The authorship of Shakespeare’s plays has long been disputed, which makes the story of William-Henry Ireland both amusing and fascinating. In 1794, the young man forged several documents that he claimed were Shakespeare’s – including two plays – yet despite the fact that they were obviously suspicious, several notable Shakespeare scholars at the time authenticated them. How did he manage to pull off such a forgery? Quite simply, there are no documents written in Shakespeare’s hand – which is one reason for the authorship debate – but because the public desperately wanted to see something actually written by the Bard, they were willing to believe.
This is the topic of The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, Doug Stewart’s engaging account of William-Henry Ireland’s life and how he managed to dupe so many people for so long. Stewart discusses Ireland’s motive and his means for the forgery, as well as what happened to Ireland in the aftermath of the forgery being exposed.
Ireland led a relatively quiet and boring life, working as a lawyer’s apprentice but fancying himself a writer. His distant, cold father was obsessed with collecting, particularly anything related to Shakespeare. So Ireland attempted to please his father by producing a long sought-after document with Shakespeare’s signature. He had the old paper and the watered-down ink, and he could write in Elizabethan style. It seemed almost too easy.
Once he finally got his father’s attention, Ireland couldn’t stop. And he produced an astonishing number of forged works that got not only his father’s attention but the public’s as well. Ireland’s works were confirmed time and time again by several Shakespeare experts as being written by none other than the Bard. Stewart documents how this deception grows until, finally, the truth is revealed, shaming Ireland’s family and humiliating the men who authenticated the works.
Well-researched, witty, and informative, The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare almost reads like a work of fiction. I was engrossed from beginning to end. After all, the idea that this teenager was able to convince anyone that his writings were Shakespeare’s is absurd - and yet, it happened. Stewart’s account of how and why it happened is captivating. I highly recommend this book for any Shakespeare fan.