No-holds Bard

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Jill Batt­son For The New Mex­i­can

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

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