Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Shakespeare Forgeries

Collier is Undone

In the course of the release of the Perkins Folio, the Duke of Devonshire died. Upon his death, the next duke gave his fathers vast library, including the Perkins Folio (which Collier had given to the late Duke) to the British Library. There, one of the librarians, Sir Frederic Madden, examined this treasure trove. One aspect of the notations in the Perkins Folio that disturbed him was that the ink notations had apparently been written over pencil notations. Evidently, the Old Corrector had first made his corrections in pencil, and then wrote over them in ink. Or, thought Madden, some clever forger had first decided to make these notations in pencil, and then to give them the look of antiquity by writing over them in ink. Madden reported his findings in an article.

In the next seven or eight years, the authenticity of the Perkins Folio was hotly debated. Some editors, perpetuating the contents of the Perkins Folio, accepted the emendations included in Colliers new edition of the plays. Others were less accepting.

Finally, in 1860, Nicholas Hamilton published an article declaring that the Perkins emendations were forgeries, and the following year Clement Ingleby produced a book, Complete View of the Shakespeare Controversy, which totally dismantled Colliers claim to the authenticity of the Perkins Folio.

There was no reply from Collier. He was vilified as a forger, and it was soon discovered that Collier had added words and lines to documents in the Bridgewater House documents that he had used in his earlier works. By 1862, Collier was in disgrace and largely ignored. At this time, he was in his early 70s, a man scorned.

Collier lived on for another 20 years, until 1883, dying at the age of 94. He never admitted the forgeries. In the last years of his life, he wrote a number of volumes of autobiography. The closest he came to admitting guilt was with a single sentence, My repentance is bitter and sincere. What did he mean by that enigmatic sentence?

There are those who defend Collier, claiming that Frederic Madden made the pencil notations in order to discredit Collier. Others point out that the Perkins Folio notations were merely the most audacious of Colliers forgeries. Despite many valid contributions to the field of Shakespeare studies, so much of Colliers publications contain questionable (and untraceable) assertions that it became difficult to accept anything he had ever written. Ironically, many of the Perkins Folio emendations found their way into later editions of Shakespeares plays.

What a tragedy. Collier could have retired at the age of 50 and maintained a place in the history of Shakespeare studies. Why would he chance his reputation on forgeries when he was a respected scholar?

One can only surmise that Collier, like Ireland, had a desire for that species of fame that Samuel Johnson had called the fever of renown. While Irelands initial motive was to please a distant father who thought little of him, he eventually talked himself into believing that he was Shakespeares equal, and that one day he would be recognized as such. With Collier, it seemed that the fame he already had was not enough, and the fever drove him to seek a level of recognition well beyond his actual accomplishments.

As a footnote to the Collier story, it was determined at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1971 that the notations made by the Old Corrector matched the handwriting of John Payne Collier.

Forgery requires talent. It is a combination of skill and art. Clearly, Ireland and Collier had some skill, some art, but not the talent for truly successful forgery.

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