Why you should buy this month's Smithsonian -- the fake William Shakespeare

I’ve read Shakespeare, taught Shakespeare, even acted in and directed a number Shakespeare plays, but nobody ever told me there was a fake William Shakespeare out there, a forger so good he fooled just about everybody around.

I had to read it in Smithsonian Magazine.

Former book and magazine editor Doug Stewart wrote the book The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare – it came out four months ago from Da Capo Press – and Smithsonian ran excerpts in its current issue.

Here’s the nickel summary. William-Henry Ireland, age 19, looking for a way to either impress or embarrass his father, a Shakespeare connoisseur and collector who didn’t much care for his son, forged Shakespeare’s signature to a deed he also forged and presented it to his father. The year was 1795.

Samuel Ireland loved the document, wondered aloud what more William-Henry may have found. The son said the deed was in an old trunk owned by a wealthy friend who wished to remain anonymous, that he’d go rummage in the trunk to see what else might be there of Shakespeare’s.

William-Henry “found” a lot over the next months. He forged contracts with actors, letters to and from Shakespeare, poems, a first draft in longhand of King Lear and a fragment of Hamlet. He even wrote a new play – Vortigern and Rowena – that he attributed to Shakespeare, fed it scene by scene to his father.

The play got a production at the Drury Lane Theater. Fights broke out in the audience at the end of the one and only performance, fights between people who believed they had witnessed a performance of a real and new play by Shakespeare and those who thought it was a dreadful fake.

Eventually, William-Henry confessed to his mother, his sisters, and a friend who was an expert antiquarian that he had forged all the Shakespeare papers. He just couldn’t face his father, so they told Samuel. But the old man refused to believe them, claiming his son wasn’t bright enough to write such great literature and create all the supporting documents.

William-Henry finally resorted to confessing in print, in a pamphlet he published in 1805 – five years after his father died.

If you’re a Shakespeare fan, you’ve got to buy this issue of Smithsonian and read “To Be . . . Or Not”, the excerpts from Stewart’s book. It lays out the story in much greater detail than I have, and it’s a fascinating read. It’ll make you want to buy the book.

Tomorrow: Allen Ginsberg wrote short stories on his pictures

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