The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly

~by Doug Stewart

I will admit right off that I am a huge fan of Shakespeare. Somewhat surprisingly, beyond reading and seeing many of his plays and having several monologues memorized (I used to compete when I was in high school), I actually know very little about Shakespeare or Shakespearean scholarship. So, when I discovered that Da Capo Press was offering The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly by Doug Stewart for review, it immediately caught my interest and I requested a copy. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare is about a forgery incident that occurred in London in 1795 which I had never even heard about before. Granted, it seems as though familiarity with the case is much more common in United Kingdom than it is in the United States. Published in 2010, Stewart's book is one of the most recent works chronicling the events surrounding William-Henry Ireland's forgeries.

In 1795, nineteen-year-old William-Henry Ireland presented to his father a document written by none other than William Shakespeare. He claimed to have discovered it in a trunk he was going through while working as a law clerk. In actuality, he had forged the document himself. To William-Henry's initial delight, his father, a collector of such things, took the item to be authentic. What started as a sort of practical joke quickly turned into something more as William-Henry took advantage of the Shakespeare-mania prevailing in England at the time. He "found" more and more documents relating to Shakespeare: love-letters, receipts, deeds, original drafts and manuscripts, sketches, and perhaps most impressive of all, a previously unknown play. Ireland's audacity seemed to know no bounds even when he realized he was digging and increasingly deeper hole for himself. But for a year and a half, people were willing to suspend their disbelief in the hopes that the discoveries were true.

Although The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare quite often seemed tangential, one thing that Stewart did very well was to put the events into context. In addition to exploring William-Henry's family situation, he also explores the state of Shakespearean lore in England at the time and why so many people were willing to accept Ireland's forgeries as authentic. Also interesting was how Ireland actually carried out his forgeries, paying very close attention to some details, such as using appropriately selected paper and inks, while at the same time he made blatant errors which could easily be refuted. It was really more luck than skill that allowed him to get away with his scheme for as long as he did. But even after he confessed there were very few people who actually completely believed him--some wanted to hold onto the illusion that the Shakespeare papers were real while others who were convinced they were fake simply didn't think William-Henry was capable of pulling off the stunt, at least not on his own.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare is an easy and short read and although not particularly dry the book will most likely appeal to those interested in Shakespeare or forgery. Stewart works as a freelance journalist and he brings that writing style to his book, making the subject very approachable to those with a passing interest and more serious readers alike. Unfortunately, beyond a brief "note on sources" at the end of the book, Stewart provides few in-text notes or citations, although the index included is very useful. The note also hints at and implies that there may be varying interpretations of the events described in The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare but these are not thoroughly addressed. However, and granted that I am no expert on the subject, I think that Stewart's book makes for a very nice and accessible introduction.

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