Deidre Lynch: Loving Shakespeare Too Much

In this episode of Houghton75, we speak with Deidre Lynch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature, to discuss one of the most audacious literary hoaxes in history, masterminded by a teenage fan turned fanatic. Featuring special guest host Dale Stinchcomb. Find out more about the exhibition and Houghton Library’s 75th anniversary celebrations at

Renaissance string ensemble music by The King’s Noyse.

Podcast Transcript and Music Notes

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.

James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

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JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years.

HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit for more information.

JC: This episode marks 2 months of Houghton75, and to celebrate we brought in a special guest host – a colleague from the Harvard Theatre Collection. Take it away, Dale!

[Music: “Child Grove” perfomed by The King’s Noyse. Track 20 on their album The King’s Delight (Harmonia Mundi, HMX2907370.71)]

Dale Stinchcomb (DC): We all have a favorite author, someone whose books we read and reread with near-worshipful admiration. But to what lengths would your love of literature take you? Would your devotion to, say, Shakespeare inspire you to forge a new play in his name? I’m Dale Stinchcomb, and I sat down with Deidre Lynch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature, to discuss one of the most audacious literary hoaxes in history, masterminded by a teenage fan turned fanatic.

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Deidre Lynch (DL): The story starts in the 1790s, which is also an era when Shakespeare is popular as never before. A man named Samuel Ireland, a sort of wannabe antiquarian, someone who’s making his living as an engraver, is presented by his teenage son with something in Shakespeare’s handwriting. William Henry, which is the son’s name, William Henry reports that a certain mysterious client of the law office where William Henry Ireland is apprenticed has this whole box of manuscripts dating back to the Elizabethan period. This mysterious ‘Mr. H.’ wants to remain anonymous, but this box is obviously just full of treasures because William Henry Ireland begins, I think, with a deed in Shakespeare’s hand and goes on from there.

Eventually a letter from Queen Elizabeth to Shakespeare surfaces, a love letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway enclosing a lock of William Shakespeare’s hair also surfaces, and then suddenly they find manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays which no one had seen before. None of Shakespeare’s works exist in manuscript, or at least that was what people thought. And then finally, an entirely new play entitled Vortigern and Rowena, which is debuted at Drury Lane and at that point the whole hoax gets exploded. There have already been doubts expressed by some of the foremost Shakespeare scholars of the period, and basically Vortigern and Rowena opens and closes on the same night and the tragedy turns into farce sort of mid-scene as people start just laughing at it. It was clear that the actors thought it was an absurd exercise as well.

But in the interval, Samuel Ireland had started displaying these treasures in his house for a paying audience, and then he published this book of facsimiles with facsimile engravings that Samuel Ireland produced himself, basing them on these so-called “authentic” documents that his son had found, but of course had really created himself.

DS: Samuel Ireland’s book, Miscellaneous papers and legal instruments under the hand and seal of William Shakespeare, faithfully reproduced many of the documents his son William Henry had passed off as the Bard’s. Ironically, it also afforded skeptics the chance to scrutinize them at length, hastening William Henry’s exposure as a fraud.

DL: Eventually William Henry Ireland publishes a Confessions in 1805, and in that he comes across as a real rogue. And I think another sign of his roguery would be the fact that he starts forging his own forgeries.

DS: Right! So he ends up making a career for himself re-fabricating and forging his own forgeries, putting them together into extra-illustrated volumes, and then selling them. We have one of them here, and it’s really remarkable! It has manuscript accounts of the forgeries, along with tipped in pieces of what we suspect are forgeries of the forgeries in his Elizabethan hand. And so he’s really advertising himself and publicizing himself around this episode for the rest of his life. But Samuel Ireland, sadly, goes to his grave still holding to the truth that these are in fact authentic.

[Music: “Robin is to the greenwood gone” perfomed by The King’s Noyse. Track 17 on their album The King’s Delight (Harmonia Mundi, HMX2907370.71)]

DS: Samuel Ireland was a gullible parent. He wanted desperately to recover some artifactual link to his literary hero. Shakespeare’s manuscripts had long been searched for—indeed his resurging fame had touched off something like a nationwide hunt for them. So it is easy to understand why Samuel Ireland was taken in by his son’s deception. On the other hand, scholars continue to debate William Henry’s motive.

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DS: It’s easy to see this as one lie leading into a host of other lies, but then again, he created nearly 10,000 lines in Shakespeare’s hand and in the hand of his contemporaries. That is not something that you do without calculation, especially not at that age. So there are some scholars who believe that this was a calculated effort, and I think it’s more mania than genius.

DL: I think mania is a good word for it. Yes. There’s a kind of over production. If he had stopped sooner, he probably would not have brought the shame upon his father’s house that he ultimately did.

Another context for this is that there had been a series of forgeries and hoaxes in 18th century culture before this. We know that William Henry Ireland knew very well the work of Thomas Chatterton, who had invented a Medieval poet named Rowley and forged various Medieval manuscripts that were supposed to have been the work of this Thomas Rowley, a monk in Bristol, I think, in the 14th century. Horace Walpole had published the first edition of his Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, as a found document. The first edition says “this manuscript was found in a library in the north of England.” It was presented as sort of an antiquarian discovery. In the second edition, to which he signs his name, Walpole says “Nope, gotcha! This is an experiment in a new kind of novel.”

So there’s lots of context for this. You would think after decades, people’s wits would have been sharpened.

DS: Ireland’s forgeries satisfied a real desire readers had then—and still have today—for greater intimacy with a famous author by giving them privileged access to Shakespeare’s originals.

DL: One of the things I love about the whole phenomenon is the ways in which it gets us thinking really hard about authenticity and what authenticity can possibly mean in a culture where everybody wants their own volume of Shakespeare (laughs). And Samuel Ireland is somebody who’s invested in a kind of duplication industry. He’s been making his living, in part, by engraving paintings so that paintings no longer exist only in one place at one time, but instead are accessible to a broader, paying audience who get to participate in the cult of the artwork in ways that would not have been true if the technology of engraving didn’t exist.

DS: This work actually answers a lot of questions that scholars have always wanted to know the answers to, which is why they found it so, so irresistible. They had an idea what Shakespeare was reading, and so when William Henry produces the books that have Shakespeare’s signatures in them we get an idea of the Shakespeare who we know existed, but we also get an idea of the Shakespeare that we wish we had evidence that existed. Shakespeare the moralist, you know, especially Shakespeare the sage.

DL: So it’s a wonderful way to explore with students the vexed relationship that literature has to a notion of the original. Literature always exists in multiple forms. It’s not like the Mona Lisa. We can say, “oh that’s in the Louvre.” Where is Hamlet? We can’t answer that question. I think William Henry Ireland wanted to give that an answer. He wanted to say, “Look! I have Hamlet! It came out of Mr. H’s trunk.”
DS: I asked Professor Lynch how her students react when she tells them this incredible story? Do they feel like they would’ve seen through the hoax—that they wouldn’t have been fooled?

[Music: “Gathering peascods” perfomed by The King’s Noyse. Track 3 on their album The King’s Delight (Harmonia Mundi, HMX2907370.71)]

DL: Well, I cheat a little bit…I just tell the story of William Henry Ireland and Samuel Ireland straight, and I wait to see how long it takes them to catch on that in fact there is no lost Shakespeare play that was found in the year 1796 entitled Vortigern and Rowena. They generally have taken Shakespeare before they come to my classroom.

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DL: I think they’re very interested in how people could love Shakespeare so much that they surrender all of their usual powers of judgment. I always tell this story when I introduce these materials about how James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s biographer, comes to Samuel Ireland’s house, kneels and kisses one of the manuscripts, and thanks God that he has lived to see this day. And he too, like Samuel Ireland, dies shortly afterwards and goes to his grave still thinking that there’s been a trove of Shakespeare manuscripts discovered. I think they’re interested in the strength of the feelings for Shakespeare that would have made it possible for William Henry Ireland to have fooled as many people for as long as, in fact, he did.

[Music: “Daphne” perfomed by The King’s Noyse. Track 9 on their album The King’s Delight (Harmonia Mundi, HMX2907370.71)]

HF: We’d like extend our thanks to Professor Lynch for coming in and sharing her insights into this incredible forgery and reminding us of the power of books to provoke tremendous feelings – sometimes even criminal ones.

JC: A large thank you also goes to our colleague Dale Stinchcomb for guest hosting this week. Throughout this episode, you heard music from the group King’s Noyse, a Renaissance-style string ensemble, founded by David Douglass. Thanks so much to them.

HF: To view the book of facsimiles by Samuel Ireland and experience this fascinating piece of history firsthand, come visit us in Harvard Yard and walk through our current exhibition, HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library.

JC: Don’t worry if you can’t make it to Boston – the exhibit is also available online at You can also read podcast transcripts and detailed musical notes online at

HF: Thanks for joining us this week. And whether you are tuning in from near or far, we hope you will come back next time for another episode of Houghton75.

[music continues to end]