Sunday, April 04, 2010

Book Review: "The Boy Who Would be Shakespeare"

Doug Stewart's The Boy Who Would be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly (Da Capo Press, 2010) is a delightfully-written account of William Henry Ireland's Shakespeare forgeries designed for the general reader. Stewart captures the facts of the case well, offering a full chronology of the hoax as well as a good account of the context surrounding the events in question.

Young William Henry Ireland, wanted to prove himself to the world, but most of all to his overbearing and dismissive father, who didn't believe he would ever amount to much. To please his Shakespeare-obsessed parent, Ireland began forging documents written or signed by William Shakespeare, creating a cover story in the process (he was getting them, he said, from a gentleman of his acquaintance who'd sworn him to secrecy). Samuel Ireland was thrilled, and greedily accepted everything his son brought to him (like others, he apparently never suspected young William Henry capable of such deception). The forger was careful in his technique (at least in terms of materials; many slips in orthography would later prove his undoing), but the demands of his father led him further and further into the morass of deceit he created for himself.

Eventually, the jig was up. William Henry claimed to have unearthed a wholly new Shakespeare play, Vortigern and Rowena, which his father arranged to have produced at London's Drury Lane Theatre (owned by Richard Brinsley Sheridan). Just before the play opened, scholarly critic Edmond Malone issued a book-length attack on the Shakespeare manuscripts (which Ireland's father had published), declaring them utter frauds. The play's first performance was also its last. But Samuel Ireland refused to believe his son's soon-proffered confession - he simply couldn't understand that his son the blockhead might have deceived him (and many others) for so long.

While Ireland awaits a full-length biography, and while there are more in-depth scholarly treatments of his forgeries, this is a suitable introduction. Stewart relies perhaps too much on Ireland's own confessions (sometimes contradictory versions of which appeared in 1796, 1805, and 1832), and the lack of in-text notes and a full bibliography is to be lamented. There must be more to be gleaned from the Samuel Ireland papers at the British Library or the materials in the Donald and Mary Hyde collection (now at Harvard). But as a starting point for explorations of this fascinating young man and his forgeries, Stewart's book is satisfactory. It sent me off to my shelf-full of books about the controversy more than once, and its overall message about the forgeries (that people are happy to see what they wish to see) is right on target. Some things, as they say, never change.