Father-son relationships can be so beautifully straightforward or so terribly complex, sometimes both at once. In The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, author Doug Stewart offers us a consideration of one such relationship as we examine an eighteenth-century scammer who hatched the right idea at the right time.
Samuel Ireland was never particularly proud of son William-Henry, to whom the term ne’er-do-well applied all too well. It’s not that William-Henry was stupid, though many people regarded him as such; he was unmotivated. Whatever he was being taught in the many schools he attended was of little interest to him. He liked acting. Since he was shy, his second choice was writing. His father had little use for his unconventional son, so William-Henry was apprenticed to a lawyer for five years (To become a lawyer, one did not go to school or take bar exams; it “required only a willingness to swear an oath denouncing the pope.”). William-Henry found himself, at the ripe old age of 19, working in a dusty lawyer’s office filled with ancient documents, alone most of the time. Where better to practice forgery?
Samuel Ireland, despite his disregard for his son, was not quite the conventional figure, either. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare provides an abundance of juicy details about Mr. Ireland’s home life, business dealings, parenting, interests, affectations, character flaws, and hobbies. As were many people in the late eighteenth century, he was obsessed with William Shakespeare and spent many an hour in search of anything Shakespeare may have put in writing. So anxious was he (and many others) to find something connected with the Bard, that he was foolishly susceptible to fraud.
It seems that William-Henry was as desperate for his father’s approval as Samuel was for any relic handwritten by Shakespeare. The truth is that outside of a few legal documents bearing his signature, nothing exists in Shakespeare's presumably flowing script. William-Henry’s familiarity (bred by his father) with Shakespeare’s literary style combined with his well practiced handwriting to produce one after another Shakespeare forgeries.
Doug Stewart provides the reader with interesting speculation on why there are so few documents in existence that were products of Shakespeare’s hand, and the reasons are surprisingly mundane. Stone also shares the secret of a forger’s success, “All the forger does is suggest a plausible story. The forger’s victims see to it that the story comes true.”
Littered throughout the narrative are gossipy bits about literary notables, c. 1795, as well as the incredible account of those who should have known better desperately believing the forgeries were the real thing (most notably, Boswell). Does this mean we should think kinder thoughts about the conspiracy theorists and UFOlogists in our midst, or reconcile ourselves to the thought that all people, no matter how lofty they appear, are just people? I’m in the be-nice-to-Fox-Mulder camp.
When William-Henry Ireland began his forging career at age 19, he was hardly alone. There was a lot of forgery going on, some of which was punishable by hanging. As he went about the business of providing his ever-demanding father with more “Shakespeareana,” other people were aware of what he was doing. His father, a man who enjoyed his reputation for having something no one else had, made his holdings known far and wide, and even planned issuing a folio of the works. Wouldn’t that be the Tiger Woods moment when those who know something come out of the woodwork? Even William-Henry was amazed that no one dropped a dime on him. He was also struck by the apparent suspension of disbelief, and later wrote, “It was extraordinary to observe how willingly persons will blind themselves on any point interesting to their feelings.”
The first forgeries were simple documents such as leases and contracts, followed by the script of King Lear. William-Henry then began to produce poetry and finally a complete play, attributing the works to William Shakespeare. The works were largely accepted as authentic, and praised for their artistry. That contributed to William-Henry’s undoing.
Imagine producing something that is praised as genius, but not being able to take the credit. For some, the acknowledgement of talent would be sufficient; for others it would be unbearable. William-Henry Ireland’s work was being accepted as the Immortal Bard’s. How ironic that a prank should become his most well known contribution to literature, while his true talent is merely a footnote to his story. As the works he produced became more famous, the lengths to which he went to protect his secret became more outrageous. If someone expressed a doubt, a document would conveniently be produced or referred to that answered and negated that doubt. No one questioned the timing of these fortunate finds; they were merely relieved to have further support of what they believed.
Samuel Ireland did publish his folio, and was soon met with proof of forgery; however, William-Henry came up with yet another forgery and an outlandish lie to back it up and nothing came of that accusation. Shakespearean scholars were in an uproar, attacking the Shakespeare papers as transparent forgeries, but the folio sold well and a production of the faux Shakespeare play was mounted. The play was performed once in Drury Lane, following which the controversy heightened.
After a year and a half of playing Shakespeare, at least in his own imagination, William-Henry Ireland confessed — via a pamphlet — that the Shakespeare papers were forgeries which he himself had concocted. Based on the writing in the pamphlet, many people refused to believe he was the forger. Samuel continued to believe in the authenticity of the papers and father and son soon parted ways never to be reunited. William-Henry died 40 years after he embarked on his “prank,” making a living selling forgeries to those who wanted them, as well as writing dozens of books.
In The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, Doug Stewart has authored a many-layered book that details vanity, greed, naïveté, mores, and pride within both a family and society. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read — a fascinating page-turner that keeps us wondering what will happen next.
Bottom Line: Would I buy The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare? Yes. Release date is, appropriately, April 1.
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