1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Henry Ireland

David Rivers, in Literary Memoirs of Living Authors (1798) 1:328-32.



This literary Sharper may boast of having attracted, some time ago, by his delinquencies in the Commonwealth of Letters, as much attention as frequently falls to the lot of its most meritorious members. But, while the impressions remaining from the services of the latter are those of gratitude and veneration, his machinations have annexed contempt and infamy to his name; and while so much good taste remains among men as to promise that works of Shakspeare shall never die, he may comfort himself in the prospect of a detestable immortality. The idea of forging the Shaksperian Manuscripts seems to have been created in the mind of this literary Culprit, (then not nineteen years of age), by Mr. Steevens' Edition of Shakspeare. He had heard, perhaps, the names of Chatterton and Rowley, without the capability of duly conceiving the merits of the memorable circumstance connected with those names; and he thought that if he could imitate the Signatures of Shakspeare, exhibited in Mr. Steevens' Edition, he might enrich his own pocket, and make excellent sport at the expence of our great Bard, and some credulous Antiquarians. By the mean of a book, published in Queen Elizabeth's reign, he tried his skill at imitating the manner of writing of those days, and it seems, by his own confession, that he was allowed to be dexterous in these dangerous devices. His design of Shakspeare seemed remarkably well timed, as he had heard that a gentleman at Clapton House had discovered the MSS with Shakspeare's signature, and had just burned a large basket full of them. He went to work immediately with peculiar ingenuity and art, and when his project was ripe for execution, he came to his father with a tale, that "a grand discovery had been accidentally made at the house of a gentleman of considerable property. That, among a quantity of family papers, the contracts between Shakspeare, Lowine, and Condell, and the lease granted by him and Hemynge to Michael Fraser had been found. That, soon afterward, the Deed of gift to William Henry Ireland (described as the friend of Shakspeare, in consequence of having saved his life on the Thames, when in extreme danger of being drowned), and also the Deed of trust to John Hemynge had been discovered. That, in pursuing his search, he had been so fortunate as to find some Deeds establishing, beyond all controversy, the title of this gentleman to a considerable property; Deeds of which the gentleman was as ignorant as of his having in his possession any of the MSS of Shakspeare. That in return for this service, in addition to the remarkable circumstance of the young man bearing the same name and arms, with the person who saved Shakspeare's life, the gentleman had promised him every thing relative to the subject, which had been, or should be found, either in town or at his house in the country. And, that, at this house the principal part of the papers, together, with a great variety of Books, containing his MS Notes, and three MS Plays, with part of a fourth, had been discovered." Upon this he produced the MSS which he had forged, corresponding with this account, and the Father became first the Dupe of his Son's Artifice, and afterward the instrument of putting his vile impositions upon the public at large. The several MSS, among which was the tragedy of Vortigern, were exhibited by Mr. Ireland, Sen. at his house in Norfolk Street. The public mind became a good deal interested, and many of the principal Literati, among whom were Dr. Parr and Dr. Warton, as well as a numerous set of gentlemen of liberal education, coming with charitable minds, not excited to suspicion, saw plausible marks of authenticity and believed. Yet is was natural to enquire who the gentleman was from whom these papers were obtained. To this Mr. Ireland answered, that, when application was made to the original possessor, for permission to print the Papers, it had not been obtained but under the strongest injunction that his name should not appear. In the mean time the play of Vortigern was preparing for representation at Drury Lane Theatre; and the first of the publications relative to this subject, mentioned in the preceding article, made its appearance. Messrs. Malone and Steevens, however, with some few others, from the first pronounced the whole to be a forgery, and several Pamphlets issued from the press relative to the subject. Mr. Malone, in particular, wrote a very pointed Epistle to Lord Charlemont, in which he most forcibly demonstrated all the MSS to be forgeries; and the impression his Epistle made on the public mind was a leading step to the Detection of the imposture. ON the 2d of April, 1796, Vortigern was represented at Drury Lane to a very numerous and most respectable audience; and it was requested, by the mean of a handbill, "that the Play might be attended to, with that candour which has ever distinguished a British audience." It was listened to for a considerable time with great attention and liberality; but at length, the cheat that had been practiced upon public credulity became so beyond question manifest, that it was condemned to the fate it merited.

The eyes of the public now became completely opened to the tricks which had been played upon them, and a large force was immediately drawn up at the press, in which Mr. Malone, for his complete volume of criticism and masterly research, was eminently conspicuous. The miserable Father and Son were condemned and buffetted on all sides, and were at last reduced to the necessity of reconciling themselves to the public by every confession which it was in their power to make. A separation between them took place. The Son wrote a small pamphlet, entitled An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts, &c. in which he declared that the machinations were his own; that his Father knew nothing of the matter, and was first duped himself and then became his instrument in duping the public. The Father published the Pamphlet, last mentioned in the preceding article, and has by man been acquitted in the public mind, as a deceived man, and as one who seems to have had no design of imposition. No person, it seems, had been privy to the cheat except Mr. Talbot, of the Dublin Theatre. Thus ended this singular incident, which, whether we consider the literary talents which became dupes to a tyro and an ignoramus in passing off his trash as the genuine production of a great name; whether we consider the artifice with which the device was conceived, or the audacity with which it was executed, must be pronounced one of the most remarkable in the History of Letters.