In the Inquiry Edmond Malone demonstrates his skill at philology by demolishing William Henry Ireland's claims to have "discovered" a trove of new Shakespeare documents. The Trial of the Shakespeare Forgeries is added as an afterpiece. In it Spenser plays at bowls with Shakespeare while Edmond Malone prosecutes William Henry Ireland's Shakespeare Forgeries before Apollo. The forgeries are condemned to be burned by Richard Farmer, George Steevens, Edmond Malone, and Thomas Tyrwhitt. In 1818 was auctioned Francis Godolphin Waldron's copy of "Malone on the Shakspeare Forgery, with numerous M.S. notes, by Ireland;" it sold for £2 3s. See British Stage and Literary Cabinet 2 (June 1818) 127.
Joseph Ritson to Sir Harris Nicholas: "His recent enquiry into the Shaksperian forgeries evinces, also, considerable industry and acuteness, and is certainly worth your reading. I do not mean to say that there was any difficulty in the subject; but it has certainly derived importance from the ignorant presumption and cullibility of certain literary aristocrats who have considerable influence upon what is called the public" 20 April 1796; in Letters of Joseph Ritson (1833) 2:123.
Monthly Review: "We do not remember to have seen a more complete body of criticism and research than this masterly detection; and so great has been the satisfaction with which we have perused it, that we could almost forgive the forgeries, for the sake of the learned and entertaining work to which they have given birth" NS 20 (June 1796) 344.
Thomas James Mathias: "Mr. Malone's learning and politeness have not much to do with the business as a matter of fact; and the whole question now turns upon this momentous point: 'whether Mr. Ireland or Mr. Malone is THE GREATEST SCHOLAR?' — This is what the logicians call the Reductio ad Absurdum; and there the question may sleep, and Shakspeare too" Pursuits of Literature (1798) 100n.
William Henry Ireland: "From the perusal of Mr. Malone's Inquiry, it must appear evident to the meanest capacity that the commentator never dreamed of an opponent, although he ventured to peep into the court of Apollo during his drowsy fit: for after his conclusions are drawn upon each topic of discussion, his pages are so conceitedly interlarded with 'Let us no longer hear of this' — 'I trust we shall hear no more of that,' and an hundred et-ceterae of the same nature, that it should appear as if Mr. Malone's fiat was irrevocable; whereas, from the perusal of Mr. Chalmers's Apology and Supplement, the facts in them exhibited and the just conclusions drawn, it is obvious that Malone was not only dreaming of Parnassus, but absolutely in a doze from the beginning to the termination of his boasted inquiry" Confessions (1805) 288.
James Boswell the younger: "In 1796 he was again called forth to display his zeal in defence of Shakspeare, against the contemptible fabrications with which the Irelands endeavoured to delude the publick. Although this imposture, unlike the Rowleian Poems, which were performances of extraordinary genius, exhibited about the same proportion of talent as it did of honesty, yet some persons of no small name were hastily led into a belief of its authenticity. Mr. Malone saw through the falsehood of the whole from its commencement; and laid bare the fraud in a pamphlet, which was written in the form of a letter to his friend Lord Charlemont, a nobleman with whom he lived on the most intimate footing, and maintained a constant correspondence. It has been thought by some that the labour which he bestowed upon this performance was more than commensurate with the importance of the subject; and it is true that a slighter effort would have been sufficient to have overthrown this wretched forgery; but we have reason to rejoice that Mr. Malone was led into a fuller discussion than was his intention at the outset; we owe to it a work which, for acuteness of reasoning, and the curious and interesting view which it presents of English literature, will retain its value long after the trash which it was designed to expose shall have been consigned to oblivion" Memoir of Malone (1813) in Nichols, Illustrations (1817-58) 5:458.
J. W. Croker: "It seems scarcely conceivable how such palpable impositions could have deceived the most ignorant, and yet there were numerous dupes in the critical and literary circles of the day. Mr. W. H. Ireland has since published a full and minute confession of the whole progress of his forgery; but, with a curious obstinacy, he, in this work, vehemently accuses of blindness, ignorance, and bad faith all those who detected what he confesses to have been an imposture, and is equally lavish in praise of the discernment and judgment of those whom he proves to have been dupes" Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. Croker (1831) 5:13n.
I have now done; and I trust I have vindicated Shakspeare from all this "imputed trash," and rescued him from the hands of a bungling impostor, by proving all these Manuscripts to be the true and genuine offspring of consummate ignorance and unparalleled audacity.
While I was employed in this investigation, I sometimes fancied that I was pleading the cause of our great dramatick poet before the ever-blooming God of melody and song. Possessed with this idea, and having after a very restless night closed my eyes at an early hour of the morning, I imagined myself transported to Parnassus, where Apollo and his nine female assessors were trying this question, and were pleased to call on me to deliver my sentiments, as Counsel for Shakspeare, before they should proceed further in the cause. The various poets of all times and countries were amusing themselves with their lyres on this celebrated hill, which was richly stored with a profusion of bay trees, and ivy, interspersed with a great variety of aromatick shrubs, which perfumed the air with the most de rightful fragrance. I immediately knew our author by his strong resemblance to the only authentick portrait of him, which be longed to the late Duke of Chandos, and of which I have three copies by eminent masters. He appeared to be a very handsome man, above the middle size, and extremely well made. The upper part of his head was almost entirely denuded of hair; his eyes were uncommonly vivid, and his countenance was strongly marked by that frankness of air, and gentle benignity, which all his contemporaries have attributed to him. At the top of the hill he had found out a pleasant even lawn, where he was playing at bowls with Spencer, Sir John Suckling, little John Hales, and two other friends; wholly inattentive to what was going forward in the Court, though Apollo was seated but a few paces from him. He had been hunting at an early hour of the morning (as I learned from his conversation) in the adjoining plains of Phocis, with Diana (who was then on a visit to her brother) and a bevy of her nymphs, who were now spectators of the game in which he was engaged. Recollecting the numerous proofs which his writings (corroborated by the testimony of his contemporaries) exhibit, of the tenderness of his heart and his passionate admiration of the fairer part of the creation, whose innumerable graces add a zest to all the pleasures, and sooth and alleviate all the cares of life, I was not surprised to hear him tell one of his female associates in the chase, that his sport that day had far exceeded any amusement of the same kind he had ever partaken of in his sublunary state. His old and surly antagonist, Ben Jonson, was seated on an empty cask, looking on the game, in which from the great corpulency and unwieldiness of his frame he was unable to join. Being now unfurnished with his beloved sack, he was obliged to betake himself to the pure stream of the Castalian spring, of which an immense flaggon stood near him; and he appeared to have taken such large potations of it, that he was become perfectly bloated and dropsical.
When I had urged the principal topicks which have been enlarged upon in the present Inquiry, and the Counsel of the other side had done pleading, Apollo proceeded to pronounce sentence. He began with observing, that this was one of the most important causes that had ever been argued in that court; not only as it concerned the history and reputation of the greatest poet that the world had seen since the days of Homer, but also involved in it the history of language, and of that species of poetical composition over which two of his assessors on the bench particularly presided. That the rights of authors were as sacred as any other, and that the Statute in this case made and provided had very wisely guarded their literary property from every kind of invasion, by securing to them for a certain period an exclusive privilege of printing and publishing their works, for their own benefit. That the present, however, was entirely a new case, no mention being made in the Act of the injury which might be done to the reputation of poets, long after their death, by attributing to them miserable trash printed from pretended ancient manuscripts, made in some obscure corner for the nonce, and thus debasing and adulterating their genuine performances, which had been admired for ages, by the most impure and base alloy: that this offence, though not within the letter, was clearly within the spirit and equity of the statute, and was a still greater injury than that expressly provided against, inasmuch as that only affected the property of an author, whereas this robbed him of that good name and reputation which to all men of sensibility is dearer than life itself.
He added, that to remove all doubts in future, he thought it highly necessary that the Act on this subject should be explained and amended, and he hoped a select committee of poets would draw up a bill for that purpose. Without however waiting for such an explanatory act, he thought himself fully justified on the ground before stated, in pronouncing the sentence of the law in the present case, in which the whole court were unanimous. He therefore ordered in the first place that a continual hue and cry should be made for one year after the original contriver and fabricator of those MISCELLANEOUS PAPERS which had been recently published in a folio volume, and attributed to the illustrious Shakspeare and others; that a perpetual injunction should issue to prevent the further sale of them, and that the whole impression now remaining in the hands of the Editor should immediately be delivered up to the Usher of the Court; and when a proper fire had been made of the most baleful and noxious weeds, that all the Copies should be burned by Dr. Farmer, Mr. Steevens, and myself, assisted by Mr. Tyrwhitt, who I perceived was honoured with a seat on the bench, and whose polite demeanour and thoughtful aspect displayed all that urbanity and intelligence for which he was distinguished in life: (for in this calenture of the brain, your Lordship cannot but have observed that the imagination often unites the most discordant circumstances, and without any difficulty brings together the future and the past, the living and the dead.) — He should not, however, (the God of Verse added,) content himself with vindicating the reputation of this his favourite son; but, as his Court involved a criminal as well as a civil jurisdiction, should proceed to give sentence on those persons who had been arraigned at the bar, for giving a certain degree of countenance and support to this audacious fiction. As their offence was not of a very heinous kind, he should treat them with lenity; and the punishment, being wholly discretionary in the court, should be proportioned to the various degrees of guilt in the offenders. With respect to the multitude of persons of each sex and of all ages and denominations, who had flocked during the preceding year to see these spurious papers, and expressed the highest admiration of them, (they were so brown and so yellow, so vastly old, and so vastly curious!) the Ringleaders, who were then in custody, should be dismissed with only a gentle reproof, and an admonition never again to pronounce judgment on matters with which they were not conversant, without taking the advice of Counsel learned in the laws of Parnassus: — but on a small group of hardened offenders, who were placed at the bar by themselves, and did not appear to me to be more than seven or eight, he thought himself bound to inflict a much more severe punishment. That if these gentlemen had modestly and ingenuously said that they had too hastily given a judgment on a matter which they did not understand, — that they knew nothing of old handwriting, and nothing of old language, (which he conceived they might have done without any impeachment of their understandings,) he should have had great tenderness for them. But inasmuch as they had pertinaciously adhered to error after it had been made as manifest as his own Sun at noon-day, and clung to an opinion because they had once given it, which they were unable to maintain and unwilling to retract, he thought they ought to be made a publick example. That in every sentence he pronounced he kept in mind the rule of a great judge of their own nation, "always remembering when he found himself swayed to pity, that there was ALSO A PITY DUE TO THE COUNTRY;" and that he wished the tribunals of that nation, (which on account of the eminent poets it had produced was extremely dear to him,) whether consisting of one, or of one dozen, would always keep that just rule before their eyes. That the pity to the country, in the present instance, was, by the punishment of these offenders, (who, though not so guilty as the undiscovered principal, yet, as accessories after the fact, had a considerable degree of guilt,) to maintain and establish truth and honesty, the best supporters of all human dealings, and to prevent the propagation of error, and the success of forgery and imposture. — The pains and penalties however of that Court extending only to that kind of chastisement which men of wit best know how to inflict, he ordered that Butler, Dryden, Swift, and Pope, should forthwith compose four copies of verses on the subject, either ballad, epigram, or satire, as their several fancies might direct; and that, after he had affixed his sign-manual to them, they should be conveyed by Mercury to England, and inserted for one month in the Poets' Corner of all the loyal Morning and Evening Newspapers of London, to the end that each of these credulous partisans of folly and imposture should remain
Sacred to ridicule his whole life long,
And the sad burthen of some merry song.
On this mild and just sentence being pronounced, all the poetick tribe who were within hearing gave a loud shout of applause, which drew Shakspeare and his companions from their game, and awakened me from my dream.