Fact is we don’t know a whole lot about William Shakespeare. Even the people who know a lot about him don’t really know much about him. And we’re not talking the so-called “authorship controversy,” the endless furor, rejected by most academics, about whether old Billy Boy actually wrote the stuff attributed to him — the tired literary equivalent to the Lone Gunman theory. We’re talking basic biographical facts, his actual dates, for goodness sake, as much as his literary tracks and artifacts. Because once you get past now-accepted tradition, essentially undocumented stories passed down through the generations, there are precious few unassailable facts, leaving plenty of room for frauds and con artists to maneuver long after his death, when the largely forgotten playwright enjoyed an unexpected and to date unparalleled revival, when the “virulent culture of Shakespeare” took hold, as Doug Stewart, left, author of “The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare,” puts it. That would be the late 18th century, when the Bard became the Bard, “widely and rather unthinkingly acclaimed as the quasi-divine embodiment of the nation’s unique genius, a symbol of Englishness beyond criticism and without rival.” He had been dead and buried for close to 200 years, but he was a hot commodity. People were gobbling up anything with even the slightest connection to Shakespeare — and, it seems, with little regard to its bona fides.
But this barely begins to explain the successful two-year run of forgeries, each more fantastic than the last, managed by a less-than-awe-inspiring William-Henry Ireland, a teenage boy without literary training or obvious proclivity for writing, who was not wowing anyone academically and, being a young punk, someone with little in the way of real life experience. But somehow he managed to produce, among other things, love letters Shakespeare supposedly wrote to the missus, an “early draft” of “King Lear” and, in a staggering act of hubris, a “previously undiscovered” full-length play — working on dizzying deadlines, supposedly in the Bard’s own hand — all of which were gobbled up by people who should have known better. When problems started cropping up with the work — and there were plenty of sketchy things about the documents — either the “experts” managed to come up with some sort of explanation, however tenuous, to preserve the fiction, or the kid would “discover” another document that set the matter straight. It’s all so laughable that, were it fiction, the premise would be rejected out of hand. Even the author agrees — sort of. “It’s the most preposterous chain of events you could imagine,” says Stewart, who came to the issue while researching “To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare,” a 2006 piece on the authorship issue for Smithsonian. “On the other hand,” he says, “it was almost inevitable that someone would pull this kind of stunt.”
It was, after all, the Age of Forgery. People had been faking it for centuries, probably since written language became an important medium. Shakespeare himself uses it as a plot device in “Hamlet” and “Twelfth Night.” But in the 1700s, with literacy rates on the rise and the media of the day bringing the news, fit to print or not, to the masses, forgery, fraud and out-and-out bunk exploded — despite the threat of death if you got caught. And why not? It was the Age of Forgery, and there was money to be made. And Shakespeare was relatively virgin territory — and a target that almost begged for bunko: At the dawn of the Romantic era, he was famous, popular and suddenly collectible — a new phenomenon, like a rock star. But, more important, he was a virtual shadow. Most of the facts about his life were debatable. There were almost no examples of his handwriting aside from a couple of signatures on legal documents. There were no letters, no diaries, no contemporary manuscripts (the so-called First Folio came out after the Bard was off-stage, and even that was less than definitive, cobbled together from what actors could remember), let alone early drafts. The value of the literary process or author-as-celebrity was a relatively modern invention. The field for Fakespeare (con)artistry was wide open.
But that wasn’t William-Henry’s game. He wasn’t looking to cash in or make a name for himself — not at first. He wanted something way more intangible and precious: the love of, or, at least, some sort of attention from his wretched, horrible Shakespeare-obsessed father — a short, balding man with an arrogant if not especially deserved sense of self-importance, as Stewart describes him. But Samuel didn’t have much use for the boy, whom he considered a blockhead and an embarrassment. William-Henry knew how much Samuel and the rest of the culty Friends of Bill sought primary source material for the great William, and decided to give Daddy Dearest what he wanted. He started out small: ephemera supposedly from an old trunk stored in the home of a wealthy gentleman. This only whetted Samuel’s appetite. He wanted more, and the desperate, eager-to-please William-Henry obliged. Armed with a working knowledge of Elizabethan grammar, a sense of the rhythm and style of Shakespeare’s plays that came from endless readings by Samuel, and pilfered parchment and watered-down ink, William-Henry grew increasingly bold — and sloppy. The old trunk became the 18th-century equivalent of Felix the Cat’s Bag of Tricks, containing a near-endless supply of documents, including a full-length play that was produced at Drury Lane Theatre just before the whole enterprise collapsed.
Preposterous? Yeah. But, instead of being astonished by — or even a little dubious of — the flood of material conveniently falling into their laps, Shakespeare’s literary groupies shrugged their collective shoulders, saying, essentially, “Hey, it’s about time.” The search for the historical Shakespeare had become an obsession for an enraptured nation. The Shakespeare clique knew the papers had to be somewhere because ... well, because they really wanted them to exist. And there were skeptics, but they held their tongues because they wanted to be absolutely sure: An expert who couldn’t recognize the work of the Master would become a laughing stock.
Samuel went to the grave broke, his reputation, such as it was, in tatters, but believing the Shakespeare papers were real, that, somehow, his blockhead son had stolen them — even after the boy confessed, even when he admitted to the entire scheme in his memoirs/confession. Which, of course, the old boy did not believe his ne’er-do-well son was clever enough to have written. William-Henry, who had convinced himself, just before the fall that he was a superstar — and why not, people believed, for whatever reason, that the words he wrote were Shakespeare’s — hung on another four decades, churning out a few books of his own, but living at the edges. To quote the immortal one, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Doug Stewart will read from “The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare” at 7 p.m. April 16 at Jabberwocky, at the Tannery, 50 Water St., Newburyport. The event is free. For more information, call 978-465-9359 or log onto the Jabberwocky web. Stewart will also participate in a moderated talk with Marc Clopton, director of the Actors Studio on April 24, as part of the Newburyport Literary Festival. For more information about the lit-fest, log on newburyportliteraryfestival.org. He will also speak at 7:30 p.m. April 28 at Ipswich Historical Society/Ipswich Museum, The Heard House, 54 South Main St., Ipswich. For more information, call 978.356.2811. The illustration shows interior of the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane. The 1796 premiere of the forged Shakespeare play, "Vortigern and Rowena," was the newly expanded theater's first sellout. Thousands were turned away on opening night.