In her aptly named tome, Literary Hoaxes: An Eye Opening History of Famous Frauds, Melissa Katsoulis recounts the bold and bizarre history of William Ireland, whose literary legacy puts the “dung” in bildungsroman (bah dum dum). Born into 18th century London, the teenaged Ireland was long thought an idiot by his father who was an avid collector literary relics and, as was vogue in his era, desired most those artefacts that had been under the pen of William Shakespeare. The young Ireland’s first foray into forgery was an inscription in a book from Shakespeare to Queen Elizabeth. It worked. His father was delighted, no doubt blinded to the fakery by his own bardolatry. Ireland followed with additional letters and ephemera, always procured from an anonymous source, which led somehow inevitably to the “discovery” of a (drumroll, please)... “lost” play by none other than the Bard himself.
As Katsoulis recounts:
“The story of Vortigern and Rowena is one Shakespeare might well have told. It can be found in Holinshed’s Chronicles, one of his favorite sources, and tells a Lear-ish, MacBeth-ish tale of an ancient British king who would give away half his crown. But in Ireland’s clumsy hands it is about as un-Shakespearean as it is possible to imagine.”
Not only could Ireland not spell – he could muster none of the signature phrasing of the most well-read and beloved playwright to ever deploy English in the service of drama.
Ireland was in way over his head and knew it. Others were getting wise as well but somehow, his father remained enamored of this, the rarest of his son’s streak of discoveries – a lost play of William Shakespeare.
In the motion picture version of what follows, which I hope Tom Stoppard might someday write for us, the plot thickens: Ireland’s dad summons him for a father-son chat; the kid assumes the jig is up but instead he learns that Dad pulled some strings with his theater chums to bring Vortigern and Rowena to the stage.
Worst. Play. Ever.
Predictably, Vortigern and Rowena was a flop and helped serve to out Ireland as a forger. Ironically, his father refused to believe his son was guilty of the fakes largely on the grounds that he thought him too stupid. Or, to quote another famously failing father “The circle is now complete.”
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