6 Famous Literary Forgeries and How They Were Discovered


"Vortigern and Rowena" by "William Shakespeare," aka William-Henry Ireland

William-Henry Ireland
Shakespeare forger William-Henry Ireland, in a stipple engraving by Silvester Harding, 1798.
Wikimedia Commons

In 1795, William-Henry Ireland, a 19-year-old law clerk, decided it would be a good idea to fabricate a slew of Shakespearean documents, including letters, drawings, poetry, and most famously, an entire play which he titled "Vortigern and Rowena." When he told London scholars and antique dealers that he'd accidentally stumbled upon the papers that appeared to be penned by William Shakespeare, they believed him. It started when the aspiring writer and notoriously poor student wanted to impress his father. He practiced tracing Shakespeare's famous signature and eventually scrawled it onto a blank piece of parchment, which he passed off to his dad as a genuine deed he'd discovered in the house.

According to Smithsonian magazine, Ireland was stoked by the deception he'd managed to pull off. "Several persons told me that wherever it was found, there must undoubtedly be all the manuscripts of Shakspeare [sic] so long and vainly sought for," he wrote two years later. Once he realized he could fool everyone with his supposed findings, he aimed high, penning an entire play about a fifth-century English king named Vorigern and the object of his affection, Rowena. Shakespeare fans were so thrilled to have a newly-discovered piece of the Bard's work, they may have overlooked how, well, off the writing was. And Ireland even tried to cover his tracks, forging a letter that explained why Shakespeare had allegedly hid the play, claiming he considered it his greatest achievement and wanted more than the printer was willing to pay him for it.

"William Henry Ireland was known as the 'second Chatterton', as, like Thomas Chatterton, he was a precocious teenager and a literary forger — though he lacks Chatterton's undoubted genius," says University of Exeter English professor Nick Groom in an email exchange. "Ireland forged the papers of William Shakespeare — not only drafts of plays such as 'King Lear' and 'Hamlet,' but legal documents, love letters (including a lock of Shakespeare's hair), and even whole new plays."

Eventually, playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan read a few pages of "Vortigern and Rowena" and picked up on the phoniness. And after Ireland's father published a volume of the so-called Shakespearean papers, Edmond Malone, a renowned expert on the author, published his own exposé, calling them a "clumsy and daring fraud." When a local theater put on a production of the play, the crowd wound up laughing at many of the lines, booing ensued, and even a fight broke out in the pit. The reviews were unsurprisingly not kind. Ireland confessed, but never faced legal punishment for his forgery.

"Although there were many committed believers, much of his work verges on the absurd and the play 'Vortigern' was howled from the stage when it was performed," Groom says.