Today, April 23rd, is celebrated as Shakespeare’s birthday. We don’t actually know the exact date of the bard of Stratford on Avon’s birth, but we do know that he was baptised on April 26th so, since baptism often occurred within about three days of birth, we can think of sometime between today and this Saturday as the day when one of the world’s most famous poets began life. It seems only appropriate, then, that today’s blog be dedicated to the “William Shakespeare” signature shown in the image above on the title page from an early quarto edition of Hamlet at the Kislak Center (PR2750 .A07 1619). This isn’t, in fact, an autograph by the original William Shakespeare. A note on one of the front flyleaves of the Hamlet quarto verifies that it is, in fact, the work of one of literary history’s most famous forgers, William Henry Ireland (1775-1835). Many components of this copy of Hamlet are a fascinating mix of material from the early 17th century, in or near Shakespeare’s lifetime, and material from the late 18th or early 19th century. The text itself was, indeed, printed in the early 17th century, though the book was so dramatically trimmed during multiple rebindings, that the date of publication no longer appears on the title page. Notes at the start of the book, push the estimated publication later and later. One note in an unknown hand cites the famous 18th century editor of Shakespeare’s work, Edmond Malone (1741-1812), as providing a date of 1607 for the edition:
A 19th century note by Horace Howard Furness (1833-1912), the founder of the Furness Shakespeare Library at Penn, who donated the book to Penn Libraries, estimates the publication date as 1611:
However, modern scholarship suggests that the date for the book was somewhere between 1619 and 1623, meaning that it was published after the date of Shakespeare’s death, which we know occured on this date, April 23rd 1616. It is tempting to think that the first, anonymous note with the earliest dating may have been written by Ireland in his own writing when he forged the Shakespeare signature on the page, since a firm date before Shakespeare’s death and attributed to a famous scholar would make the forgery more plausible.
The binding of the book is intriguing as well for the way it combines a red morocco leather binding that probably dates from the 18th or early 19th century, and is combined with with pieces of a brown calfskin binding that is original to the era in or around Shakespeare’s lifetime. The arms on the binding, with the initials “SS” on either side are identified as belonging to Scipio Squire (d. 1659), a known 17th century book collector. Squire’s original binding has been carefully cut and then re-set on the new binding, with gold decoration covering the edges where the bindings from two different eras are joined.
Not only the markedly different coloring and material of the newer part of the binding, but the typically 18th century marbled endpapers used inside the binding very clearly display that the Scipio Squire binding of a near Shakespeare contemporary has been re-set in a more modern context. That is, in the case of the binding, the book has been purposely designed to draw attention to the fact that this is a piece of history being carefully preserved, almost literally framed, and re-purposed by a new collector rather than being an attempt to pass the binding off as original. It is possible that Squire was the original owner of this particular play, though in the 17th century plays would most likely have been bound as a group, rather than one at a time. Later collectors often disbound this groups and bound individual copies of especially famous or beloved works, like the plays fo Shakespeare. It is difficult to say, however, whether Squire’s binding was originally joined to this Hamlet, or was taken from another book as an example of a binding from the period.
Unlike the clear distinction between the 17th and 18th century components of the binding, the “William Shakespeare” autograph on the title page of this copy of Hamlet is a serious attempt to make the writing of an 18th century man look as though it could have come from the pen of Shakespeare himself. This forgery is only a small sample of the enormous and complex world of forged Shakespeare documents and works that William Henry Ireland penned. Ireland began forging Shakespeare documents in an obsessive effort to please his father, who was a devoted fan of the bard. Ireland’s obsession led him to, not only create hundreds of forged documents, letters, and poems purported to be written by Shakespeare, but in 1796 he and his father published a large portfolio sized book filled with high quality engravings of these “Shakespeare” papers with facing page printed transcriptions and commentary. Penn’s copy of this book demonstrates the vivid imagination which produced these forgeries. Near the end of the book appears an engraving of Ireland’s forgery of a portion of Hamlet, or, in Ireland’s forgery, Hamblette, presented as the original composition of the play that Shakespeare is then supposed to have signed in the quarto edition at Penn:
Other documents include a long poetic homage to Ireland’s ancestor, conveniently also named William Henry Ireland, supposedly written by Shakespeare. The poetic address, along with another formal document deeding his plays to Ireland’s ancestor, suggests that Shakespeare was saved from drowning by the 17th century Ireland after some drunken bargemen overturned his boat on the Thames. He ends: “Keep me for
…and a drawing of the house belonging to the Ireland who supposedly saved the Poet from drowning, which Shakespeare is supposed to have drawn well enough to win a 5 shilling bet:
Ireland’s forgeries go beyond a simple attempt to pass something new off as a part of the past. They create a whole complex, fictional world that the forger tried to make a reality by making it convincing enough to pass it off as a true piece of history. The other provenance marks in this book attempt to find and present a piece of the past, to provide some scraps of certainty amidst all that is unknown and uncertain about what has come before. The progressive attempts to estimate the exact date this quarto was published by the inscription referencing Malone and the one written by Furness illustrate the often illusive nature of attempting to reconstruct the past, how difficult it can be to reliably pin down the facts, requiring constant questioning and examinging and re-examining the objects, like this edition of Hamlet, that have survived the centuries. The composite binding of the book demonstrates how the past often comes to us modified by the intervening centuries, re-contextualized by the people who have come between our own times and the age of Shakespeare. In both cases, there is a puzzle to be solved–a clearly 17th century printed edition of Hamlet, but with the exact date of publication a mystery, and a clearly 17th century armorial binding but how it originally looked and what kind of book originally fit between its boards now a mystery.
Ireland created the fantasy of a set of fragments from the past that solve such mysteries, providing visible, physical signs of Shakespeare’s living hand. And, for a time, many people were taken in by the elaborate scheme. A production of one of Ireland’s forged plays attributed to Shakespeare, Vortigern was even staged at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. (Though it was such an immediate flop that helped lead to the forgeries being revealed.) Most touchingly, William Henry Ireland’s father, Samuel Ireland believed his son so whole-heartedly, that he sponsored and collaborated on the publication of the print edition of the Shakespeare manuscripts his son claimed to have found. One can only imagine a period when the two, father and son, were caught up in a dream-like world of their own, immersed in the idea that they were heirs to a great poet’s legacy, and in which they were bound together by this special link to the past.
That constructed world at last vanished and the forgeries were detected by Edmond Malone and others less than a year after the book with the engravings of Ireland’s forged manuscripts was published. It was ironically the father, Samuel Ireland, whom William had sought to please by creating the forgeries in the first place, who was accused of being the forger, and both father and son’s reputations were ruined. While Ireland’s attempt to mislead others through forgery were ultimately disastrous, there is a certain poignancy about the detail with which he attempted to fabricate a past reality out of nothing in order to forge a delicately constructed reality in his own life of a bond between himself and his father. Shakespeare himself may well have understood, if not the impulse to forge and deceive, at least the desire to create an imagined world of substance in an attempt to counter-act all that is elusive and insubstantial about the world in which we live our lives.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
~Shakespeare, The Tempest, 4.1
See all the provenance images from this book here on POP.
And, for fun, a picture of the globe theater cake I recently made for a Shakespeare Birthday Celebration at the Kislak Center at Penn Libraries. Now devoured into thin air, leaving not a crumb behind.