Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Shakespeare Forgeries

The Forging of Shakespeare Legends

Literary forgers, as we have said, are creators of false documents, requiring talents of a special kind. This is not the case of those who forge legends. All they require is boldness, and the ability to spin a good tale.

There have been a number of legends created about Shakespeare, many of which have survived to this day as true accounts concerning his life. Their survival succeeds because they are legends, and that they cannot be verified by documentary evidence. Hence, they are difficult to refute. Some of them are given more credence than they deserve by the skillful correlation of the legend with some obscure reference in one of the plays or sonnets. They are created by those who desire to be noticed, and propagated by those who wish to believe them. If they are forgeries and not legends, then their creator must know they are false.

William Davenant, the Illegitimate Son of William Shakespeare:

This is an interesting oral forgery, because it is as much hinted at as overtly stated. William Davenant, born in 1603 in Oxford, was a theatrical manager and actor. He was the son of innkeepers, and there had long been a tradition in Oxford that Shakespeare stayed at his parents inn. The logic behind this tradition was that Oxford was a convenient stopping point between London and Stratford, a trip that Shakespeare must have made many times.

Sir William Davenant, sketched portrait
Sir William Davenant, sketched portrait
At first, Davenant maintained that Shakespeare was his godfather. Then, as his theatrical reputation grew during the 1620s, he hinted that Shakespeare had had an affair with his mother, and that he was the biological son of Shakespeare. The periodic stops of Shakespeare at the Oxford inn were, therefore, liaisons, and from one of these trysts, he was conceived.

There are no records to substantiate any part of either of Davenants assertions. No baptismal certificate exists indicating the name of Davenants godparents. No records exist that Shakespeare ever stayed over in Oxford, although Oxfords position on the route from London to Stratford makes it likely that Shakespeare could have lodged somewhere in Oxford. One has to ask if there would be a better way to advance a theatrical career than to claim descent from Shakespeare.

Few authorities over the centuries have given any credence to Davenants claims. His tale has become a humorous footnote to literary history.

John Jordan, Stratford Historian:

David Garrick, portrait
David Garrick, portrait
The idolatry surrounding Shakespeare began with the Great Jubilee in 1769, produced in Stratford by the great actor/manager David Garrick. The event itself was something of a failure, in that three days of heavy rain dampened the glory of the occasion considerably.

But the Great Jubilee brought an unanticipated result. The slowly growing local interest in Shakespeare exploded. There had been some interest in Shakespeare before 1769, but such interest came primarily from visitors to the town. Some furor resulted when the owner of New Place, Shakespeares home during his retirement years in Stratford, was demolished in 1759. Prior to that, the owner, disturbed by pilgrimages to his property to see the Mulberry tree that Shakespeare had supposedly planted, had cut the tree down, much to the unhappiness of some of the townspeople.

The Mulberry tree, however, acquired new life during the Jubilee. An incredible number of wooden objects were carved from the wood of the tree and were sold to those in attendance. The small boxes, cups, and other items were so numerous that it is difficult to believe that a single Mulberry tree, even one 150 years old, could yield so much usable lumber. As we saw, Samuel Ireland bought a Mulberry cup and treated it as a holy relic.

From the time of the Jubilee on, for some 30 years, John Jordan assumed the role of local Shakespeare historian, tour guide, and purveyor of Mulberry wood objects, carved over a 40-year period by a local by the name of Sharpe.

It appears that Jordan knew some things about Shakespeare which have been shown to be accurate. When there were gaps in the information, he simply made up what was missing. He took the very old legend that Shakespeare, in his youth, had been caught by Sir Thomas Lucy poaching deer, and elaborated the story into a description of Shakespeare as a wild youth, given to much drinking and carousing. To add verisimilitude to this idea, he identified a crab apple tree near Anne Hathaways house as a spot where Shakespeare and his wild young friends would have drinking parties.

For years John Jordans anecdotes and local history found their way into biographies of Shakespeare, and, to this day, they appear in books and articles whose authors should know better.

It is difficult to forgive the self-aggrandizing Davenant, but it is somewhat easier to forgive John Jordan. Jordan was a local character, a man who made up stories of the local hero because it was pleasant to do so, and because it made him an important man in the comparatively small town of Stratford. His forgeries do little harm, except to perpetuate and embellish legends that are easily discarded by serious scholars of Shakespeare.

Despite the fact that forgery, if not done for financial gain at someone elses expense, is not a crime, and that plagiarism (the cousin of literary forgery) is also not a crime, unless it violates copyright, there is nonetheless something repugnant about the whole enterprise.

But, repugnant as it may be, the need for personal glory as a motivating force for the forgers is understandable. Not acceptable, but understandable. The fever of renown is stronger than the restraint not to deceive.

Still, it would be quite wonderful to have those pages of Hamlet in the Bards own hand, wouldnt it?

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