William Henry Ireland was born in 1775
, the son of London engraver
Samuel Ireland; his mother is unknown. His reasonably well-off father sent William to many school
s, but the teachers all agreed that William was not much of a student -- one sent home a note saying that to take any more tuition "was little better than rob
bing Mr. Ireland of his money."
William was willing to devote time to the few things he was interested in: theater and medieval heraldry, mostly. But his father got him a job as a law clerk instead. Sometimes the two would go together to find items to Samuel's collection -- a trip to Stratford-on-Avon to seek Shakespeare relics brought them to one of the early tourist traps. Local shops had enough stools "carved from the tree outside Shakespeare's house" to build a navy of sailing ships, but the elder Ireland believed in the authenticity of his finds. William was less gullible, but he realized his father was easy to trick.
Working in a law office with hundreds of years of records, and prone to poking around old bookstores, William decided to write a "dedication" from the author of a book to Queen Elizabeth I. Samuel Ireland took this as a real find, and encouraged his son to keep looking through the stores for even more valuable items. Some help from a bookbinder who had a formula for old-looking ink, and William came up with a "rent agreement" between William Shakespeare and John Heminge. Shakespeare's signature was one of the things the older Ireland had been trying to find for years.
William Ireland's story was that a gentleman customer of the law firm had invited him to a mansion with many old books and papers, where the rent agreement was supposedly found. His father believed the story and asked for anything else they could find. William came up with letters to Shakespeare's patrons, professions of Protestant faith, love letters to Anne Hathaway, first drafts of Shakespeare plays, and eventually another play, Vortigern (or Vortigern and Rowena, depending on the source). Scholars and literary figures including James Boswell believed in the authenticity of the papers. The new play was to be performed at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, one of most prestigious places around, and produced by Robert Sheridan, a member of Parliament.
However, some people did become suspicious of the writing -- Ireland was not really all that conversant with Elizabethan English and tended to just spell words with doubled letters. A close call when a signature of the real John Heminge didn't match the one on the Ireland papers was explained away (with two men of the same name), but attacks started appearing in the newspapers. Sheridan became suspicious himself and tried to put off the premiere of Vortigern, but Samuel Ireland forced him to. Unfortunately, the play was to start on April 2, 1796 and on March 31 a book, An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Documents by Shakespeare scholar Edward Malone, appeared. The book tore apart all of the supposed Shakespeare papers, saying certain words had not been used in Shakespeare's time, that the signatures in the new papers did not match others that had been authenticated, and so forth. Some of Malone's scholarship was later discredited, but the book was still enough to prejudice many against the Ireland papers.
The play's first performance went well for a while, but due to a badly-cast part reducing a dramatic scene to a comedy, the audience started to laugh and throw oranges at the stage. It was the play's only performance. Samuel still believed the papers were real and begged his son to reveal the identity of the gentleman who gave them to him. William said he would tell Samuel's lawyer. William then confessed the forgery to the lawyer, hoping that this would clear his father's name by making it obvious that Samuel had nothing to do with the fakery. Eventually William had to confess to his father as well, but Samuel refused to believe the confession -- he didn't think his son could have produced anything so convincing! Given William's reputation, some of the public felt the same way and figured that Samuel had been involved.
Samuel Ireland died in 1800, still thinking his son had not forged the papers. Many former believers were just angry that they were forged and so the book William wrote with his confession was not a success. He kept on writing, though not claiming it was anyone else's work, but most of these novels and plays were not nearly as good as his fake Shakespeare, which had been nearly up to the Bard's level. He kept creating hack work and it paid the bills, though Ireland did "discover" Napoleon's will in 1821 and later some of Joan of Arc's letters. They fooled no one.
Eventually collectors started being amused by the forgery and trying to buy the forged manuscripts from William. William, not one to miss an opportunity, sold at least seven "original" manuscripts of Vortigern and at least as many copies of his other papers -- from those extant, no one can tell which was the one written originally and which were created later for collectors. A version of that rent agreement between Shakespeare and Heminge is framed and on display at the recreated Globe Theatre.
William Ireland died in 1835. Several books and plays have been written about his story.
Library of Congress online catalog, catalog.loc.gov
Collins, Paul. Barvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck. New York: Picador USA, 2001.