor John Heminges. Then came a promissory note, again signed by Shakespeare. And now came these two letters: an exchange of correspondence between Shakespeare and his patron, the Earl of Southampton. Samuel Ireland’s greatest wish had been answered.
By Christmas, the discovery of the Shakespeare manuscripts had become the talk of Britain’s literary elite but there was still much more to come. By March 1795, the young Ireland had further astounded his father by bringing home a trove, piece by piece, that included a “Profession of Faith”, proving that the Bard was a Protestant, a letter from Queen Elizabeth, a humorous self-portrait, a poem written to his future wife Anne Hathaway (complete with a lock of hair), a draft version of ‘King Lear’, some original leaves from ‘Hamlet’ (or ‘Hamblette’ as it was called) and, perhaps most exciting of all, two hitherto unknown plays named ‘Henry II’ and ‘Vortigern and Rowena’.
As the great and the good tumbled over themselves to view the Ireland’s remarkable collection at their London home, it fell to an Irishman by name of Edmund Malone to set the record straight. Nonetheless, it would take over a year – and 400 pages of methodical research – before Malone was able to convince his peers that what they were fawning over was nothing but an elaborate hoax.
Memories of the Ireland Shakespeare forgeries, one of the greatest cause célèbre’s of the Georgian Age, must have played in the mind of Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University, when she was invited to authenticate a collected three-volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays, that claimed to be a first edition of a folio published in 1623. Given that the folio was discovered just a few short weeks before the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death on 23 April 1616, one can forgive Prof. Smith’s initial reaction on hearing that the owners of Mount Stuart House on Scotland’s Isle of Bute had found such a book. ‘Like hell they have,’ she remarked. However, in early April 2016, she confirmed that the rare, goatskin-bound ‘First Folio’ was indeed bona fide, which gives it a value of no less than £3.5 million.
The Ireland Shakespeare forgeries stands as a testament to the hazards of filial love or, rather, of going a step too far to keep one’s father happy. Samuel Ireland was one of the most respected engravers and print-sellers of his generation. He was also an obsessive collector of books and curios, including Oliver Cromwell’s leather jacket, a piece of Charles II’s cloak, and a fruit knife that belonged to the essayist and Spectator founder, Joseph Addison. However, Shakespeare was far and away his greatest passion.
Ireland was evidently a gullible, trusting sort. During a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, for which his son accompanied him, their guide was a notorious spoofer but Ireland senior eagerly fell for his stories. His Shakespearean quest culminated in a visit to Clopton House where he was told – by another spoofer – that a large collection of the Bard’s manuscripts had been destroyed by fire only a week earlier. ‘My God!’, expostulated Ireland. ‘Sir, you are not aware of the loss which the world has sustained. Would to heaven I had arrived sooner!’
It was shortly after this that his son decided to cheer the old fellow up. Born in 1775, William Henry Ireland was one of Samuel’s three illegitimate children by his housekeeper, Miss Freeman. As a boy he had been fascinated by the story of Thomas Chatterton, a teenager who had ingeniously passed himself off as a 15th century poet called Thomas Rowley before committing suicide at the age of seventeen. Inspired by Chatterton, the younger Ireland evolved his own expertise as a forger, nabbed a bunch of Elizabethan and Jacobean parchments from the legal office where he was employed, and set to work producing the Heminges mortgage deed, the first of his extraordinary faux Shakespearean curios.
When his father asked where on earth he had got such a deed, William said it had been found in an old trunk by a man called ‘Mr. H’ who had no desire to become personally involved in the matter. Mr. H’s trunk proved to be bottomless and, like a character in a fairy-tale, William returned to his elated father week after week with yet more amazing finds.
Although William’s work was by no means first-rate, it fooled many people, including Henry James Pye, the poet laureate, and James Boswell, the eminent Scottish biographer, who got down on bended knees to kiss the sacred relics. Another unfortunate sucker was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Dublin-born playwright, who opted to stage the newly discovered play, ‘Vortigern and Rowena’, at the Theatre Royal, his playhouse on London’s Drury Lane.
Showing his young age, William took things a step too far when faced with a challenge that the trove could feasibly be claimed by a descendant of Shakespeare if one should arise. Lo and behold, as the Oxford Journal charily explained in July 1795, ‘Mr. Ireland has found a deed of gift, executed by Shakespeare to a Mr. William Henry Ireland, conveying all his Manuscripts to that gentleman, in gratitude for saving him from drowning in the river Thames. Now, upon an accurate investigation, this gentleman proves to be the ancestor of Mr. Samuel Ireland, of Norfolk- street; and, consequently, the former possessor of the papers surrenders them to Mr. Ireland, as of right his property.’
Other cracks followed fast, including the emergence of the real John Heminges’ signature, which looked nothing like Ireland’s version, but ultimately it fell to Edmund Malone, the preeminent Shakespearean scholar of the day, to disprove this fictitious clap-trap.
Malone, the son of a lawyer, was born in Dublin in 1741 and grew up at Shinglas, the family home near Ballymore, 20km north-east of Athlone, County Westmeath. Educated at Dr. Ford’s preparatory school in Molesworth Street, he went on to Trinity College where he proved himself a diligent student, winning a scholarship that provided welcome relief to the strained Malone family finances. He graduated top of the class in 1762 and was admitted as a barrister to the Inner Temple in London the following year.
He soon befriended Dr Samuel Johnson, author of the celebrated dictionary, who had just started work as private secretary to William G Hamilton, the Chief Secretary – and later Chancellor of the Exchequer – of Ireland. It was Johnson who ignited Malone’s passion for Shakespeare although the Irishman continued to practice as a barrister, working on the Munster Circuit in his homeland from 1769. The law bored him and a foiled romance depressed him but he found some solace in prose and acting – including a performance in tribute to the late Oliver Goldsmith at Knocktopher, Co. Kilkenny, in which the Irish patriots Henry Grattan and Henry Flood also flexed their thespian muscles.
A brief flirtation with politics ended when he inherited a small fortune, enabling him to ditch the law and focus upon literature. A short memoir of Goldsmith followed before he united with the Shakespearean expert George Steevens on a new, ten-volume edition of the Bard’s works, much of which he penned in Ireland during the winter of 1777. The collaboration with Steevens later fell apart, with the older man somewhat unnerved by Malone’s arrogance, but the Dubliner would devote the remainder of his days to the Bard and his intricate, multiple-volume chronology of Shakespeare’s life and works remains a definitive work.
As treasurer of The Club, the London dining club founded by Dr Johnson and the artist Joshua Reynolds, Malone was also central to a top-notch literary elite that included the philosopher Edmund Burke, the writer Horace Walpole and James Caulfield, the Earl of Charlemont.
Disproving Ireland’s claims was a role that Malone was born to play. On 31 March 1896, he published a 400-page blow-by-blow exposé that blew the Irelands to shreds. His report was compounded two nights later when Sheridan’s rendition of ‘Vortigern and Rowena’ had its sold-out premiere on Drury Lane, only for the event to descend into a veritable riot as the audience decried its blatant falseness. The play did not enjoy a second night.
Poor old Samuel Ireland became the laughing stock of London and died, miserable and dejected, in July 1800. Five years later, his son William published his confession, stating that he had acted alone and solely out of concern for his late father’s anxiety that he might die without ever discovering an original Shakespeare documents. William subsequently worked as a hack writer and published some little read Gothic literature before his death in 1835.
As for Malone, the seventy-year-old bachelor was working on a new edition of Shakespeare when he died in London in 1812. Most of his extensive and ‘chaotic’ papers are now held by the Bodleian Library in Oxford while Ireland’s forgeries crossed the Atlantic and are now to be found at in Harvard’s Houghton Library.
This account was originally published in the Irish Daily Mail on 12 April 2016.