Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Shakespeare Forgeries

The Plot Unravels

Edmond Malone, portrait
Edmond Malone, portrait
Practically on the eve of the performance of Vortigern, Malone published his carefully argued and documented objections to the Ireland papers. They were forgeries, he said. Dates and people were incorrect in some of the legal documents. Some of the language did not exist in Shakespeares time, nor did some of the odd spellings that appeared in the papers. One letter, purportedly from Queen Elizabeth to her goode fryende Willie Shakespeare, bore only the slightest resemblance to her documented handwriting, and certainly used language that no queen would use to one who was not of the nobility. Individual letters formed in some of the letters sent to Shakespeare were inconsistent with the penmanship of their authors. It was a devastating critique.

Partial playbill of Vortigern
Partial playbill of Vortigern
The one and only performance of Vortigern was a disaster, not only because of the suspicions raised by Malones attack, but because the plays language was ludicrous. That Kemble and several actors in the play delivered over the top performances didnt help matters. The play was demonstrably bad, and the laughter of the audience recognized its amateurishness.

There was nothing for Samuel Ireland to do but to strike back. He wrote a defense of the Shakespeare papers in his possession, described how he had obtained them through his son, by way of Mr. H., and attacked the actors, particularly Kemble, for ruining the production of Vortigern. Despite his defense, Samuel Ireland was looking more and more like either a charlatan or a fool.

The several months that had elapsed between the discovery of the first receipt and the disaster of the play produced at Covent Garden was a period of initial enthusiasm, followed by a rapidly descending condemnation for the Ireland Shakespeare documents. Only a few die-hard friends of Samuel Ireland, or a few wishful-thinkers, now held on to the belief that they were authentic.

It was easy to understand the shift in opinion. Besides the awful play, William Henry had produced other documents that went too far. One was a letter from Shakespeare attesting to the fact that he had been saved from drowning by a young man also named William Henry Ireland, clearly an ancestor of our young man. The letter was to John Heminge, instructing him that his savior was to be the recipient of his play manuscripts. Thus, John Heminges descendant (Mr. H?) was to recognize the descendant of his rescuer as the rightful owner of Shakespeares papers.

How convenient! How coincidental! Since William Henry Ireland was the legal heir to the Shakespeare documents, and since William Henry had given them to his father, Samuel Ireland, there could be no doubt that Samuel was the legal owner of these treasures. Even the most gullible found this story difficult to swallow. All, that is, except Samuel Ireland, who persisted against all evidence that his collection was authentic.

William Henry Ireland, portrait
William Henry Ireland, portrait
By this time, William Henry was nervous. He admitted to a few people that he had forged the Shakespeare documents. He had access to old writing paper from the late 16th Century by virtue of his position as a scrivener for a lawyer. He obtained the ink from a workman who specialized in book restoration. Later, when he needed more paper for the mountain of documents he was producing, he bought it from a book dealer, who allowed him to cut blank pages out of books of the period. He would hold the forged copies up to a flame to age the paper --- hence, the occasional scorch marks on them. He worked rapidly, and, in effect, produced the forgeries to meet his fathers desires.

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