Fakes, Forgeries & Facsimiles: William Henry Ireland
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William Henry Ireland (1777–1835)

At the age of seventeen, William Henry Ireland claimed to have discovered a cache of Shakespearean manuscripts in the house of a country gentleman. One by one, he presented them to his Shakespeare-worshipping father, Samuel Ireland, who promptly published an expensive facsimile edition of the "Shakespeare Papers" and allowed visitors to view them in his house.

William Henry Ireland (1777–1835)
Manuscript letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway (with lock of hair)

Responding to the public's desire for more Shakespeare manuscripts, William Henry Ireland became increasingly fanciful in his inventions. He presented his father with a love letter from Shakespeare to his future wife "Anna Hatherreway" in February 1795. Attached was a silk-entwined lock of Shakespeare's hair and five stanzas of verse. The lock of hair, according to Ireland's Confessions, had been given to Ireland as a gage d'amour in his "boyish days."

Forged love letter to Anne Hathaway with a lock of "Shakespeare's" hair

Forged love letter to Anne Hathaway with a lock of "Shakespeare's" hair

Encouraged by the success of his first series of forgeries, William Henry Ireland forged a play by Shakespeare called Vortigern. His father arranged to have it performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. As opening night approached, suspicion about the authenticity of the "Shakespeare Papers" continued to grow and certain cast members, including John Philip Kemble, treated the play as a farce. The jeers of the riotous opening night audience ensured that the play's first performance was its last.

Title page from Malone's Inquiry, 1796

Title page from Malone's Inquiry, 1796


Edmund Malone (1741–1812)
An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments
London: H. Baldwin, for T. Cadell, Jr., and W. Davies, 1796

Edmund Malone, a lawyer turned Shakespeare scholar, delayed the publication of Inquiry so that it coincided with the opening of Vortigern. Five hundred copies of his exhaustive critique of the Shakespeare Papers sold in the first two days. Malone, who never saw Ireland's forgeries in person, dedicated the copy seen here to the lead actor of Vortigern, John Philip Kemble. The uproarious reaction to Kemble's "sepulchral" intonation of his line, "And when this solemn mockery is o'er" was the final blow to the play's legitimacy.

William Henry Ireland (1777–1835)
The Confessions of William-Henry Ireland Containing the Particulars of his Fabrication of the Shakespeare Manuscripts
London, 1805

Confessions is an expanded version of William Henry Ireland's pamphlet, An Authentic Account. In this copy, interleaved with engravings and forgery specimens, he has written "So help me God" underneath the oath "THE WHOLE TRUTH, AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH." Despite his claims to truthfulness, William Henry confuses and omits many events in Confessions, and provides a romanticized account of others.

Title page of Ireland's "Confessions"

Title page of Ireland's Confessions

Caricature of the Ireland family,

Caricature of the Ireland family, 1797


John Nixon (d. 1818)
The Oaken Chest or the Gold Mines of Ireland a Farce
London, 1797

This hand-colored caricature depicts the Ireland family hard at work on the forgeries in their living room at Norfolk Street (William Henry, Anna Maria, Samuel, Mrs. Freeman, and Jane). Among the manuscript bundles strewn across the room is one labeled "Leaves from old Books to Write Plays Upon with Various Water Marks." On another copy of the print at the Folger, William Henry notes that "This Caricature is of the greatest rarity as very few were disposed of prior to the plate being bought up & destroyed."

Fakes, Forgeries & Facsimiles Exhibition Highlights

Can you spot the fake? | Original copies | Facsimile "witchery" | Famous owners? | False imprints | The Headless Horseman | William Henry Ireland | John Payne Collier | Shakespeare's Mulberry Tree |

Exhibition Intro | Visiting the Folger

This page updated January 26, 2004