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Ireland's Shakspeare Forgeries

Mr. Samuel Ireland, originally a silk merchant in Spitalfields, was

led by his taste for literary antiquities to abandon trade for those

pursuits, and published several tours. One of them consisted of an

excursion upon the river Avon, during which he explored, with ardent

curiosity, every locality associated with Shakspeare. He was accompanied

by his son, a youth of sixteen, who imbibed a portion of his father's

arean mania. The youth, perceiving the great importance which his

parent attached to every relic of the poet, and the eagerness with which

he sought for any of his MS. remains, conceived that it would not be

difficult to gratify his father by some productions of his own, in the

language and manner of Shakspeare's time. The idea possessed his mind

for a certain period; and, in 1793, being then in his eighteenth year,

he produced some MSS. said to be in the handwriting of Shakspeare, which

he said had been given him by a gentleman possessed of many other old

papers. The young man, being articled to a solicitor in Chancery, easily

fabricated, in the first instance, the deed of mortgage from Shakspeare

to Michael Fraser. The ecstasy expressed by his father urged him to the

fabrication of other documents, described to come from the same quarter.

Emboldened by success, he ventured upon higher compositions in prose and

verse; and at length announced the discovery of an original drama, under

the title of Vortigern, which he exhibited, act by act, written in

the period of two months. Having provided himself with the paper of the

period, (being the fly-leaves of old books,) and with ink prepared by a

bookbinder, no suspicion was entertained of the deception. The father,

who was a maniac upon such subjects, gave such eclat to the supposed

discovery, that the attention of the literary world, and all England,

was drawn to it; insomuch that the son, who had announced other papers,

found it impossible to retreat, and was goaded into the production of

the series which he had promised.

The house of Mr. Ireland, in Norfolk-street, Strand, was daily crowded

to excess by persons of the highest rank, as well as by the most

celebrated men of letters. The MSS. being mostly decreed genuine, were

considered to be of inestimable worth; and at one time it was expected

that Parliament would give any required sum for them. Some conceited

amateurs in literature at length sounded an alarm, which was echoed by

certain of the newspapers and public journals; notwithstanding which,

Mr. Sheridan agreed to give 600l. for permission to play Vortigern

at Drury-lane Theatre. So crowded a house was scarcely ever seen as on

the night of the performance, and a vast number of persons could not

obtain admission. The predetermined malcontents began an opposition

from the outset: some ill-cast characters converted grave scenes into

ridicule, and there ensued between the believers and sceptics a contest

which endangered the property. The piece was, accordingly, withdrawn.

The juvenile author was now so beset for information, that he found it

necessary to abscond from his father's house; and then, to put an end

to the wonderful ferment which his ingenuity had created, he published

a pamphlet, wherein he confessed the entire fabrication. Besides

Vortigern, young Ireland also produced a play of Henry II.; and,

although there were in both such incongruities as were not consistent

with Shakspeare's age, both dramas contain passages of considerable

beauty and originality.

The admissions of the son did not, however, screen the father from

obloquy, and the reaction of public opinion affected his fortunes and

his health. Mr. Ireland was the dupe of his zeal upon such subjects; and

the son never contemplated at the outset the unfortunate effect. Such

was the enthusiasm of certain admirers of Shakspeare, (among them Drs.

Parr and Warton,) that they fell upon their knees before the MSS.; and,

by their idolatry, inspired hundreds of others with similar enthusiasm.

The young author was filled with astonishment and alarm, which at that

stage it was not in his power to check. Sir Richard Phillips, who knew

the parties, has thus related the affair in the Anecdote Library.

In the Catalogue of Dr. Parr's Library at Hatton, (Bibliotheca

Parriana,) we find the following attempted explanation by the Doctor:--

"Ireland's (Samuel) 'Great and impudent forgery, called,' Miscellaneous

Papers and Legal Instruments, under the hand and seal of William

Shakspeare, folio 1796.

"I am almost ashamed to insert this worthless and infamously trickish

book. It is said to include the tragedy of King Lear, and a fragment

of Hamlet. Ireland told a lie when he imputed to me the words which

Joseph Warton used, the very morning I called on Ireland, and was

inclined to admit the possibility of genuineness in his papers. In my

subsequent conversation, I told him my change of opinion. But I thought

it not worth while to dispute in print with a detected impostor.--S. P."

Mr. Ireland died about 1802. His son, William Henry, long survived him;

but the forgeries blighted his literary reputation for ever, and he

died in straitened circumstances, about the year 1840. The reputed

Shakspearean MSS. are stated to have been seen for sale in a pawnbroker's

window in Wardour-street, Soho.

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