In December 1794, a young man in London named William Henry Ireland brought his father, Samuel, a devoted collector of antiquities and curiosities, a parchment document sealed with wax. After carefully opening up the parchment, Samuel was astonished at what he saw: a mortgage deed dated 1610, signed by William Shakespeare and John Heminges, an actor in Shakespeare’s King’s Men troupe of players.

At the time, only a handful of signatures were known to have survived from Shakespeare’s handwritten records, so to have a personal document like this was an extraordinary coup. William Henry explained that the document was one of dozens like it he had found while rummaging in an old chest belonging to a rich gentleman whom William Henry described only as "Mr. H." The gentleman wished to remain anonymous to avoid being bothered, William Henry explained, but had assured the young man that he had little interest in the documents and could take whatever he liked.

Eager to figure out whether the documents were real, Samuel Ireland contacted the College of Heralds (an organization devoted to coats of arms and genealogical research), who determined that the documents were genuine, although they were unable to identify the image on the Shakespearean wax seal. Fortunately, Samuel’s young assistant Frederick Eden was an authority on seals, and he decided that the impression on the seal looked like a quintain—a revolving target used by knights in jousting practice. A tenuous association with actual “shaking spears” was all Samuel needed: These documents must indeed be Shakespeare’s own, he decided, and he promptly put them on display in his curio-filled home on London's Norfolk Street. Before long, A-list literary types were queuing up to take a look—and still young William Henry continued to unearth ever more impressive examples.

An example of William Henry Ireland's forgeries. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
At a time when interest in Shakespeare’s work was at the highest it had been since his death almost two centuries earlier, the Irelands had seemingly unearthed a gold mine of Shakespearean memorabilia. Handwritten IOUs, love letters to his future wife “Anna Hatherrewaye,” signed actors’ contracts, theatrical receipts, and even a bizarrely cartoonish self-portrait all found their way out of William Henry’s seemingly boundless document chest and into his father’s display. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Books from Shakespeare’s library with his own annotations in the margins also soon emerged, as did a first draft of King Lear hand-prepared by Shakespeare, and perhaps most significant of all of the Irelands’ discoveries, an entirely new play, Vortigern and Rowena.

The literary world was suitably shaken up. Although never a fan of Shakespeare (and despite saying he thought its script was “crude and undigested”) Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan was impressed enough to acquire the performance rights to Vortigern and Rowena, which he planned to stage at his newly expanded Drury Lane, then the largest theater in London. Even more impressed was James Boswell, biographer of lexicographer and noted Shakespeare fanatic Samuel Johnson. Aging and in poor health, Boswell arrived at the Irelands’ Norfolk Street home and was ushered into Samuel Ireland’s study. A glass of warmed brandy in one hand and the documents in another, he went through the pages one by one, holding them up to a light to examine their penmanship in more detail. After several hours’ analysis, he lowered himself onto one knee and kissed the collection of pages before him. “I shall now died contented,” he reportedly said, “since I have lived to see the present day.” Three months later, he was dead [PDF].

On Christmas Eve 1795, about a year after the first documents came to light, Samuel Ireland published Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments Under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare—a lavish anthology of all the papers in his collection, featuring facsimiles and reprints of the pages. The book was a success, but its popularity brought the Irelands’ discoveries under more widespread scrutiny.

While some experts of the day had been keen to authenticate the documents, over time the inconsistent handwriting and poor-quality prose began to raise suspicion. In March 1796, the foremost Shakespeare authority of the era, Edmond Malone, published An Inquiry Into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments—a detailed analysis arguing that the documents were nothing but a "clumsy and daring fraud." Even still, opinion was divided; Malone's book was long and scholarly, and not everyone had the patience to sort through its arguments, damning as they were.

The supposed Shakespeare self-portrait. Image credit: Internet Archive // Public Domain

 
In April 1796, Sheridan staged the performance of Vortigern and Rowena at Drury Lane theater. But trouble was brewing: although the first few acts were received enthusiastically, the writing went drastically downhill, and several skeptical actors overplayed their lines for effect. One, John Philip Kemble, the era’s leading theater performer, stole the show in the final act by pronouncing the line “and when this solemn mockery is ended” in a rumbling, drawn-out, overly dramatic voice, prompting minutes of laughter and whistling from the audience. When the curtain came down, the audience erupted into both applause and booing, and a fight erupted in the pit between those who believed the work was genuine, and those who did not.

London was divided. On the one hand, Malone and his supporters saw the Irelands’ collection as an elaborate and heartless deception. On the other, there were those who steadfastly wanted to believe that they were authentic, and that a true goldmine of Shakespeare’s lost works had been uncovered. Boswell and other diehard believers, including Poet Laureate Henry Pye, had even drawn up a “Certificate of Belief” stating that they “entertained no doubt whatsoever as to the validity of the Shakespearean production.” The latter camp, however, was about to be bitterly disappointed. Late in 1796 William Henry Ireland published An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts—in which he confessed that the entire collection were forged.

Knowing that his father was an obsessive collector of Shakespearean memorabilia, William Henry had staged the very first document—the mortgage deed—by copying Shakespeare’s signature from a facsimile printed in an edition of his plays. Doctoring the ink made the writing look aged. Blank pages were torn from old books as a cheap supply of old paper, and scorching the papers with a candle gave them a convincing brown tinge.

As time went by and Samuel’s collection began to gain prominence, William Henry grew bolder in his forgeries. Extracts from Shakespeare’s plays were rewritten with spellings tweaked and lines reworked, sometimes with entirely new sections added. The love letter to Anne Hathaway was made up entirely—as was the entire script of Vortigern and Rowena. No wonder Sheridan had found the text so badly written; it appeared to have been written by a 19-year-old.

Even after his son declared the whole thing a hoax, Samuel Ireland refused to believe the works were forgeries. He went to his death in 1800 believing his son incapable of such an elaborate fraud, and committed to the idea that the works were genuine. William Henry, meanwhile, found it hard to get work once his deceit was uncovered: After a time in debtor’s prison, he moved to France, where he wrote books about French history and culture. He also published his own edition of Vortigern in 1832 and a series of gothic novels, but still struggled to make ends meet, and died in poverty in 1835.

Nowadays, William Henry is viewed more sympathetically: his father, it has emerged, was cold and distant in his childhood, caring more for his precious collection than for his young family. Although naïve in producing his forgeries, William Henry was seemingly only trying to foster some common ground with his father—and the more he brought him, the better the two got on. Alienating themselves from the literary community, it appeared, was just an unwelcome consequence. No matter how he and his work are viewed, however, William Henry Ireland’s great Shakespeare hoax remains an extraordinarily audacious—and, for a time, extraordinarily successful—literary deception.