William Henry Ireland was born in London in 1777. His father, Samuel
Ireland, was a successful publisher of travelogues and collector of antiquities.
At an early age William became a collector of books and while apprenticed to a
mortgage lawyer he started to experiment with forgery - forging signatures on
genuinely old paper.
In 1794 he claimed to have discovered an old deed with Shakespeare's signature on it - he presented said document to his overjoyed father, and over a period of time proceeded to make more finds relating to Shakespeare. In about 1795, at the tender age of 18, Ireland produced a whole new Shakespeare play, Vortigern and Rowena and sold the rights to the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In January 1796 his father published his own book about the discovered Shakespeare papers - by this time many people had started to take an interest in the matter and the plot started to unravel. In March 1796, Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone published an exhaustive critique of the materials and concluded that they were fake.
The play opened on April 2, 1796 and was met with catcalls; it had only one performance. When his father was accused of the forgeries, William published a confession - but few believed that such a young man could have forged them by himself and poor old Samuel's reputation never recovered. William moved to France some years later. When he returned he published Vortigen and Rowena in his own name. It was a flop, but he did have some success with his gothic novels, poetry and illustrated histories.
This article was originally published in July 2006, and has been updated for the
July 2007 paperback release.
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