Object of the Month

“Pseudo-Shakespeare”: William Henry Ireland’s Forgeries

Letter to Anna Hatherrewaye

"Letter to Anna Hatherrewaye"


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    [ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

    This is a facsimile of a manuscript letter, purported to have been written by William Shakespeare to his beloved, Anne Hathaway (“Anna Hatherrwaye”), enclosing a lock of his hair. This image is from a large-paper copy of Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare (London, 1796). The “Shakespeare” letter was in fact the creation of William Henry Ireland, an audacious young forger who, for a brief period at the end of the 18th century, hoodwinked much of the English literary establishment. This volume is part of the Dowse Library, a collection of more than 4,500 volumes that Thomas Dowse donated to the MHS—one of the most important early gifts to the Society. While Dowse’s bibliographic interests were wide-ranging—his library included landmarks of English literature, but also rare works on European exploration and settlement of the Americas—none of his enthusiasms matched his pursuit of books about Shakespeare. In the Catalogue of the Private Library of Thomas Dowse, of Cambridge, Mass., published by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1856, there are more than twenty topical entries for “Shakespeare” (almost all other entries are by author) including the subcategory “Pseudo-Shakespeare” to account for Shakespeare forgeries. The entries in this category all refer to the inventions of William Henry Ireland.

    William Henry Ireland

    According to his confessional autobiography, William Henry Ireland (1777-1835) went to extraordinary lengths to please his father, Samuel, who (as later in the case of Dowse) had an unbounded obsession with all things related to Shakespeare. While still a teenager, William Henry taught himself forgery and fabricated multiple documents “in Shakespeare’s hand” that he presented to his father, a publisher of elegant, illustrated books. Samuel Ireland innocently published his son’s creations including a supposed letter from Queen Elizabeth to the Bard thanking him for “prettye Verses.” Samuel Ireland illustrated a deluxe edition of Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments . . . of William Shakespeare with facsimiles of the documents that the younger Ireland had “discovered.” For a brief time, Samuel Ireland’s collection of Shakespeare manuscripts was the talk of London and there were scheduled hours during which enthusiasts could view the “original” manuscripts.


    William Henry Ireland’s audacious fraud quickly collapsed, however, when Samuel Ireland persuaded Richard Brinsley Sheridan to stage Vortigern, a “newly-discovered” play by Shakespeare (i.e. William Henry Ireland) at Sheridan’s Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1796. The ovations that greeted the opening acts of the first and only performance of Vortigern quickly turned to laughter and catcalls from the audience and the play would not be performed again for more than 200 years. John Philip Kemble, who played the lead role in the play, was not shy about expressing his doubts as to its authenticity, but Samuel Ireland died four years later, still convinced that his Shakespeare documents were authentic because his son was simply incapable of producing such forgeries.

    William Henry Ireland later described his misdeeds—and provided generations of forgers with nothing short of a detailed instruction manual—in The Confessions of William Henry Ireland (London: 1805). The Confessions is a lively, detailed account, but must be used with caution; Ireland appears to have lied systematically about just about everything that happened in his life, large and small. He also seemed to believe that the people whom he deceived would celebrate his inventive genius. Until his death in 1835, he was an enormously productive, but no longer successful author. He was reduced to making facsimiles of the Shakespeare documents that he had created and passing them off as his “original” forgeries—forging his forgeries.

    Thomas Dowse

    Thomas Dowse, whose portrait by Moses Wright was commissioned by the MHS in 1856, was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1772. According to family lore, Dowse was lame from childhood because of a fall from an apple tree and the shy, reclusive boy turned to books, as he described it, for “occupation and amusement.” He read voraciously and purchased even more voraciously—he spent more than sixty years assembling an extraordinary personal library, and this the work of a man who was largely self-taught, and who first made his living as a tanner and leather dresser.

    Dowse never married and worked in the leather trade until 1846, accumulating a considerable fortune that he spent on an ever-growing book collection. His library grew to consist of 4,665 volumes and his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, became something of a “public attraction” that brought distinguished visitors, especially bibliophiles, to gaze upon his books, almost all elegantly rebound in fine, gold-stamped bindings, often the work of early 19th-century Boston bookbinders. Dowse’s books had an appraised value of $40,000—an enormous sum—at a time when the balance in the Society’s funds for purchases was $527.40.

    The Dowse Library: a case study in donor relations

    In the 1850s, Thomas Dowse, by then in his eighties, began to search for a home for the books that were “the dearest earthly objects of his affections . . . his guides in youth, his support in manhood, and his solace in old age.” Harvard University courted him; President Josiah Quincy had offered to build a separate building to house the collection, but Dowse was ultimately unable to reach an agreement with Harvard—a story has come down that college students had vandalized a fence around his property. MHS member George Livermore—a fellow bibliophile, and later the executor of Dowse’s estate—served as an intermediary between Dowse and the Society. In July 1856, Dowse donated his library to the Society and with a single stroke increased the MHS library collection by a half—from about 8,000 to 13,000 volumes. It was a timely gift; Dowse died in November of that year.

    The “official story” was that Thomas Dowse “had long been familiar with the character of the Society, and was personally acquainted with many of the members, he felt sure, that, in their keeping, his books which had been for many years his choice and cherished friends, would be carefully preserved and properly used.” MHS President Robert C. Winthrop had a more personal explanation for the gift: late in life the reclusive Dowse, although not an MHS member, had been invited to the Society’s annual spring event for members, a strawberry festival, and although he had declined the invitation, he retained warm feelings for the kindness and respect of MHS members.

    Edward Everett and Thomas Dowse

    For Thomas Dowse, the active participation of Edward Everett in MHS affairs probably was the ultimate seal of approval. As reflected in his book collection, along with heroes of the American Revolution, English Civil War, and Shakespeare, Dowse greatly admired Edward Everett, a Massachusetts congressman, governor, president of Harvard, minister to the Court of St. James, secretary of state, senator, and the great orator of his age. A compilation of Edward Everett’s separately printed early speeches were a gift from Everett to Dowse, and handsomely bound in two volumes by Dowse for his library. Everett, in turn, described the Dowse Library as “the most excellent library of English books, for its size, with which I am acquainted.” Dowse also left to the MHS an unfinished portrait of Everett painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1820. Everett then was a 26-year-old Harvard professor and already a member of the Historical Society.

    The Dowse Library room was dedicated at the Massachusetts Historical Society’s annual meeting on 9 April 1857. It is not a room that Thomas Dowse would have known; the furniture and bookcases were built for the MHS with funds provided by Dowse’s estate. In 1899, when the Society moved to its present building on Boylston Street, the Dowse Library was dismantled in its previous home on Tremont Street in downtown Boston and moved to the new building. On Boylston Street, the Dowse Library may have created a certain amount of familiar comfort for members moving out to the “wilds” of the newly-in-filled Back Bay. Until 1960, it was the reading room—and when the membership was smaller, the Society’s meeting room—a role that it continues to play for many Board, committee, and smaller public meetings.



    For further reading

    Collins, Paul. Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck. New York, Picador, 2001.

    Collins’s chapter on William Henry Ireland, “The Clever Dullard,” is a concise introduction to the Shakespeare forgeries.

    Everett, Edward. “Eulogy on Thomas Dowse,” in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1855-1858, p. 361-398.

    Grebanier, Bernard. The Great Shakespeare Forgery. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1965.

    Ireland, William Henry. Confessions of William-Henry Ireland: Containing the Particulars of His Fabrication of the Shakespeare Manuscripts. London: Printed by Ellerton and Byworth for T. Goddard, 1805. In the Dowse Library.

    ________. Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare. London: Mr. Egerton, 1796.

    The “deluxe,” large-paper edition of Miscellaneous Papers with hand-colored facsimiles of the “Shakespearian” manuscripts. In the Dowse Library.

    ________. Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare. London: Mr. Egerton, etc., 1796. In the Dowse Library. 

    The standard edition with only a single facsimile. Available online from HathiTrust.

    Lynch, Jack W. Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard. New York: Walker, 2007.

    The chapter on “Forging Shakespeare” in Jack Lynch’s Becoming Shakespeare gives a concise history of the Ireland fabrications in the context of the enthusiasm for Shakespeare-related documents in eighteenth-century England—including earlier forgeries dating back to Shakespeare’s lifetime—and onward through the much more dangerous forgeries by John Payne Collier in the 19th century. Professor Lynch makes the case that as a deeply- knowledgeable researcher with access to early books and manuscripts, everything related to Shakespeare that Collier touched or wrote about during his long and prolific career must be suspect.

    The Dowse Library contains at least four works written or edited by Collier, dealing both with Elizabethan drama and poetry—and Shakespeare—all collected by Dowse before Collier’s forgeries were detected, so none are listed under “pseudo-Shakespeare.”

    Professor Lynch also provides an annotated transcription of William Henry Ireland’s first published defense of his father from accusations arising from William Henry’s depredations at Lynch’s website: An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts, &c. London, 1796.

    Massachusetts Historical Society. Catalogue of the Private Library of Thomas Dowse, of Cambridge, Mass., Presented to the Massachusetts Historical Society, July 30, 1856. Boston: John Wilson & Son, 1856.

    Stewart, Doug. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2010.