When the clueless Samuel Ireland began his quixotic quest to unearth the centuries-old papers of William Shakespeare in the late 1700s, about 180 years after the Bard’s demise, some of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s older citizens told him someone had carted away “a trove of old papers” from New Place, Shakespeare’s last known residence, just before the place was demolished. The documents, whatever they were, ended up on the outskirts of town, at Clopton House. According to Doug Stewart, author of “The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly,” Ireland visited the owner, who, pulling the Shakespeare groupie’s chain in a way that recalls a Monty Python sketch, said that just a couple of weeks before he had burned a bunch of papers to clear an area for some young partridges. Some of the papers, he seemed to recall, had Shakespeare’s name on them. Ireland was horrified: What a terrible, terrible loss for England, for humanity. Just to be sure, the guy shouted to his wife, and you can almost hear the Python-like screeching, if she recalled seeing such documents. “Yes, my dear,” she said, “I do remember it perfectly well, and if you will call to mind my words, I told you not to burn the papers as they might be of consequence.”
A great story, this cruel little send-up, one Stewart speculates probably had been well rehearsed by the couple to torment the rapidly growing cult of Shakespeare’s enthusiasts knocking at their door, but it didn’t ring the same kind of bell for the Ipswich author as it does on this corner of the North Shore: Yup, Newburyporters, we’re talking about one of those Cloptons. Marc Clopton, founder of the Actors Studio and a fixture on the local theater scene for close to two decades, is a direct descendant of Hugh Clopton, who in 1490 was Lord Mayor of London and whose family palled around with Shakespeare, even giving the playwright a place to live during his last days on this stage. That would be the previously mentioned New Place, which, it turns out, was built by old Hugh Clopton. Family lore also has it that the Bard used Lady Anne Clopton — “some sort of great-great-great aunt or cousin or something,” he says — as a model of Ophelia, who goes off the deep end after Hamlet, her beloved, butchers her father. She, like Lady Anne, drowns herself. Why did she do it? “Unrequited love, same old story,” he says.
Clopton will be moderating a discussion with Stewart about “The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare” during this year’s Newburyport Literary Festival. The book looks at the strange-but-true story about how William-Henry Ireland, Samuel’s son, pulled off one of the greatest literary hoaxes in history, forging everything from supposed love letters to Anne Hathaway to supposed first drafts of “Hamlet” and “King Lear” to a new, previously undiscovered play by the Bard himself.
And, for the record, Clopton’s family eventually moved on to Colonial Virginia in the early 1700s, where they became prosperous slave owners, and Clopton House, a rambling four-story manor with seven chimneys and just as many gables, has been turned into condos.
JUST THE FACTS: Doug Stewart will discuss “The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare” in a moderated discussion with Marc Clopton at 10:30 a.m. April 24 at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 7 Harris St., Newburyport.