The Great Shakespeare Fraud

The most brazen and extensive Shakespeare forgery was committed in 1794 by William-Henry Ireland, a dim-looking youth of nineteen, who began forging Shakespeare in an attempt to win the love and respect of his father, Samuel Ireland.

Ireland senior was a collector and engraver. His son supposedly found the items, known as the Shakespeare Papers, at the home of a mysterious “Mr. H”. Earlier in the century two famous forgers had made a lasting impact, for both contributed to the beginnings of the Romantic movement. James Macpherson (1736 - 1796) forged volumes of the Celtic “Ossian” poems and Thomas Chatterton, who began forging at eleven and committed suicide by eighteen, was William-Henry’s hero. But unlike him, Ireland junior was a survivor.

The eighteenth century has been termed the Age of Reason, engendering a relaxed confidence that also made it the age of imposture. This vividly applied to anything connected to Shakespeare, whom Ireland senior considered to be “a divinity”. William-Henry maintained that he had intended to create only the first forgery, a deed signed by “Shakespeare” and “John Heminge”, to present his father with a longed-for signature of the Bard. However, he relished the attention and praise this success brought him. Somewhat maddened by it, the lad carried on. Young Ireland was soon trapped by “the gilded snare” and convinced of his own genius: he was nothing less than the new Shakespeare.

Details of Shakespeare’s life had been frustratingly short on detail. People had long suspected that a cache of Shakespearian material existed somewhere. It appeared that William-Henry had found it.
In the romp to keep an extraordinary number of balls in the air the son found a faster way to help to satisfy his father: he began to create Shakespear’s personal library, which would total 1100 volumes. Always skilled at finding rare books for his father, William-Henry now turned such finds into signed and annotated copies from the precious library. Still, people believed because they wanted to.

By Patricia Pierce, History Today, 2004


1. William-Henry
A. spent his early life in Ireland.
B. was the son of a man who knew Shakespeare personally.
C. forged Shakespeare because he wanted to impress his father.
D. possessed intelligence of a very high order.

2. Thomas Chatterton
A. was William-Henry’s closest friend.
B. forged several volumes of plays by Shakespeare.
C. was greatly admired by William-Henry.
D. tried to kill himself but survived.

3. What William-Henry forged first was
A. a tragedy by Shakespeare.
B. a sonnet by Shakespeare
C. a legal document with Shakespeare’s signature.
D. a poem by Ossian.

4. William-Henry was successful in his counterfeiting
A. because his father actively encouraged him.
B. because Thomas Chatterton helped him with most of it.
C. on account of people’s willingness to accept his finds as genuine.
D. because of his charm and intelligence.

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