In 1796 a young law clerk called William Henry Ireland published a book under the modestly antiquarian title Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments Under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare. Ireland’s cache included a letter from Elizabeth I praising the Sonnets, amorous verses written by Shakespeare to “Anna Hatherrewaye”, a usefully explicit “Profession of Faith”, a manuscript of King Lear and promise of books from Shakespeare’s library, “in which are many books with Notes in his own hand”.
Of course Ireland had made it all up, snaffling old bits of parchment, concocting a dark brown ink and reverse-engineering Shakespeare’s handwriting from the facsimile signatures that Edmond Malone had reproduced in his 1790 edition of the plays. If a Shakespearean document is too good to be true, it almost certainly isn’t, but, as the scams prevalent in our own day show us, many of us are still willing to be tricked by impossible promises of what we most desire. The appeal of Ireland’s con was the promise of explanation, its manufactured archive the means fully to understand the works and their author. His genius was to recognize the biographical itches in Shakespeare studies that need a good scratch: his relationship with his wife; his religion, politics and reading; his methods of working. Little new evidence about Shakespeare’s life has come to light since this brilliant attempt to short-circuit the search: the questions remain unanswered. Ireland’s Miscellaneous Papers were themselves a kind of biography, in which speculation and documentation had become confused.
For Margreta de Grazia, in her lapidary book Shakespeare Without a Life, Ireland’s forgeries embody a new energy around documenting the author and symbolize the disappointments of the era’s hunger for new evidence. Malone’s biographical researches also ended in frustration. His posthumously published Life of Shakespeare listed with icy regret many of the antiquaries, actors and others who might have gathered information about the playwright during the seventeenth century. William Dugdale, Anthony Wood, John Dryden, William Davenant and Thomas Betterton are all fingered for their carelessness, even as Malone acknowledges that “the truth is, our ancestors paid very little attention to posterity”.
Link to the rest at TLS