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Reviewed by:
  • The House of Forgery in Eighteenth-Century Britain, and Reforging Shakespeare: The Story of a Theatrical Scandal
  • Bruce Whiteman
Baines, Paul. The House of Forgery in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Aldershot and Brookfield, VT.: Ashgate Publishing, 1999). Pp. Viii + 196. $83.95 cloth.
Kahan, Jeffrey. Reforging Shakespeare: The Story of a Theatrical Scandal (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1998). Pp. 272. $44.50 cloth.

In lot 56 of the Leigh and Sotheby sale of May 7–15, 1801 of the library and art collection of Samuel Ireland, the artist, engraver, writer, collector and promoter of the Shakespeare papers, a copy of the second edition of a book by Roger Cotton entitled A Direction to the Waters of Lyfe (London: 1592, STC 5867) was found. This book was one of the many which William Henry Ireland, Samuel’s son, had tried to pass off as coming from Shakespeare’s library; and after many peregrinations (it fetched 10 shillings and 6 pence at the Ireland sale) it found its way to the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in 1955, where it has remained. Ireland fils forged Shakespeare’s name on the title page, as well as a number of comments in the text. At A3r, for example, beside a long chapter heading that reads “Seeing that every man is but as a beast by his owne knowledge, we must learn to be made wyse by the worde of God,” Shakespeare/Ireland has written “a mere | reptyle | withoute | thyne helpe | o myghtye | Godde” in an acceptably convincing imitation of a late sixteenth-century hand. There were many in Ireland’s day, and many since, who thought him little better than a mere reptile, although in his 1805 Confessions the forger described himself as “ unthinking and impetuous boy than...a sordid and avaricious fabricator” ([A4r]).

The Ireland Shakespeare forgeries are among the most famous instances of forgery in the eighteenth century. Although not quite in the same class as the Chatterton and Macpherson cases, in which not only texts but a writer were fabricated and the resulting poems continued to be read after their inventors’ stories were shown to be faked, the Shakespeare papers were equally a cause célèbre and provoked a similar pamphlet war. Several earlier studies have examined the Ireland case in some detail, [End Page 474] and scholarly consensus has generally taken William Henry Ireland’s avowal at face value: i.e., that the Shakespeare manuscripts and other “remains” were forged largely by the teenager in an attempt to convince the père that the fils was not an ineducable dolt with a dim future.

Jeffrey Kahan does not believe the standard explanation of the Ireland forgeries, and his Reforging Shakespeare attempts to prove a thesis that would attribute far greater maliciousness to many of the principal figures in the case. Kahan is convinced that the whole Ireland family was involved in the forgeries—not merely Samuel too, but his wife and his two daughters; that there were probably other collaborators, including the lawyer Albany Wallis and the law clerk turned actor, Montague Talbot; and that William Henry Ireland had been a forger before he turned his hand to Shakespeare and remained one to the end of his life. Some of the evidence adduced for these claims is powerful: just before his death, Ireland sent a list of material available for sale to an inquiring collector that included some Byron manuscripts which he seems to have been planning to produce. This certainly seems to prove that as late as 1832, Ireland was willing to make a little money by returning to his old habits. The fact that he wanted only £2 for a considerable list of material may, however, suggest financial desperation as much as criminal recidivism.

Kahan relates the Ireland story well and focuses most fully on Vortigern. This play, supposedly by Shakespeare, actually made it to the stage at Drury Lane, where it was heckled into oblivion before the end of the first performance in April of 1796. Much of his theorizing, however, is dubious if suggestive. The text is so liberally sprinkled with “perhaps” and “possibly” and “it...

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