Biography of William Henry Ireland and the "Lost Works" of Shakespeare Part 4

About the famous or infamous English Forger William Henry Ireland, his biography as he attempted to pass off forgeries as the lost works of Shakespeare.


English forger.

Meanwhile, the production proceeded. The great John Philip Kemble was selected to play the lead. Henry James Pye, the Poet Laureate of England, was commissioned to write a suitable prologue. More than 2,000 persons bought tickets for opening night, April 2, 1796, at Drury Lane. Hundreds more crashed the gate and crowded the pit.

Ireland always insisted that Vortigern went well for 2 acts, and came apart in the 3rd act. Doubters in the audience, influenced by the scholar Malone, let their hostility be known only when the actors onstage became their allies. For the actors in the cast sensed what most politicians and literary critics had missed: The clumsy dialogue put in their mouths could never have been written by the same man who penned the most enduring words in the English language. They became saboteurs. When one actor was supposed to call the trumpets of war to "Bellow on," he pronounced the line in falsetto, leaving the audience gasping with laughter. Another actor was "slain" in stage battle, but fell where the drop curtain left the lower half of his body sticking out onstage. He groaned audibly under the weight of the heavy curtain roller. Eventually the "dead man" pulled himself free and crawled into the wings.

The actor playing Vortigern gave a speech containing the line: "And when this solemn mockery is over." He gave the phrase such meaningful emphasis that the audience understood immediately. When the guffaws died down, he did not go on but repeated, "And when this solemn mockery is over ..." William Ireland had already slipped out of theater, seeing what was coming.

When the final curtain fell that night, it ended the 1st and last performance of Vortigern. Before that night, young Ireland had dreamt of glory. As he would write: "Had the play of Vortigern succeeded with the public, and the manuscript been acknowledged as genuine, it was my intention to have completed a series of plays from the reign of William the Conqueror to that of Queen Elizabeth; that is to say, I should have planned a drama on every reign the subject of which had not been treated of by Shakespeare."

But hoax was in the air, and William Ireland's grand scheme was dead. Everyone, it seemed, blamed his father, the elder Ireland, for having committed the hoax, unable to believe one as young as William could have done it successfully. Loyal friends begged young William to exonerate his father by revealing the name of the wealthy gentleman who had provided the Shakespearean papers. Since the wealthy gentleman was nonexistent, in a final effort to clear his father's name, William Ireland confessed his entire forgery late in 1796 in a book entitled An Authentic Account of the Shakespearean Manuscripts. But even this confession did not fully absolve his father, who died in 1800 still professing his innocence.

William Ireland lived another 40 years. In 1805, he confessed his forgery a 2nd time in a more detailed book, Confessions of William Henry Ireland. He continued to write under several names, producing a string of forgettable novels, collections of verse--and even a factual catalogue of Shakespeare's works, from which the title Vortigern was missing.

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