Sunday, July 10, 2011

John Quincy Adams and the Shakespeare Forgeries

NB - This post stems from an impromptu dinner conservation I had this week with some fellow Rare Book School students and staff members; I'd mentioned how when I come across published or manuscript diaries which cover 1795-1796 I like to spot-check and see if the writer mentions the William Henry Ireland Shakespeare forgeries (viz. George Canning, William Godwin). The next morning I started playing around in WorldCat to see what other diaries I ought to look at for this as I find them, and suddenly a thought popped into my head that I had never checked to see whether John Quincy Adams (who as a 28-year-old junior diplomat was in London for much of the relevant period) had anything to say on the topic. I thought he might, given his penchant for Shakespeare, but I was surprised (and delighted) by what I found.

In his diary for 19 November 1795, Adams writes "... Mr. Deas and Mr. Bayard called at about 12. Went with them and Mr. Vaughan to see Mr. Ireland [presumably William Henry's father Samuel], and saw several of his manuscripts which he assures have been lately discovered, and are original from the hand of Shakespear. They are deeds, billets, a love-letter to Anne Hatherrwaye with a lock of hair, designs done with a pen, a fair copy of Lear, three or four sheets of a Hamlet, and a Tragedy hitherto unknown of Vortigern and Rowena. The last we did not see, as unfortunately some company came, to which Mr. Ireland was obliged to attend, and we accordingly took our leave. The marks of authenticity born by the manuscripts are very considerable, but this matter will like to occasion as great a literary controversy as the supposed poems of Rowley, and those of Ossian have done. They will be published in the course of a few weeks; and the play of Vortigern is to appear upon the Drury Lane Stage. Sheridan has given five hundred pounds for it."

At a dinner party several nights later (22 November 1795), hosted by Sir John Sinclair, and attended by Sir John McPherson, Count Rumford, the agricultural writer Arthur Young, and others, Adams reported "The conversation was miscellaneous: philosophical, political, and literary. We had some bread made of 1/3 rice & 2/3 wheat, which I could not have distinguished from fine wheat bread; some water impregnated with fixed air, &c." Talk turned to the Ireland Shakespeare papers: "Sir John McPherson and Dr. Percy made a number of very sensible observations. They both declared their opinion that the manuscripts of Mr. Ireland were unquestionably genuine, but they both expressed an opinion as to the composition of the small papers, and particularly of that called the profession of faith, higher than I think they deserve."

Two days later, on 24 November 1795, Adams wrote home to his mother, and the letter is given over in substantial part to the Ireland papers. I'll quote from it at some length, since, well, I like it. After complaining of his loneliness in London, JQA writes:

"There are always however in these great Cities subjects of curiosity that become interesting to a transient traveller. Among those of the present day, are some manuscripts alledged to have been recently discovered, being originals from the hands of Shakespear. Among several others of trifling importance, there is a complete fair copy of the Tragedy of King Lear, three or four sheets being part of an Hamlet, and an whole Tragedy heretofore unknown, entitled Vortigern and Rowena.

You will suppose that I have enough of the Catholic superstition about me, to pay my devotions to such relics as these. They are in the possession of a private Gentleman by the name of Ireland, and with the introduction of a friend I have had an opportunity to see them all except the new play. That was not shewn us, whether owing to an interruption from company, or to some shyness in the proprietor, the play being still unacted and unpublished, I know not. It has however been purchased by the manager of Drury Lane Theatre {Mr Sheridan}, for five hundred pounds, and is to appear on that stage in the course of the present Season. It will soon be published likewise in print.

The reality of this discovery is however contested, and it may perhaps occasion a literary controversy, that will finally remain undecided like that which was raised by Chatterton. Among the numerous proofs of authenticity which accompany these papers, Mr. Ireland does not hesitate to affirm that the Vortigern will be ranked among the very best plays of the author, and Mr. Sheridan by adopting it on the Stage, seems in some degree to have pledg'd his great literary reputation on the point.

When I shall have seen or read the Vortigern, I shall feel myself better qualified to form an opinion upon this great question than I am at present. The internal marks of authenticity born by the papers are great and numerous. Mr. Ireland told us indeed that no single person that had seen the papers entertained the smallest doubt of their being genuine, but this assurance did not entirely remove mine. The internal evidence is indeed {so} very strong in their favour that it becomes a little suspicious from its minuteness. For instance, at the end of the Lear, is written "The end of my Tragedy of King Lear. William Shakspeare. Does not such a minute look a little as if it was made on purpose to answer a question very natural now, but which the author probably never foresaw? Yet at the time of this supposed discovery other examples of the author’s hand-writing were extant, and they compare perfectly well with these. The play differs in almost every line from the copies hitherto known in print, and improves upon them.

Among the loose papers are a short Letter from Queen Elizabeth to Shakespear commanding him to play before her on a certain day. A copy of a letter from him to Lord Southampton and his answer: a deed from him to a man by the name of Ireland, or rather a Will, giving him several of his plays and a sum of money, in consideration of his having saved his life from drowning in the Thames a Love Letter to Anna Hatherrewaye with a lock of hair: engagements with several of the players who performed at his Theatre, and receipts from them, with several designs drawn with a pen &c. All these are to be published, and will make their appearance within a few weeks.

You have long known my partiality for the Swan of Avon, and will not be surprized to find me entering seriously into a question like this. Nor will you think it ridiculous. "Not to admire" the maxim of Horace and of Pope as procuring the only means of human happiness, has indeed more and more of my assent, the longer I live upon earth. I find the enthusiasm of youth rapidly subsiding [this from a man not yet thirty], and scarce any thing new or old that now meets my observation, has the power to excite a strong sensation. I have not yet however lost my attachment to poetical beauty, and still recognize with delight the flashes of original genius. Shakespear therefore retains almost unimpaired his empire over my mind, and shares largely of that gratitude which I think due to the memory of every man, whose labours contribute to enliven the dulness of human existence."

Abigail received the letter in March 1796, and recounts its contents at some length in a letter to her husband (then finishing out his second term as vice-president), noting "You know how passionately fond our Son has ever been of that great master of humane nature, he may truly be said to have inherited this from his parents." After going on to repeat much of the contents of the Ireland papers and JQA's reaction to them, she concludes "I may as well quit here or go on to transcribe his whole Letter, not a syllable of which is uninteresting, he complains of the craveing void of solitude even in the city of London, I can easily enter into his Sensations. and most redily believe him."

Apparently becoming intrigued by the story of Vortigern and Rowena (glad I'm not the only one who gets sucked into projects like this), Abigail did a little reading, which she describes in a letter to John of 15 April 1796: "From the posthumous play of Shakspear which our son mentions under the title of vortigern and Rowena, I have been led to Serch the English History for an account of them; I find the most particular and accurate in Rapins History ..." [read about Vortigern in John Adams' copy of Rapin here]. John's reply, on 24 April, reports "I have recd in your favour of 15. an entertaining Account of Vortigern and Rowena" (the next sentence reads "Our Waggon is mired, to the Axletree in a Bog, and unable to advance or retreat.").

Meanwhile, back in London, what's happening with John Quincy Adams? He had a fairly busy winter and early spring (between his diplomatic business, his courtship of Louisa Catherine Johnson, and his endless self-criticism), but he did find time to attend the theatre fairly often, especially for Shakespeare productions. On 23 December 1795 he saw a production of Macbeth at Drury Lane, describing it this way: "Evening at Drury Lane. Macbeth Palmer. Lady Macbeth Mrs Siddons. Palmer not equal to the part. Mrs Siddons excellent with the sleeping scene. Wroughton's Macduff detestable. The play performed almost wholly as it is printed. Only a few scenes left out. And some songs introduced for the Witches."

JQA's diary entries for January-March 1796 are uncharacteristically succinct, and he does not mention reading either the published version of the Shakespeare papers or any of the immediate responses to them which appeared throughout the winter. But on 24 April 1796 he again writes home to Abigail:

"The famous Shakespeare manuscripts about which I wrote you soon after my arrival here, are now generally considered as mere forgeries. The play of Vortigern was once performed, and fairly laughed off the stage.

I had not an opportunity to judge of it myself as I could not attend on the Evening of its first and only performance, but the opinion of all those who heard it appears to be unanimous, that it is not only an imposture but a very awkward and clumsy one. Volumes have been written & published on the subject, and men of all sorts take now a pride in girding[?] at the poor proprietor of the manuscripts."

So where was JQA on the night of 2 April 1796 that he "could not attend" the only performance of Ireland's play? His diary tells us: "Evening at Mr. Johnson's." So he missed Vortigern for a date (at least he didn't take Louisa to the play, since things did get a bit rowdy as the audience turned). Two days later, he had his final sitting with John Singleton Copley for the portrait at the top of the post (which he called "a good picture").

It's fascinating, these little rabbit-holes one falls into without really meaning to. Here's a young guy, off in London, writing home to mom about curious manuscripts he's seen, Abigail Adams going off to the shelves to read more about the play's subject, and passing that along to her husband (who happens to be the vice president). Ah, what fun!