Enter stage left: 18th century forger W H Ireland and his Shakespeare play, rediscovered after 200 years

220 years ago Richard Brinsley Sheridan was assembling a star-studded cast for the world premiere of a newly discovered Shakespeare play – when he was told it was a hoax.

W H Ireland's announcement before the first night of Vortigern
W H Ireland’s announcement before the first night of Vortigern

Vortigern went ahead at Drury Lane anyway – as an April Fools’ Day production in 1796 that met with universal derision. Now the original 18th century forged opening scenes of Vortigern have come to light at Trinity College.

Trinity Librarian Dr Nicolas Bell explained:

These manuscripts were created by William Henry Ireland, probably the most notorious forger of Shakespeare. Initially, he claimed the accusations of fraud were ‘a malevolent and impotent attack.’ But soon afterwards he published his confessions and this newly discovered volume includes some of the original forgeries – never seen before – which caused such a stir in the 1790s.

Shakespeare's ghost appearing to the forgers - satirical engrqaving by William Hogarth
Shakespeare’s ghost appearing to the forgers – satirical engrqaving by William Hogarth

The faked scenes were discovered in a large album compiled by William Henry Ireland, which also contains his ‘original’ version of King Lear, forged letters and poems ostensibly by Shakespeare, and a genuine letter (dated 1577) signed by Queen Elizabeth I – as well as the forger’s confessions.

Set in ancient Britain, Vortigern quickly became notorious as a fraud. Tellingly, a court Fool plays a pivotal role in the play. But at the time it was accepted by a public fascinated by the Bard and eager to believe that a new Shakespeare play could be unearthed.

Dr Bell said:

Nowadays any new Shakespeare discovery would be treated to careful forensic analysis before being declared genuine, but 200 years ago the thrill of discovering a hidden cache of documents seemed to cloud people’s judgement. William Ireland wrote this play when he was only nineteen, and what is most amazing in hindsight is that so many people were taken in by what is basically a very bad attempt at forgery.

Portrait of W H Ireland the Shakespeare forger, from the album
Portrait of W H Ireland the Shakespeare forger, from the album

And that is despite Ireland sourcing special paper and ink, and drying the documents by the fire to give them an antiquated appearance.

Ireland’s motivation for the fraud seems related to his aspirations to be a playwright and his complex relationship with his father, Samuel Ireland, a writer and print-maker. But things got out of hand when Samuel opened his house to visitors keen to pay homage to the Bard.

The impressive bound album, ironically entitled An Authentic Account of the Shakespearian Manuscripts, &c. ends with Ireland ‘sincerely regretting the offence’:

Here then I conclude, most sincerely regretting the offence I may have given the world, or any particular individual, trusting at the same time, they will deem the whole the act of a boy, without any evil or bad intention, but hurried on thoughtless of any danger that awaited to ensnare him.

Read the Wren Library blog post for more about Ireland’s album.

W H Ireland Album of Shakespeare forgeries in the Wren Library, Trinity College Cambridge
W H Ireland Album of Shakespeare forgeries in the Wren Library, Trinity College Cambridge
All images courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

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