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Shakespeare & Beyond

Up Close: An 18th-century caricature of the Shakespeare-forging William Henry Ireland and his family

William Henry Ireland was a brazen Shakespeare forger. As a teenager in the late 1700s, he claimed to have “found” not only an unknown play written by William Shakespeare, called Vortigern, but also a love letter written by Shakespeare to his future wife, Anne Hathaway, along with — wait for it — a lock of Will’s hair.

And people believed him. In fact, Vortigern even got a stage performance at a prominent London theater. But it wasn’t long before the truth was revealed.

This 1797 hand-colored caricature, The Oaken Chest or the Gold Mines of Ireland, a Farce, implicates the whole Ireland family in the forgery, and indeed, William Henry’s father Samuel had been heavily involved with compiling and promoting the “Shakespeare Papers.” The satirical print is full of delightful details that will make you chuckle.

Get an up-close look at this Folger collection item and learn more about it by clicking through the arrows to see captions that zoom in on different parts of the image. Click the eye icon to hide or display the captions. You can also examine the image at your own pace by clicking-and-dragging to move and by scrolling to zoom in and out.

Many of the details about the Ireland family forgeries shared in this blog post come from the 2003 Folger exhibition Fakes, Forgeries & Facsimiles, which was curated by Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts; Erin Blake, Curator of Art; and Rachel Doggett, Curator of Books.

Curious to learn more about William Henry Ireland and his Shakespeare forgeries? Visit the Folger’s Collation blog to read about the books from Shakespeare’s personal library and Shakespeare’s love letter to Anne Hathaway.

Find this print in the Folger’s catalog and digital image collection.