Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Shakespeare Forgeries

Why Shakespeare?

Of all the unknown documents that we could imagine existing, the most valuable, the most desired, and the most pursued would be a yet-undiscovered document written by William Shakespeare. Twenty years ago, the great manuscript authority, Charles Hamilton, estimated that a single authentic signature of Shakespeare --- merely a signature alone --- would bring $1 million dollars at auction. Why?

The answer is that such a discovery --- a complete document, say, of one of his plays --- is a very remote possibility. We are more likely to find another cache of Biblical documents comparable to the Dead Sea Scrolls than we are to find a play by Shakespeare. If a page from one of Shakespeares plays, written in his own hand, were to appear at auction, the bidding would exceed the astronomical figures obtained for paintings by van Gogh, Picasso, or Renoir.

For one thing, plays written at the time of Shakespeare were evanescent things, written for the acting companies and subsequently their property, not the property of the author. They were copied and distributed to the company of actors, memorized, filed for further use, and eventually discarded. Occasionally, one of the actors would reproduce the script from memory, or an industrious audience member would copy the lines as he heard them during performance. These would later be published, without the participation and consent of the author of the plays rightful owner, the acting company. Often these pirated versions were, when compared to the great folio of Shakespeares plays published by his fellow actors in 1623, John Heminge and Henry Condell, grossly inaccurate.

For another thing, much of what existed in London before 1666 was lost in that years Great Fire of London. Two-thirds of the great city disappeared in that fire, and, presumably, whatever documents were in the buildings that burned.

Great Fire of London, painting
Great Fire of London, painting

Finally, with the exception of the play scripts used by Heminge and Condell in their collection of Shakespeare seven years after their authors death, plays simply were not valuable documents. It is even possible to imagine that Heminge and Condell simply discarded the scripts they had after their monumental First Folio of the Plays of William Shakespeare was published.

No, it is unlikely that such an auction will ever take place. Very unlikely. Still, it is generally believed that a few pages of the obscure play Sir Thomas More are in Shakespeares own hand. Could it be that somewhere pages exist for one of the great Shakespeare tragedies? What if such a treasure were found?

The first question that would have to be asked is: Is this manuscript authentic? How would we know for certain that Shakespeare actually wrote it? Despite expert analyses of Shakespeares six signatures, and the knowledge of 16th Century paper and ink, could we be sure that the writing is his?

What if it is a forgery? Who would be so bold as to attempt to produce a document attributed to William Shakespeare? What would be his motive?

Wealth? Certainly. Fame? Very likely.

The forger would have to be more clever than Ireland and Collier.

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