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.”