Co-written by Heather Wolfe and Arnold Hunt
It’s every bibliophile’s dream. You’re in a bookshop, or maybe at a local auction, browsing idly along the shelves. It’s late in the afternoon and you’re just preparing to leave, when you spot a bundle of old pamphlets loosely piled in a cardboard box. At the very bottom of the bundle you pull out a slim volume bound in old calf. Brushing the dust off the binding, you open it… and your heart skips a beat. There on the title-page, in a sixteenth-century hand, is the signature “William Shakespeare.”
Fake or fortune? The inscriptions on the title-pages, “S. Ireland from his dear son,” give the game away. The “dear son” is none other than nineteen-year-old William Henry Ireland, most prolific and audacious of eighteenth-century forgers. Ireland started forging Shakespeare documents in 1794 to please his father Samuel, whose greatest desire in life was to obtain a relic of Shakespeare for his collection. He claimed to have discovered them in an old chest belonging to a mysterious “Mr H.” whom he hinted might be a descendant of the actor John Heminges, joint editor of the First Folio.
Having started, Ireland just couldn’t stop. In addition to Shakespeare’s love letter and verses to Anne Hathaway, his newly-discovered play Vortigern, a manuscript version of King Lear, a fragment of Hamlet and countless other documents, he also forged Shakespeare’s own catalogue of his library, which now belongs to University College, London (MS Ogden 54). The catalogue, of which only seven non-contiguous leaves survive (ca. 250 titles), contains mostly literary titles. The content suggests that Ireland compiled the catalogue from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century bibliographies of English drama by Francis Kirkman, Gerard Langbaine, and David Erskine Baker. 1
Ireland also claimed to have discovered many of the actual books from Shakespeare’s library. In fact he had bought these from Benjamin White’s bookshop in Fleet Street and William Otridge’s in the Strand, carefully selecting items from bulk purchases or bound volumes of pamphlets so that the booksellers would be unable to identify them as having come from their stock. He then created a false provenance for them by forging Shakespeare’s signature on the title page, and sometimes adding marginal notes as well, conveniently signed “W.S.” or “W. Shakspere” just in case there was any doubt about the authorship. Although there is very little relationship between the titles in the catalogue and the library itself, which contains mostly religious and political tracts, this did not seem to bother anyone, especially since the primary focus of attention was Shakespeare’s manuscripts, and not his annotated books.
Ireland presented some of Shakespeare’s books to his father, who had most of them rebound in green goatskin bindings, with spine titles that included the name of the work, the date, and the phrase “SHAKSPEARE MSS. NOTES.”
In some of the volumes, Ireland helpfully interleaved slips of paper with transcriptions of the marginalia, to help his father and others decipher them. The marginalia is extraordinarily difficult to read, even for people who are fluent in reading secretary hand, because his spelling habits and his version of Elizabethan secretary hand are, let’s say, unconventional.
For a short while, the Shakespeare “believers” accepted the discovery as legitimate. Then in March 1796 Edmond Malone published a devastating 424-page critique of the Shakespeare documents, An inquiry into the authenticity of certain miscellaneous papers. Malone unequivocally dismissed the papers and the library as fraudulent, surmising that the manuscript catalogue was essentially a copy of the books that Capell had collected to illustrate the works of Shakespeare, with random other books added (Inquiry, p. 337). To the marginalia in these books, he devotes a single derisive footnote which focuses on the unusual fact that many of the annotations are signed by Shakespeare.
When Samuel Ireland’s collection was sold at auction in 1801, sixty-five books from the “Shakespeare Library” were included (lots 515-579). This number fits well with Ireland’s own estimate of fifty in his 1796 confession 2 and eighty in his expanded 1805 Confessions. 3 Samuel’s papers in the British Library include a list of sixty books, with the dates when he received them, from March 1795 to February 1796 (BL Add MS 30346, ff 4-5). Other books are known to survive with Shakespeare’s signature and notes (and sometimes with the tell-tale green morocco binding) that are not listed in this 1801 catalogue.
The Folger has twelve or thirteen Ireland-Shakespeare books (ten of which appear in the 1801 auction catalogue), and the British Library has eighteen, which means that these are two of the best places to go if you want to immerse yourself in the wild, weird world of William Henry Ireland. Other surviving books from the original forged library live at the Huntington, Harvard, Penn, Johns Hopkins, NYPL, the Clark, University College, London, and elsewhere. 4
By putting all of our books side by side (albeit virtually) we thought we might be able to get an impression of what the “Shakespeare Library” might have looked like on the shelves of Samuel Ireland’s house in Norfolk Street, or what prospective buyers might have seen when the library came under the hammer at Leigh & Sotheby’s auction rooms in 1801. We also thought we might be able to discover more about Shakespeare—not the real Shakespeare, of course, but the fictional Shakespeare located in William Henry Ireland’s fertile imagination.
Ireland’s Shakespeare is a keen book collector who takes obvious pride in his collection, writing his name on the title-page of every volume and filling them with marginal notes. His notes show no sign of classical learning, no parade of Greek and Latin quotations: this is a Shakespeare whose genius arises from native wit, not university education. But this self-taught genius is also desperately eager to show off his knowledge to others.
He is an opinionated connoisseur who despises bad prose, inaccurate histories, and superstition. In A sixe-folde politician (1609), he writes approvingly, “I wille keepe ande peruse thye Booke oere ande oere agayne forre Ale is worthye…” and in the margins, “thys is welle conceyteded” and “I doe lyke thye styel o wrytynge” (Folger STC 17805 Copy 1). Of Roger Cotton’s A spirituall song: conteining an historicall discourse from the infancie of the world, vntill this present time (1596), he has the opposite reaction, commenting at various passages, “badde,” “agayne as badde,” “lesse badde,” and “worse,” as well as more detailed abuse (Folger STC 5869). In Hayward’s Account of the first part of the life and death of Henry IV, he writes next to one passage, “I praye you excuse mee forre mye dysbeeleyfe butte thys I cannotte credytte,” and on other pages, “Mouste trewe mouste trewe…” and “Thou arte correcte” (Folger STC 12995 Copy 2). Shakespeare took particular issue with James I’s Daemonologie, writing “Impossyble” next to the argument on the very first page (Folger STC 14366 Copy 3), as well as many other notes.
It’s notoriously difficult to glean much about Shakespeare’s religious and political opinions from his plays. Ireland’s Shakespeare, however, is an obliging chap, always ready to jot down his thoughts (no matter how banal) for the benefit of posterity. After reading King James I’s Declaration (1610), he comments approvingly: “everye Englyshmanne shoulde reade these matteres ande thereupon learne what are the Lawes and Custommes of thys Kyngdomme” (BL Stowe MS 1006). As well as being a loyal Englishman, he is a sincere Christian, who writes at the end of his copy of A Supplication of the Family of Love (1606) that “itte hathe strengthnedde mee inne mye trewe Chrystyanne beleyfe” (BL Stowe MS 995).
Ireland’s Shakespeare is also a gentle soul, the very model of an eighteenth-century man of feeling. When invited to watch the execution of Guy Fawkes, he is too tender-hearted to attend, explaining that “he lykedde notte toe beholde syghtes of thatte kynde” (Confessions, p. 197). In fact he seems surprisingly sympathetic to the Gunpowder plotters, writing of Guy Fawkes: “Thys was inndeede a whilie manne ande mighte have served hys Countrye welle inne a goode cause.” Of one of the other conspirators, Sir Everard Digby, he notes: “I knewe thys manne helas helas W.S.” (BL Stowe MS 999).
Ireland seems to be responding here to the document known as the Spiritual Testament, recently published by Malone, which had shown that Shakespeare’s father was a secret Roman Catholic. Ireland was convinced that Shakespeare himself was a sound Protestant, but he may have taken the evidence of Spiritual Testament into account when he depicted Shakespeare as a tolerant man who looked on Catholics more in sorrow than in anger.
But above all, Ireland’s Shakespeare is a man of the theatre. His friendship with John Heminges results in multiple gifts of books from his fellow actor. The Argument of Mr Peter de la Marteliere (1612) has the signature “John Heminges” above that of “William Shakespeare” (BL 8356.aaa.13). A Supplication of the Family of Love (1606) is inscribed “The Gyfte o masterre Johnnye Hemynge the 14 Julye 1608 Wm Shakspeare” (BL Stowe MS 995). John Melton’s A sixe-folde politician. Together with a sixe-folde precept of policy (1609) includes the note: “Masterre ^hemynge^ dydde make mee a presaunte o thys Booke thys 14 of ffebruarye 1610” (Folger STC 17805 Copy 1).
Shakespeare also jots down notes on the practical side of theatre life, counting up the box-office takings at the Globe, for example: “Toe mye Romeo and Julyete atte the Globe plaidde there 17 Poundes ande 11 Shyllynges.” He lists costumes, including a new jerkin for Armin, and includes a list of numbers that add up to 298 (BL Stowe MS 996). The doodles are a bit mysterious, but include a hat of some kind (a fool’s cap, perhaps?) and a couple of swords.
In another book (Folger STC 17805 Copy 1 again), Shakespeare lists a series of King’s Men actors and a musician, in addition to sketching his coat of arms and another mysterious set of numbers.
Shakespeare mines a copy of John Hayward’s The first part of the life and reign of Henry IV for inspiration, writing poetry in the margin, expressing great sympathy in the pages recounting Richard II’s deposition, disagreeing with some of Hayward’s account (Hayward ended up in the Tower for sedition), and marking passages for his own use: “thys forre mye Playe,” “Thys tooe forre mye Playe,” and “Thys tooe methynkes myghte suite mee welle.”
Ireland’s Shakespeare, in other words, is very much the Shakespeare that eighteenth-century readers expected and wanted to find, which is of course what made the forgeries so plausible. But Ireland’s Shakespeare is also Ireland himself, or a mixture of both Irelands, father and son, Samuel the bibliophile and William Henry the aspiring young author, self-taught and desperate to impress.
To modern readers, of course, Ireland’s forgeries seem ludicrously unconvincing, and it’s hard to understand how anybody was ever taken in. The whole thing is a gigantic exercise in wishful thinking—surely Shakespeare’s archive must survive somewhere? surely no one would have thrown it away?—which says more about the eighteenth-century veneration for literary relics than it does about seventeenth-century archival practices.
That doesn’t mean that they are now worthless, however. The significance of the “Shakespeare Library” should not be underestimated—after all, these are a critical part of the Original Forgeries. 5 The deception could only be sustained as long as nobody looked too closely at any of the individual items, and in order to ensure that they didn’t, Ireland effectively had to manufacture an entire literary archive. The books weren’t just an afterthought; they were crucial to the illusion of overwhelming quantity that Ireland sought to create.
It was also something of an innovation for Ireland to focus on marginalia as a source of literary evidence. He didn’t understand early modern methods of annotation. As a result, his attempts to forge Shakespeare’s marginal notes have much more in common with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century marginalia that Heather Jackson discusses in Romantic Readers (2005). But he realized what modern scholars only rediscovered in the past decade or so, that we can learn a lot from marginalia about the way that early modern readers engaged with books.
Ireland’s annotations may not have anything to tell us about Shakespeare, but they have a great deal to tell us about William Henry Ireland. If you happen to know of other books from Ireland’s Shakespeare Library lurking in other institutions, we would love to hear about them in the comments.
ARNOLD HUNT is a Curator of Manuscripts at the British Library, and also teaches on the MA course in Early Modern English Literature at King’s College London, in association with the London Shakespeare Centre (http://www.shakespeare.kcl.ac.uk/).
- We are very grateful to Carl Berkhout for supplying this information about the content of the catalogue.
- “I also wrote manuscript notes on books to about the number of fifty, all of which I gave to my father,” (Authentic Account).
- “In order to augment the bulk of the Shaksperian papers, I had recourse to the introducing of volumes and tracts (to about the number of eighty), containing notes written in the disguised hand, while on the title-page of each appeared the signature of William Shakspeare; by which I meant to infer that the books in question had originally been in the possession of our bard” (Confessions, p. 194).
- We appreciate the assistance of Arthur Freeman and Jack Lynch in citing copies in other institutions.
- Most of the rest of the Original Forgeries (in contrast to the post-discovery copies of forgeries that Ireland made) has recently been rediscovered at Harvard. See Arthur Freeman’s expanded TLS article on this subject.