The Special Collections holds several items and collections related to William Shakespeare, whose 449th birthday (and date of death) is today (some accounts give the birth date as April 26). We have two plays, The Twelfth Night and Timon of Athens, printed in 1632 and excised from a 2nd Folio of Shakespeare’s works. We also have several dozen 18th and 19th century etchings of various scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, some printed on silk.
One item of interest, though, is an 1805 book titled The Confessions of William Henry Ireland. Upon looking at the title page and the illustration you can see there is a connection to Shakespeare.
William Henry Ireland (1775-1835) was the son of a British Shakespeare collector and an antiquities dealer, who hoped to impress his father by “discovering” documents involving Shakespeare, particularly those bearing Shakespeare’s signature, which were rare even in the late 1700s. Ireland began by forging simple documents, which his father believed were real, and then went on to “discover” the original manuscripts of several plays, like Hamlet. He eventually went one step further and “discovered” an unknown Shakespeare play, Vortigern and Rowena. Even though there were skeptics as to the authenticity of this play (other appraisers suggested could be an early Shakespeare work), the play was produced and performed in 1796 by the Drury Lane Theatre in London. The play was literally laughed off the stage at its premier and shortly thereafter Ireland admitted the whole thing was a hoax. Ireland’s father, however, was not convinced the play was a forgery, perhaps believing his twenty-year-old son was not smart enough to write an entire play by himself. In 2008, however, the play was again produced and performed by the Pembroke Players at Pembroke College at Cambridge, with the full knowledge that the play was not an authentic Shakespeare play. The Confessions of William Henry Ireland was published in London by Ellerton and Byworth, for Thomas Goddard, and the Special Collections’ copy, a first edition, is part of the Charles Hubbard Collection acquired several years ago by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Happy Birthday to the Bard! There’s nothing phony about his other plays……