Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Shakespeare Forgeries

The Art of Forgery

Three elements must be present for a successful forgery. First, the forger must exhibit some skills. He or she must have knowledge of the background surrounding the document to be forged. There must be a skill in reproducing the document, particularly if it is a sample of handwriting. Matters of paper and ink need to be considered. Also, the forger must know his intended audience very well, so that the document meets some need of the recipient, whether this need is simple greed or something more complex.

Ireland had little skill, but he knew his intended audience --- his father --- very well. Lest we underestimate Ireland, remember that his ability to reproduce ancient signatures was good enough to fool a number of people who should have known better.

Collier had much skill. He also had a reputation. Most of all, he had a self-effacing, genial character that inspired confidence. Since he was the head of the Shakespeare Society, which he founded, and a correspondent and colleague of most of the well-respected Shakespeare scholars of his day, he should have known his audience. But it was a much smarter audience than Irelands, and one that he underestimated.

The third element is the willingness of the person or persons that are to be duped to accept the document as real. There must be a burning need to acquire the forgery, a readiness to suspend doubt, and an eagerness to believe that the document is valid. The old fool Samuel Ireland was so eager to find written examples of his God, Shakespeare, that he never doubted his sons forgeries. In the case of Collier, he counted on the willingness of his audience to suspend belief because he had the credentials to make his discoveries seem plausible. But he misjudged them. In effect they were more expert than he.

In the broadest sense, the definition of forgery can be extended beyond documents. In some cases, the forger manufactures oral history, and creates out of nothing anecdotes, traditions, and eyewitness accounts. In the case of Shakespeare forgeries, such non-documentary forgeries have clouded biographies of the great dramatist almost from the time of his death in 1616.

In the case of all types of forgeries, there must be experts who are willing to validate the forgeries with their seal of approval. It is not enough to have the document accepted by the recipient. Any doubts, however few, must be laid to rest by one or more authorities telling the person hoodwinked that the forgery is not a forgery, but a true example.

Which leads us to the problem of the motivation of the forger? Why do they do it, particularly in the case of Shakespeare? Without exception, forgers of Shakespeare, whether oral or written, are motivated by a need for self-glorification. Either the forger wishes to be viewed as a particularly special person, or wishes to increase his or her reputation as a scholar or artist. If greed is a motive, it is the greed of acquisition on the part of those who willingly accept the forgeries as true. Forgers of Shakespeare have not been, up to now, interested in financial gain. They want to be admired.

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