Ireland's Shakspeare Forgeries
Mr. Samuel Ireland, originally a silk merchant in Spitalfields, was
led by his taste for literary antiquities to abandon trade for those
pursuits, and published several tours. One of them consisted of an
excursion upon the river Avon, during which he explored, with ardent
curiosity, every locality associated with Shakspeare. He was accompanied
by his son, a youth of sixteen, who imbibed a portion of his father's
arean mania. The youth, perceiving the great importance which his
parent attached to every relic of the poet, and the eagerness with which
he sought for any of his MS. remains, conceived that it would not be
difficult to gratify his father by some productions of his own, in the
language and manner of Shakspeare's time. The idea possessed his mind
for a certain period; and, in 1793, being then in his eighteenth year,
he produced some MSS. said to be in the handwriting of Shakspeare, which
he said had been given him by a gentleman possessed of many other old
papers. The young man, being articled to a solicitor in Chancery, easily
fabricated, in the first instance, the deed of mortgage from Shakspeare
to Michael Fraser. The ecstasy expressed by his father urged him to the
fabrication of other documents, described to come from the same quarter.
Emboldened by success, he ventured upon higher compositions in prose and
verse; and at length announced the discovery of an original drama, under
the title of Vortigern, which he exhibited, act by act, written in
the period of two months. Having provided himself with the paper of the
period, (being the fly-leaves of old books,) and with ink prepared by a
bookbinder, no suspicion was entertained of the deception. The father,
who was a maniac upon such subjects, gave such eclat to the supposed
discovery, that the attention of the literary world, and all England,
was drawn to it; insomuch that the son, who had announced other papers,
found it impossible to retreat, and was goaded into the production of
the series which he had promised.
The house of Mr. Ireland, in Norfolk-street, Strand, was daily crowded
to excess by persons of the highest rank, as well as by the most
celebrated men of letters. The MSS. being mostly decreed genuine, were
considered to be of inestimable worth; and at one time it was expected
that Parliament would give any required sum for them. Some conceited
amateurs in literature at length sounded an alarm, which was echoed by
certain of the newspapers and public journals; notwithstanding which,
Mr. Sheridan agreed to give 600l. for permission to play Vortigern
at Drury-lane Theatre. So crowded a house was scarcely ever seen as on
the night of the performance, and a vast number of persons could not
obtain admission. The predetermined malcontents began an opposition
from the outset: some ill-cast characters converted grave scenes into
ridicule, and there ensued between the believers and sceptics a contest
which endangered the property. The piece was, accordingly, withdrawn.
The juvenile author was now so beset for information, that he found it
necessary to abscond from his father's house; and then, to put an end
to the wonderful ferment which his ingenuity had created, he published
a pamphlet, wherein he confessed the entire fabrication. Besides
Vortigern, young Ireland also produced a play of Henry II.; and,
although there were in both such incongruities as were not consistent
with Shakspeare's age, both dramas contain passages of considerable
beauty and originality.
The admissions of the son did not, however, screen the father from
obloquy, and the reaction of public opinion affected his fortunes and
his health. Mr. Ireland was the dupe of his zeal upon such subjects; and
the son never contemplated at the outset the unfortunate effect. Such
was the enthusiasm of certain admirers of Shakspeare, (among them Drs.
Parr and Warton,) that they fell upon their knees before the MSS.; and,
by their idolatry, inspired hundreds of others with similar enthusiasm.
The young author was filled with astonishment and alarm, which at that
stage it was not in his power to check. Sir Richard Phillips, who knew
the parties, has thus related the affair in the Anecdote Library.
In the Catalogue of Dr. Parr's Library at Hatton, (Bibliotheca
Parriana,) we find the following attempted explanation by the Doctor:--
"Ireland's (Samuel) 'Great and impudent forgery, called,' Miscellaneous
Papers and Legal Instruments, under the hand and seal of William
Shakspeare, folio 1796.
"I am almost ashamed to insert this worthless and infamously trickish
book. It is said to include the tragedy of King Lear, and a fragment
of Hamlet. Ireland told a lie when he imputed to me the words which
Joseph Warton used, the very morning I called on Ireland, and was
inclined to admit the possibility of genuineness in his papers. In my
subsequent conversation, I told him my change of opinion. But I thought
it not worth while to dispute in print with a detected impostor.--S. P."
Mr. Ireland died about 1802. His son, William Henry, long survived him;
but the forgeries blighted his literary reputation for ever, and he
died in straitened circumstances, about the year 1840. The reputed
Shakspearean MSS. are stated to have been seen for sale in a pawnbroker's
window in Wardour-street, Soho.
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