1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Henry Ireland

Stephen Jones, in Biographia Dramatica; or, A Companion to the Playhouse (1812) 1:388-91.



This writer is the son of the late Mr. Samuel Ireland, of Norfolk Street, well known by his publications of Picturesque Tour through Holland, &c. Picturesque Views on the Rivers Thames and Medway, Graphic Illustrations of Hogarth, &c. In 1796 he made his father the public dupe of an unparalleled literary imposition; under the impression of which that gentleman published, in imperial folio, price 4 4s. Miscellaneous Papers and legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakspeare: Including the Tragedy of King Lear, and a small Fragment of Hamlet, from the original MSS. Never, certainly, was literary industry more laboriously, and at the same time more unjustifiably, employed. Whether the strange and abominable idea of immortalizing himself, which influenced Eratostratus to fire the temple of Diana at Ephesus, had operated on the mind of young Ireland or not, we cannot be supposed to know; but the undertaking of which we are about to speak will probably connect itself with the history of Shakspeare as long as British literature shall last. The idea of forging the Shakspeare manuscripts seems to have been created in the mind of this literary culprit (then not nineteen years of age) by Mr. Steevens's edition of Shakspeare. He had heard, perhaps, the names of Chatterton and Rowley, without being capable 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's edition, he might enrich his own pocket, and make excellent sport at the expense of our great bard, and some credulous antiquaries. By the help of a book published in Queen Elizabeth's reign, he tried his skill at imitating the manner of writing in those days; and it seems, by his own confession, that he was allowed to be dexterous in these dangerous devices. His design on Shakspeare seemed remarkably well timed; as he had heard that a gentleman at Clapton House had discovered some 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, Lowin, and Condell, and the lease granted by him and Heminge 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 Heminge, 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 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 by suspicion, saw plausible marks of authenticity, and believed. Yet it was natural to inquire, who the gentleman was from whom these papers had been 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 folio volume above mentioned made its appearance. Messrs. Malone, Steevens and Boaden, 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 showed all the MSS. to be forgeries; and the impression that 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 most crowded and respectable audience. All the avenues leading to the theatre were filled at an early hour; and thousands were forced to return, who could not gain admittance into any part of the house. The following handbill (in the publication or circulation of which the managers, we understand, had no concern) was dispersed among the multitude at the several doors: "A malevolent and impotent attack on the Shakspeare MSS. having appeared on the eve of the representation of the play of Vortigern, evidently intended to injure the interest of the proprietor of the MSS. Mr. Ireland feels it impossible, within the short space of time that intervenes between the publishing and the representation, to produce an answer to the most illiberal and unfounded assertions in Mr. Malone's Inquiry; he is, therefore, induced to request, that the play of Vortigern may be heard with that candour that has ever distinguished a British audience." This request was scrupulously attended to; and it was not until all patience was exhausted at the miserable attempts to imitate the style of our great poet, that his admirers, indignant at this endeavour to injure his fair fame, showed any resentment against the gross imposition. In the fourth act, the opposition had increased to so great a height, that it was impossible to hear the performers; on which Mr. Kemble came forward, and begged to remind the house, that the fate of the piece depended on their decision; and that a candid hearing only could enable them to judge fairly of its merits. This address procured a temporary silence; but the laughter-provoking incidents which followed set the audience in a general roar, which continued to the end of the piece. The prologue very modestly named Shakspeare as the author of the play; but Mr. Whitfield was so much flurried on the occasion, that he was forced to read it from a paper. Mr. Barrymore attempted to announce a second representation, but found it impossible to procure a hearing, and the intention was abandoned. Soon after this, our author published a pamphlet, entitled An authentic account of the Shakspearean Manuscripts; in which, with an unparalleled confidence highly unbecoming the occasion, he exultingly avowed himself the author of the silly imposition, and appeared to glory in the reflection of his having, in some measure, succeeded in his endeavours to deceive the public, more particularly as the fabrication had received the sanction of many learned doctors, as authentic and genuine. His father's credulity, the author says, first induced him to try the experiment of writing with a kind of ink which, when dried by the fire, turned completely brown. Finding the deception succeed, he set to work, and in the course of time produced these voluminous papers. After telling the whole story with undaunted freedom, he says, "Before I conclude, I shall sum up this account, and am willing to make affidavit to the following declarations, as well as to the whole of this narration: — First, I solemnly declare, that my father was perfectly unacquainted with the whole affair, believing the papers most firmly the productions of Shakspeare. Secondly, That I am myself both the author and writer, and have had no aid or assistance from any soul living; and that I should never have gone so far, but that he world praised the papers so much, and thereby flattered my vanity, Thirdly, That any publication which may appear, tending to prove the manuscripts genuine, or to contradict what is here stated, is false; this being the true account. Here, then, I conclude, most sincerely regretting any offence I may have given the world, or any particular individual; trusting, at the same time, they will deem the whole the act of a boy, without any evil or bad intention; but hurried on, thoughtless of any danger that awaited to ensnare him. Should I attempt another play, or any other stage-performance, I shall hope the public will lay aside all prejudice my conduct may have deserved, and grant me that kind indulgence which is the certain inmate of every Englishman's bosom."

Our author has, besides some novels, and poems in imitation of the ancients, published, 1. Vortigern. T. 8vo. 1799. 2. Henry II. Hist. Dr. 8vo. 1799 3. Mutius Scaevola. Hist. Dr. 8vo. 1801.