Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Shakespeare Forgeries


The materials for a life of Shakespeare have been gradually assembled by the industry of hundreds of scholars, extending through more than two centuries; and probably little new matter of importance remains to be discovered, except through a happy, and at present quite unforeseen, accident.

Joseph Quincy Adams, 1923

There have been a number of audacious forgeries in history. Often, they are so outrageous they are awe-inspiring. One thinks of the Hitler Diaries of the 1960s, the Clifford Irving forgery of papers of Howard Hughes, and (in a strange way) the Shroud of Turin. Recently, a small stone casket with an inscription suggesting that it had once belonged to James, brother of Jesus, was discovered. After great excitement, it was determined to be a fake. We marvel at the boldness of the forgers, and, perversely, we often admire them.

William Shakespeare, portrait
William Shakespeare, portrait
No forgeries in history have been more spectacular than those of William Henry Ireland, at the end of the 18th Century, and those of John Payne Collier, some 50 years later. Why? They certainly were not experts at the craft of forgery. It was because they dared to produce documents alleged to have been written by William Shakespeare.

William Henry Ireland and John Payne Collier are not the only forgers of Shakespeariana, but clearly the two who produced the greatest excitement. From as early as 1630, numerous interesting characters have attempted to deceive history with manufactured myths about Shakespeare. These invented facts have persisted to this day. They are more influential in Shakespearean scholarship than the blatant document forgeries of Ireland and Collier, and, like dormant viruses, they arise every now and then to infect the serious biographies of Shakespeare.

The document forgeries of Ireland and Collier, when examined in detail, are the most complicated, and form the heart of our story. These two, then, are our leading figures.

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