Vortigern: A Shakespearean April Fool rediscovered after 220 years

The Wren Library was recently presented with a fascinating volume of documents of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, including the signed manuscript of his little-known play Vortigern. Only a handful of examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting are known to survive, and this new discovery plays a fascinating role in the history of Shakespearean authorship.

Close-up of the title of Vortigern, with Shakepseare's signature (forgery by W H Ireland)

The manuscript is in fact one of the most notorious forgeries in English history, but this original copy of the fraudulent play has been completely unknown until now, and appears in a volume alongside a genuine document signed by Queen Elizabeth I.

W H Ireland Album of Shakespeare forgeries in the Wren Library, Trinity College Cambridge.jpg

Nowadays any new discovery of a Shakespearean manuscript will be welcomed with careful forensic analysis to ensure its authenticity, but it was not always so. The quest to discover the original texts of Shakespeare’s plays has been a perennial fascination, but reached fever pitch in the late eighteenth century. New scholarly editions of Shakespeare by Edward Capell and George Steevens had brought the question of exactly what Shakespeare originally wrote into public debate, and the search intensified for original documents. In 1795 the writer Samuel Ireland announced the magnificent discovery of a chest of papers including letters in Shakespeare’s hand and draft manuscripts of several of his plays. Many visitors paid to view the priceless relics at his house, some spending four guineas on a luxurious printed volume of facsimiles. It was only several months later that the Shakespearean scholar Edmund Malone provided categorical proof that they were forgeries by Ireland’s son. William Henry Ireland became famous as ‘the Shakespeare forger’, later publishing his confessions in a combined attempt to salvage his reputation and to recover some of his costs.

Title-page of W H Ireland's published confession of his Shakespeare forgeries

The manuscript of Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ play Vortigern generated enormous interest when it was ‘discovered’, and it was quickly accepted by Sheridan for a production at Drury Lane. When the fraud was discovered, the company planned to move the first night to April Fools’ Day, but in the end it was performed on 2 April 1796, to universal derision. Ireland later published the play under his own name, but the original manuscript remained unknown.

The handsomely bound volume which has been presented to Trinity College seems to have been one of the forger’s most treasured possessions. It contains printed copies of his Shakespearean editions and confessions, interleaved with the original forgeries and artworks including engravings by Gillray and Hogarth and an original pastel portrait of his father by the Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton. In 1812 he pawned the volume to the actor Charles Mathews for the princely sum of £25 in order to raise funds on being released from the debtors’ gaol in York Castle.

In his published confessions, Ireland explained how he had forged a letter from Queen Elizabeth I by copying her signature from an original document which his father owned. The newly-discovered volume includes the original document signed by the Queen, a commendation of the sergeant-at-law Nicholas Barham from 1577 which seems to be completely authentic and hitherto unknown.

Genuine Elizabeth I signature on a document of 1577, bound into the album of forgeries

Ireland invented a letter from the Queencommending Shakespeare’s ‘prettye Verses’ and asking him to stage a play before her at Hampton Court. The letter makes it clear quite how bad a forger he was, as it lacks all the elegance of the royal hand.

Close-up of Elizabeth I forgery by W H Ireland.jpg

The generally poor quality of the forgeries makes it all the more surprising that so many were taken in by them at the time. The choice of paper and ink, language and spelling are all too obviously anachronistic to the modern eye.

Elizabeth I forgery by W H Ireland.jpg

The reappearance of this volume at the time of the Shakespeare quatercentenary allows a new assessment of this notorious forger’s motivations.

The newly discovered volume of Ireland’s forgeries is on display in the Wren Library as part of a small Shakespeare anniversary exhibition until 30 September 2016.