You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Two

The lost play of Shakespeare, 1796

During the 18th century the Bard of Stratford had a resurgence of popularity, some theatres dedicating themselves purely to staging his plays. Collectors were on the hunt for relics or memorabilia connected with Shakespeare. He was a bit of an enigma, though. Apart from his will, he had left no personal documentation, letters, diaries, not even a line from his extensive corpus of work in his own handwriting. Anything that could be attributed to him would be worth a small fortune and make the name of the relic hunter.  

Samuel Ireland, a bookseller, was one of the most enthusiastic fans of Shakespeare and a keen collector of memorabilia associated with him. You can imagine his astonishment when his son, William Ireland, then only aged 18, came home from work at a solicitor’s office one evening with a document which upon inspection seemed to be a mortgage deed between Shakespeare and John Heminges. To his father’s amazement, William kept unearthing documents, a letter to the Earl of Southampton thanking him for his patronage, a love letter to Anne Hathaway, a signed declaration of his Protestant faith, books with his handwritten marginalia, even scripts of Hamlet and King Lear.

Samuel could not believe his good fortune and went to the Herald’s Office to have the documentation examined. They concurred that they were genuine and authenticated everything that Ireland brought them. In November 1794 William announced to his father that in an attic he had found the greatest prize of all, the manuscript of a hitherto unknown play written by the Bard entitled Vortigern and Rowena. Samuel did not get his hands on the document until the following March but it came with correspondence between Shakespeare and a printer explaining why it had not come to be printed and a deed which, conveniently, willed the manuscripts to one of Ireland’s ancestors in gratitude for saving him for drowning.

News of the new play swept London and Richard Brinsley Sheridan purchased the rights to put on the opening performance at Drury Lane Theatre for £300 and half of the revenue. When he read the script, he was surprised by the play’s relative simplicity compared with the Bard’s other works, but decided to carry on with the production, enlisting John Kemble to play the leading role. Kemble too doubted its authenticity and, when the leading lady, Sarah Siddons dropped out a week before the play was due to open, some speculated that he had turned her off the idea.

The play opened on April 2, 1796 and Kemble took every opportunity to deliver his lines in a way that suggested to the audience that it was a fake, especially the line “and when this solemn mockery is o’er”. The audience hooted their derision, the performance greeted with catcalls and hisses. There wasn’t a second performance and it was not until 2008 that it was performed again.

To add to the Irelands’ discomfort, the Shakespearean scholar, Edmond Malone, published a damning indictment of the document’s authenticity in his An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments. Samuel came under fire and initially defended the play’s legitimacy, complaining of Malone’s “illiberal and injurious treatment”. Eventually William confessed that it was a hoax. Samuel’s reputation never recovered and William, who moved to France and tried, unsuccessfully, to put on the play as his own work, died in penury in 1839.

How had William pulled off the hoax?

Leaving aside a willing and gullible audience anxious to extend the corpus of Shakespeare, Ireland had met a book-binder who showed him how to create documents that had the appearance of older manuscripts by using a special ink and heating the paper. After some practice, William perfected the technique. Working in a solicitor’s office, he had access to documents from the Elizabethan and Jacobean era and a ready supply of parchment. Copying the style of the documentation using his special ink his finishing touch was to trace Shakespeare’s original signature and then heated it over the flame of a candle.


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