To counterfeit thus grossly


The world of what is and isn’t Shakespeare is a murky one.

The First Folio (my own personal lighthouse) is definitely a lower bound on Shakespeare’s theatrical outputs, leaving out as it does canonical plays such as Two Noble Kinsmen and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. It includes some plays, for example Cymbeline and Henry VIII, which are believed to be collaborations while others (like Edward III*) are left out.

Since the First Folio is clearly not definitive and since Shakespeare’s name has had considerable pulling power since even before he died, a number of plays have been attributed to him which aren’t his work. Alas, therefore, for Locrine, a tale of the founding of London by a group of Trojan exiles**, and for The Birth of Merlin, apparently a comic telling of some of the high points of Arthurian Legend, both of which were written almost contemporaneously but aren’t by Shakespeare despite their publishers best claims.

The most famous, and most wholesale, Shakespearean forgery was that of William Henry Ireland who in 1795 assembled a whole box of papers he told his father he had received from a mysterious Mr H – letters from Shakespeare to Anna Hathaway***, letters from his patron the Earl of Southampton and even Queen Elizabeth and (showing a marvellous level of foresight) a deed of gift to a phony ancestor, also called William Henry Ireland, who had apparently saved the poet from drowning. Samuel Ireland promptly went public and made a lot of money exhibiting these items to the general public.


William Henry Ireland, who was only 19 in 1794

The crowning glory was the “discovery” of an entirely new Shakespeare play – Vortigern and Rowena. The plot is as follows: the King of the Britons (Constantius) offers to split his kingdom with a man (Vortigern) who plots to kill him, two of Vortigern’s children go into exile (and in drag in the case of the daughter) with his fool****. Constantius’s sons – one of whom is Uther Pendragon – raise an army, Vortigern raises an army of Saxons and falls in love with the daughter of one of his generals (that’s Rowena), much to the annoyance of his existing wife and children, Vortigern is eventually defeated and his daughter falls in love with the son of Constantius who isn’t Uther. Yes, it sounds totally daft, but it’s not like that rules it out as being Shakespeare – have you ever actually sat down and written out what happens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

The play was announced to great public acclaim. Sheridan brought the rights for the opening night (held on 2 April 1796, although many had hoped for it to be staged the day before). His actors (who could claim intimacy with Shakespeare) were clearly not convinced of the authorship of the play – Sarah Siddons dropped out of the role of Rowena***** weeks before opening night and when the play opened on April 2, 1796, Kemble in the leading role used the chance to hint at his opinion by repeating Vortigern’s line “and when this solemn mockery is o’er,” and the play was derided by the audience.******


Even the rest of the characters don’t look too thrilled in this painting of Vortigern and Rowena by William Hamilton – no wonder the audience struggled with the play…

Meanwhile the whole forgery was being soundly debunked. A critic named Edmond Malone put together an astonishing 424-page book detailing the errors – picking up on earlier commentary that the handwriting bore no relation to genuine Elizabethan texts, pointing out historical inaccuracies (such as documents referring to the Globe a number of years before it has actually been built), comparing the signatures of famous figures to those available elsewhere, and pointing out the words which were not used in Elizabethan times or had changed their meaning. It was a complete destruction of the credibility of both the documents, and the Irelands, ending with the ringing judgement that the forger “knew nothing of the history of Shakespeare, nothing of the history of the stage, nothing of the history of the English language”.

William Henry Ireland published a confession in December 1796 – less an apology and more a way to make more money, he did at least try to clear his father’s name of complicity in the forgery. It was unsuccessful however, and Samuel died in poverty in July 1800, refusing to the last to admit his son was a forger. William Henry lived until 1835, publishing a number of works under his own name (including Vortigern) but having very little success. The play was not performed between that disastrous opening night and 2008, when a production was staged at Pembroke College…


* Currently estimated at 40% Shakespeare and 60% Thomas Kyd.

** Any resemblance to the plot of the Aeneid is entirely not at all coincidental

*** Which are just brilliant – sample lines (as originally spelt) include: “AS thou haste alwaye founde mee toe mye Worde most trewe soe thou shalt see I have stryctlye kepte mye promise” and “O Anna doe I love doe I cheryshe thee inne mye hearte fore thou arte ass a a talle Cedarre stretchynge for the its branches and succourynge the smallere Plants”. Oh, and he calls her Anne Hatherrewaye.

**** As you do…

***** The general’s daughter who Vortigern falls in love with. Do try and keep up!

****** IT may not have helped that apparently the safety curtain came down on one of the cast members who was playing dead, leaving his legs on show at the of Act 4.

11 thoughts on “To counterfeit thus grossly

  1. William Henry must have been a bit daft not to bother doing his research, not to even look into appropriate wording and signatures. The problem he had was no access to the internet, where I’m sure he could now discover everything he needed to know and more to make a decent forgery. Great piece Cymbeline


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