A manuscript draft of Shakeseare forger William Henry Ireland's Confessions may shed light on a contemporary Shakespearean tempest, alleges Dr. Isaac Bicker-Staff. Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Avon University in Wales, Bicker-Staff claims that the young forger saw and examined Lewis Theobald's three manuscript fragments of the play "Cardenio" (recently attributed in part to Shakespeare), and dismissed them as a hoax (even as he was laying the groundwork for his own).
In 1728, Shakespeare scholar Lewis Theobald published a play, Double Falshood; or, The Distrest Lovers, which he claimed had been written by Shakespeare. In his preface to the work, Theobald wrote (in a futile attempts to quell the cries of critics) "It has been alledg'd as incredible, that such a Curiosity should be stifled and lost to the World for above a Century. To This my Answer is short; that tho' it never till now made its Appearance on the Stage, yet one of the Manuscript Copies, which I have, is above Sixty Years Standing, in the Hand-writing of Mr. Downes, the famous Old Prompter .... Two other Copies I have (one of which I was glad to puchase at a very good Rate,) which may not, perhaps, be quite as Old as the Former; but One of Them is more more perfect and has fewer Flaws and Interruptions in the Sense."
Theobald claimed status only as the "Editor" of the play, not its author; he later seemed to implicitly back away from his attribution of the play to Shakespeare, and did not include any form of the play in his editions of Shakespeare's works. Nonetheless, scholars have continued to suggest that Shakespeare may have had a hand in the play, resulting in the recent publication of an edition by Arden Shakespeare in which University of Nottingham professor Brean Hammond suggests that the play, although heavily edited by Theobald and co-written with John Fletcher, contains what he calls "fossil verses" of Shakespeare.
New evidence indicates that William Henry Ireland, who forged numerous Shakespeare documents in the 1790s (including two entire plays), saw the manuscripts referred to by Theobald and did not accept their authenticity. Dr. Bickerstaff reveals in a forthcoming paper his discovery that in a draft of his Confessions (published in 1805), now in the Frank W. Tober Collection on Literary Forgery at the University of Delaware, Ireland included the following passage (apparently omitted by the printer when setting the type):
"As I prepared the manuscript of Vortigern and Rowena, I came upon an idea which I hoped might furnish me with a closer understanding of the labours of our bard. Having seen a copy of Mr. Theobald's Double Falshood in my father's shop and read his Preface, I sought out the manuscript copies he there mentions. A shilling in the palm of the old attendant of the Covent Garden museum bought me an hour's access with the late editor's papers, and I soon found the copies. I was sorely dismayed to find them utterly wanting in authenticity. The paper was of modern age, and tho' attempts had been made to disguise the hands, the three copies had certainly been written by the same pen which wrote the Preface, the MSS. of which also was present there. It is no wonder the good editor failed to display his copies, for to do so would have brought him much more than the japes of old Dean Swift."
Theobald's papers (which were at the Covent Garden theatre's museum by around 1770) are believed to have been destroyed in the fire which destroyed the theatre and its museum in 1808, so the conclusions of Ireland cannot be verified. But, says Bicker-Staff, "if anyone could smell a rat, it would be another rat."