Sunday, April 28, 2013

An MP's Account of the Ireland Forgeries

I recently stumbled across another example of a contemporary diary account of the William Henry Ireland Shakespeare forgeries (previous installments: William GodwinGeorge CanningJohn Quincy Adams, Joseph Farington), this one coming from MP Charles Abbot, later Lord Colchester (The Diary and Correspondence of Charles Abbot, Lord Colchester, Speaker of the House of Commons 1802-1817, ed. Charles, Lord Colchester. London: John Murray, 1861).

22 January 1796: Went to Mr. Ireland's, in Norfolk Street in the Strand, by appointment of Sir Philip Gibbes, to meet the Portuguese Ambassabor D'Almeida, and see the newly produced manuscripts of Shakspeare. We saw the MS. play of Lear, and an entire new play of Vortigern and Rowena. Also his profession of faith, letters, to and from him, accounts, receipts, and deeds, &c., innumerable; besides his supposed library of books, to the number of seventy volumes at least, such as Spenser, and various chronicles and pamphlets of the time he lived in, interspersed with his marginal observations. A love-letter to his mistress, Ann Hathaway, whom he afterwards married, and a lock of his hair enclosed. Sir Isaac Heard, who was present, and had often seen these articles before, was firmly persuaded of their authenticity. I am not; doubtless the number of pieces produced makes the supposition of a forgery more difficult; but my opinion, as far as any can be formed on such an inspection, and hearing the accompanying narrative, is against their authenticity: 1. Because there is no great variety of Shakspeare's MSS. extant by which the authenticity of this specimen of handwriting can be judged of. 2. Because the paper appears to be artificially stained or darkened; and especially upon the printed books in those places only where the handwriting is inserted. 3. Because I do not think any of the compositions which I saw surpass the merit of many daily imitations in the newspapers. 4. Because if the internal evidence fails, or is inconclusive, the external evidence is of all others the most suspicious, and nearly destructive of their being true originals; for Ireland refuses to say where or from whom he procured them, and even denies that he knows it; they being delivered, as he says, by his son to him, and received by his son from some gentleman who will not suffer himself to be named. His story is even further the more suspicious, because Shakspeare's reputation has now for so many years been celebrated, and yet no one fair or entire copy of any one of his numerous plays has ever been found; and here is only one a whole fair copy of the long play of Lear, but two new entire plays, also pretended to be entirely in his handwriting, whose titles never before were known, viz. Vortigern and Rowena, and King Henry II. It is to be noted also, that a deed of trust from Shakespeare to Hemmings, the player, speaks of a play entitled Henry III., but even that deed does not mention Henry II.

I remember also, in a conversation with Mr. Malone, hearing him instance the following circumstances to prove the imposture:—1. That Lord Southampton's handwriting, produced by Ireland, is quite unlike all the specimens in the British Museum. 2. That Hampton Court, called Hamtown by Queen Elizabeth, in a supposed letter under her hand, never was so called without the addition of "Court" in her time. 3. That the words "derangement" and "acceded to" are modernisms, and unknown in Shakespeare's time, &c., &c.

If the whole be a forgery, as I think it must be,—at least till these two new plays are submitted to the public eye and judgment, for their contents to be ascertained and appreciated,—it is certainly a very elaborate forgery, and an unprecedented attempt to impose on the literary judgment of the public. Chatterton's were comparatively few and soon detected.

2 April 1796: I dined at Montagu's, and went afterwards with him to the representation of Vortigern, a pretended play of Shakspeare, but in truth a miserable cento and parody, patched up principally from Macbeth, with a character of Queen Katherine, and a scene or two imitated from As You Like It. Nothing for which an original character or idea might not be found in Shakspeare, and nothing not expressed in the worst taste. The play was heard with patience into the third act, then it was laughed at, and hissed and laughed at to the end, and then not suffered to be given out again.

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