Doug Stewart’s debut book — The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly, recently published by Da Capo Press — is a rip-roaring, hard-to-put-down, true story of a frustrated young writer living in 18th-century London who thought he was at least as good as, if not better than, Shakespeare and set out to prove it. William-Henry Ireland was just 19 when he almost pulled off one of the greatest literary forgeries of all time — an epic hoax that brought to light letters, receipts, deeds, poetry, and even a fulllength play, all purportedly written by Shakespeare or at least touched by his hand. Stewart, who is a freelance journalist, became interested in Ireland’s shenanigans while he was writing an article for the Smithsonian magazine on the Shakespeare-authorship controversy. “In the course of writing that, I found out about Shakespeare mania and the cult of Shakespeare,” he told Pasatiempo.
According to Stewart, when Shakespeare died at 52 in relative obscurity, he was far from the deity that he is considered today. By the time he retired to StratfordUpon-Avon, his plays had long since fallen from fashion. The town’s citizens knew him better as a landlord and grain merchant than as a celebrity writer. Although he wasn’t idolized as the “immortal Bard” during his lifetime, he was known as an astute businessman of the theater, one of many playwrights who knew how to deliver the popular culture of the day. In the intervening years between his death in 1616 and the 1790s, the cult of Shakespeare grew — in part because the public was theater-crazy and in part because people had started to learn to read. “Literacy was growing rapidly over the course of the 18th century,” Stewart said. “In the 17th century, to appreciate Shakespeare you had to see the plays performed. Even then, you might not know who the playwright was, because Shakespeare didn’t always get billing. But with literacy, millions of people could be exposed to the plays which were taught, alongside the Bible, in schools.” Shakespeare was held up as a symbol of England’s cultural superiority over the rest of Europe.
The late-1700s saw an interest in collecting, not only in aristocratic circles, but also within the burgeoning nouveau riche class to which William-Henry’s father, Samuel Ireland, belonged. Literary texts and rare books were of particular interest to collectors, and Samuel had a number of these together with odd bits of Shakespeare paraphernalia, including an ornate mulberry-wood goblet said to have been carved from a tree that Shakespeare had planted in his garden.
In the Ireland house, there were evening conversations about and toasts to Shakespeare and declarations from Samuel that a “single vestige of the poet’s handwriting should be esteemed a gem beyond all price.” It was little wonder that the emotionally starved and often disregarded William-Henry took notice. What began as an almost pathetic plea for his father’s attention ended with the teenage forger vilified for the rest of his life. After he left school, Samuel apprenticed his son to a lawyer friend with offices at New Inn — one of the inns of court — which was conveniently located near shops specializing in old manuscripts and books. The lawyer was mostly absent from his office, which left William-Henry plenty of time to indulge his own passion for writing and later for forging documents.
It wasn’t only Samuel Ireland who hankered for something — anything — in Shakespeare’s hand. “There were no relics from his life, and that was frustrating for people,” Stewart said. “They wanted to know who this man who wrote these great works was.” Many people believed that Shakespeare’s papers had been collected and stashed in some forgotten archive and that it was only a question of