The Tragedy of Arthur

Colin Burrow writes:

It’s easy to think of literary forgers simply as greedy people who are good at making bits of paper look old. But there is nothing simple about the history of Shakespearean forgery. It began more or less at the height of the late 18th-century mania for everything Shakespearean – life, works, documents, laundry lists, anything. Some of it was driven by a desire to make a quick buck out of gullible bardophiles, but most of it had more complex origins. This was true of the most spectacular case of Shakespearean forgery. In 1795 a teenager called William Henry Ireland pretended to have found a series of documents connected with Shakespeare. His father, Samuel Ireland, loved making trips to Stratford to pick up dubious Shakespeareana. Indeed he loved everything to do with Shakespeare a lot more than he loved his son. So William Henry set out to give his dad a few treats. Contracts with players, a profession of Protestant faith in Shakespeare’s own hand, even a letter to the bard from Queen Elizabeth herself flowed from his ready quill. And once Ireland had sorted out a supply of ink and techniques for making paper look old, why not write versions of King Lear and Hamlet which omitted the awkward bawdy scenes? Why not even compose a whole new play in Shakespeare’s hand?

(LRB 1 December 2011)

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