Faking Shakespeare: Tales of Forgery, Theft and Deception

You can’t be as famous as Shakespeare without attracting the wrong kind of attention. Here are three cases where the temptation to take advantage of Shakespeare’s fame proved irresistible.


While Shakespeare was popular enough in his own time for the publication of the First Folio seven years after his death to be financially viable, his plays gradually came to be seen as old fashioned, and by the time the Puritans closed the theatres in 1642, only a handful of them were still in the repertoire. However, when the theatres were re-opened after the Restoration in 1660, as no new plays had been written in twenty years, impresarios called on Shakespeare’s to fill the vacuum.

From that point his fame continued to grow, on the stage where his plays, albeit considerably adapted and ‘improved’, became a staple of the theatre, and in print, where many scholars of note continued to study, annotate and edit them, until, in 1769 a three-day Jubilee was held in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was virtually worshipped as a literary god.

However, despite this pious reverence for William Shakespeare the author, the man himself remained elusive. No documentary evidence of his life or original writings had ever been found and what slender biographies had been written were based on gossip and local legends. Such wide gaps left tempting openings readily filled by the enterprising and the unscrupulous.


William Henry IrelandWilliam Henry Ireland (1775–1835)


Among the most zealous of Shakespeare’s admirers was Samuel Ireland, a London engraver and publisher, and amateur collector of Shakespeare documents and “relics”.

It was through Ireland’s efforts that Anne Hathaway’s cottage was brought to public attention. However, his enthusiasm left him open to being duped and hoaxed. Having discovered that, after the demolition of Shakespeare’s New Place, its contents had been taken to Clopton House, Ireland went there in the hope of finding original documents among the furnishings and bric-a-brac. Much to his horror he was told the cook had burnt a bundle of papers just the day before, though this turned out to be a cruel joke at Ireland’s expense.

Ireland was accompanied to Stratford-upon-Avon by his son, William Henry, who witnessed not only this humiliation, but his father’s purchase of several dubious relics. Whether it was to please a beloved father he saw frustrated and injured, to impress a distant father who cared more about Shakespeare than his own son, or perhaps to fool a gullible enthusiast in revenge for that neglect, no one is quite sure, but one day in 1794, at the age of nineteen, William came home from his job as a law clerk and presented his father with his own Holy Grail, a deed bearing Shakespeare’s hitherto undiscovered signature.

Over time, several other documents and letters were produced, coming, William Henry claimed, from a cache of papers discovered by a client who wished to remain anonymous. The ‘cache’ included love letters to Anne Hathaway and correspondence from Queen Elizabeth, the Earl of Southampton and John Hemminge, as well as manuscript pages from Hamlet and King Lear. However the jewels in the crown were two hitherto undiscovered plays, Henry II and Vortigern and Rowena.

All the experts Samuel Ireland consulted judged the documents to be authentic and in December 1795, despite his son’s reservations, he published his collection. This brought the documents and the debate surrounding them into the public eye. Before too long, on March 31, 1796, Ireland’s book was countered by the preeminent Shakespearean scholar of the age, Edmond Malone. In 400 densely argued pages he exposed William Henry Ireland’s discoveries as pure forgeries.

The previous year, Richard Brinsley Sheridan had purchased the rights to Vortigern and Rowena for the Drury Lane theatre for £300. Sheridan is said to have had some doubts about the authenticity of the play, or at least about its quality which he ascribed to its being one of Shakespeare’s earliest efforts. Certainly his cast, led by John Philip Kemble, was in no doubt that this was not Shakespeare. However, Sheridan put his doubts aside, confident the controversy would pack out the house for the play’s first performance on April 2, 1796.

As tickets sold out and the theatre buzzed, Sheridan may have been pleased on one count, but apprehensive on another, for Malone’s book had hit the bookshops only two days earlier and had already sold 500 copies. Accounts differ as to how the play was received. Some say the audience was attentive and well behaved for the first two acts, others that there were guffaws throughout and the cast hammed it up, but they all agree that all hell broke loose when Kemble uttered the line “and when this solemn mockery is o’er” with particular emphasis. It was the play’s first and last performance. It would only be revived as a curiosity in recent years.

Under the circumstances, William Henry confessed to having made the forgeries, but his father refused to believe him. Though he knew his son was an inveterate liar, Samuel could not believe he had the wherewithal to create the documents or fool his father. Instead he went into print again in an attempt to crush Malone and vindicate himself. Samuel died in 1800, estranged from his son, and suspected by all and sundry of being at least complicit in the forgery, if not the main culprit. It was not until 1805 when William Henry published The Confessions of William Henry Ireland, taking all the blame on himself, that Samuel was exonerated.

As for William Henry, he attempted to make a career for himself as a writer, but was ostracised by British society and forced to retreat to France for almost a decade. He died in penury in 1835, his gothic novels and poetry only gaining some recognition long after his death.


John Payne CollierJohn Payne Collier (1789–1883)


William Henry Ireland’s motivations for faking Shakespeare are understandable enough, but we’ll never really know what motivated John Payne Collier to perpetrate what may be the most extensive fraud on the Shakespearean community ever and which may still be in effect today.

John Payne Collier had everything going for him. Following in his father’s footsteps, he started out his working life as a journalist, and by the age of twenty was an accomplished and well-paid parliamentary reporter. In his leisure time he pursued his interest in early English literature, researching, editing and publishing several books. In 1828 his efforts brought him to the attention of the Duke of Devonshire who appointed him librarian to one of the finest private libraries in England. This position gave Collier an entrée into collections of early English manuscripts across the country and refined his interest in Shakespeare. In 1840 he founded the Shakespeare Society and in 1841 he was commissioned to oversee a new edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

From then on his career went from strength to strength as he became a leading member of several prominent literary and antiquary societies and was appointed Secretary to the Royal Commission into the running of the British Museum. With such access to the most obscure collections, it was no surprise that during those years he claimed to have discovered and published a great number of new facts and documents relating to Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre. These included an edition of the Stationers’ Company register (where the publication of quartos of Shakespeare’s plays were recorded and dated), as well as editions of papers bequeathed to Dulwich College by its founder, Edward Alleyn, the actor who brought Christopher Marlowe’s anti-heroes to life, and theatrical entrepreneur, Philip Henslowe. (See Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe.)

However, Collier’s greatest coup was the discovery in the Devonshire library of a Second Folio of Shakespeare’s works published in 1632. Known as the Perkins Folio after its first owner, it was purported to have been extensively annotated by a hand Collier called the ‘Old Corrector’ who seemed to be working from original manuscripts. The emendations included changes to punctuation, word order and stage directions and the addition of whole new lines.

This discovery caused a sensation, but suspicions were raised when Collier refused to let anyone else get more than a cursory glance at it. Collier caused even more of an uproar when he applied the Perkins Folio’s emendations to his 1853 edition of Shakespeare’s Works. Collier refused to answer his detractors, and the controversy might have died out if it were not for the death of the Duke of Devonshire in 1858. His heir donated the family’s private library to the British Museum in its entirety, including the Perkins Folio. A keen eyed librarian noted that the annotations had first been made in pencil and then written over in ink. In 1861 Clement Ingleby published Complete View of the Shakespeare Controversy, totally demolishing Collier’s claims.

Even this exposure did not faze Collier, whose silence gave him the benefit of the doubt that it was he who had been duped, and he continued to publish well into his eighties. However, it was not until the sale of his library after his death that the full extent of his fabrications came to light. His papers revealed the transcripts he had made and the interpolations he had added such as forged verses, inscriptions, lists and autographs as well as entire letters and other documents. Not only had the authenticity of any of the books and manuscripts he owned and handled been compromised, but nothing he wrote could be taken at face value any longer. A long and distinguished career that included a great deal of legitimate work had been entirely tainted.

We can never know the full extent of Collier’s forgeries or how many have been adopted as authentic and found their way into the orthodox canon and biography. As for Collier, he never admitted to any wrong doing, even in his autobiographical writings just before his death where the closest he came to expressing any remorse was an ambiguous confession to being ‘a despicable offender[, …] ashamed of almost every act of [his] life.’


Raymond Scott and friendRaymond Rickett Scott (1957–2012)


While the motivations of our next perpetrator are more than clear, one can only ask oneself: what was he thinking?

In June 2008 Raymond Rickett Scott walked into Washington’s Folger Library unannounced. Wearing tropical gear, a gold Rollex, designer jewellery and sunglasses, he claimed to be a British millionaire just arrived from Cuba. He then drew out of a briefcase a book he thought might be a Shakespeare Folio which he wanted the library to authenticate and appraise so he could sell it at auction. He claimed he had smuggled the book out of Cuba where he had been entrusted with it by its owner, a Cuban friend who could not make the journey due to travel restrictions.

Though the book had been tragically stripped of its cover, binding and several pages from the front and back, the Folger’s chief librarian immediately suspected that this was indeed a First Folio, and, in the hope of keeping it safe, persuaded Scott to leave the book with the library for further study.

Scott had certainly come to the best place to authenticate a Shakespeare First Folio. The Folger Library is one of the leading centres of Shakespearean studies in the world and is the proud possessor of 79 First Folios. Of the estimated 750 copies printed in 1623 only 231 remain and every one of those copies has been surveyed in exhaustive detail.

Due to the circumstances in which the Folio was hurriedly printed, wide variations were created between each copy. Furthermore, the Folios were sold unbound so that the purchaser would then have them bound by the binder and in the style of their choice. Over the years individual copies might be rebound, re-trimmed, labelled and annotated. As a result, each known copy of the First Folio is unique and its uniqueness has been meticulously recorded. This also means that of all the rare books in the world, a First Folio is the worst book to steal.

Though the book had been deliberately stripped of every visible sign of its origins, with recourse to experts from both the US and the UK, Scott’s book was soon identified as the First Folio stolen from Durham University ten years earlier. It had been part of an exhibition tracing the development of English literature from the Middle Ages to the present day. Unfortunately, there had been no security. The glass cabinets had been forced and the Folio, together with several other rare books, had been stolen. With no CCTV or forensic evidence to go on, the local police were yet to find the culprits.

By the time the Folger Library called in the FBI, Scott had left the US and after an international manhunt was discovered in his modest home which he shared with his elderly mother not a dozen miles from Durham University. Far from being a millionaire, Scott had never had a job in his life and lived on welfare benefits. He claimed his flamboyant lifestyle, which included Cuban cigars, Dom Perignon, frequent overseas travel, top flight accommodation and a succession of luxury cars, had been financed by his parents. In fact he had 25 prior convictions including several for theft of books and paintings and owed £90,000 on a dozen credit cards.

In his own defence, Scott put it to the police that he would never have taken the book so openly to the Folger if he had known it was stolen. Moreover, he had only developed an interest in rare books in recent years and at the time of the theft would not have known the difference between a First Folio and a Jackie Collins. However, the police were able to systematically break down his story until it was evident the book had not come from Cuba, but had been taken by him directly from the UK to Washington. Given the forensic study of the book, Scott’s lawyers had to concede that it was indeed the stolen Durham First Folio.

There had been some truth to Scott’s Cuban story. Having holidayed there several times, Scott had fallen in love with a young and beautiful nightclub dancer who was then, even as he was being interviewed by the police, drawing £1,000 a month from a travel money account in his name. Scott was in desperate need of money to clear up his debts and finance the lifestyle his fiancée expected from him. The sale of a First Folio for £3 million in 2006 may have prompted him to take his own First Folio down from his bookcase, where it had been sitting for ten years, and try to sell it. He may have believed that he would escape detection by selling it in far off America rather than at home in Britain.

A showman through and through, Scott turned up at his court hearings in fancy cars and designer clothes, playing up to the surrounding press and even spraying them with champagne on one occasion, all the time declaring his innocence. Though the court was unable to prove he had stolen the First Folio he was convicted of handling stolen goods and removing stolen property from Britain. He was visibly shaken when, calling him a fantasist, the judge handed down an eight year prison sentence.

Whether or not Scott was guilty of actually stealing the Folio, we may never be sure. He confessed to a journalist, then recanted, then described the theft in detail to his biographer. He said he had gone to the Durham University Library to ‘scope’ it out, but on seeing the unguarded cabinets, forced one open and shoved its contents into a shopping bag. Seeing how lax the security was, he returned later for the First Folio.

The First Folio was returned to Durham University where it has been repaired and kept in more secure surroundings. Unfortunately, the damage it sustained has now halved its value.

As for Raymond Scott, the reality of his situation was perhaps too much to bear and he committed suicide in prison in 2012.

His story can be seen on my YouTube Channel Shakespeare on YouTube.


© Pauline Montagna 2014

Originally published at englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com.au on January 26, 2014


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