Confessions of a Shakespeare Forger

Precious little autograph material survives to document the life and work of William Shakespeare. Extant examples of his writing and signature in English Secretary cursive script are limited to a half dozen extant legal documents from 1612 to 1616 and perhaps three pages of the play Sir Thomas More, thought by some to be in Shakespeare’s hand. For centuries, the lack of autograph manuscripts of the plays and the dearth of documents about his life frustrated Shakespeare editors and would-be biographers. But at the same time, the situation tempted would-be forgers to fabricate manuscripts of plays, poetry, letters, and signed documents.

No Shakespeare forger was more successful, at least for awhile, than the enterprising William Henry Ireland (1775–1835), who in the 1790s began began forging manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as fabricating a ridiculous unpublished play Vortigern and Rowena and documents about Shakespeare’s life, loves, and literary estate. In 1794, William Henry Ireland told his father Samuel Ireland (1744-1800), a London writer and engraver, about his “discoveries.” Samuel Ireland became his unwitting accomplice and, convinced that the forgeries were authentic, published Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare…(1795). Some Shakespeare scholars and theater producers were initially deceived. But a disastrous single London performance in 1796 of Vortigern and Rowena, with several songs by the British composer William Linley (1771-1835), helped unmask Ireland. His clumsy efforts at recreating Elizabethan handwriting, language, and spelling were soon exposed.

In An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts, etc. (1796), William Henry Ireland confessed to his Shakespeare forgeries, though presenting them as a merry prank to determine “how far credulity would go in the search for antiquities.” Ireland also explained how he had imitated Shakespeare’s handwriting and wrote on old paper with a specially mixed ink, which when heated over a fire would turn the writing a convincing brown color, like ancient iron-gall ink. He was especially proud of having dreamed up various documents to provide a paper trail for the Bard’s life. Ireland had been concerned that a Shakespeare descendant might claim the forged manuscripts. Therefore, he dreamed up an imaginary Shakespeare friend, conveniently named William Henry Ireland, who supposedly had saved Shakespeare from drowning. Out of gratitude, Shakespeare left his literary estate to the forger’s namesake and ancestor. Other forged items included correspondence with Queen Elizabeth, the Third Earl of Southampton (his patron), Anne Hathaway, and contemporaries in the London theater world.

Ireland shamelessly continued to profit from his forgeries in later years by creating what might be called “authentic fakes,” often in the form of extra-illustrated printed confessions, incorporating copies of selected forgeries along with other materials. They aimed not to deceive, but rather to provide entertaining fare for bibliophile collectors who were fascinated by Ireland’s misdeeds. Princeton’s own Robert H. Taylor (Class of 1930) had an interest in the Ireland forgeries. The Robert H. Taylor Collection of English and American Literature (RTC01) has two such volumes. Taylor MS. 176 is an 1813 album containing The Confessions of William Henry Ireland: Containing the Particulars of his Fabrications of the Shakespeare Manuscripts…(1805), along with forged documents and illustrations. It includes manuscript sheet music for Linley’s Vortigern and Rowena songs. Taylor MS. 215 is an undated extra-illustrated volume containing mounted printed pages of Samuel Ireland’s Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare…(1796), interleaved with mounted forgeries of the complete King Lear(see below), a small fragment of Hamlet, and an assortment of forged letters and documents.

The four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is being marked in 2016 by an exhibition, “Remember Me”: Shakespeare and His Legacy, at the Princeton University Art Museum, October 1–December 31, including items from the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. For more information about relevant holdings in the Department, contact Public Services at

William Henry Ireland, Forgery of King Lear.