In London in early 1795, a poorly educated apprentice of 19 named William-Henry Ireland forged a stream of papers that appeared to be in William Shakespeare’s handwriting. As nothing of the sort had ever been seen before, the documents caused a sensation. Especially exciting were papers clearing up vexing gaps in Shakespeare’s private life.
The playwright’s admirers had long been troubled by his apparent neglect of his wife, Anne Hathaway, whom he’d abandoned to Stratford when he moved to London. His notoriously uncharitable will bequeathed her only his “second-best bed.” Could this woman be the figure who inspired him to create such poignant romantic heroines as Juliet, Rosalind, and Imogen?
Yes, she could be and she should be, William-Henry had decided. To buttress his case, the young forger composed a five-stanza love poem, ostensibly from the couple’s wooing days. It began:
Is there inne heavenne aught more rare
Thanne thou sweete Nymphe of Avon fayre? . . .
Accompanying the poetry was a love letter from Will to his “dearesste Anna” along with a luxuriant lock of brown hair—a keepsake from one of William-Henry’s female friends, actually.
To the boy’s father and his fellow Bardolaters, these effusions were a thrilling revelation. The letter was not much loftier than whatever note William-Henry’s ex-girlfriend might have included with the lock in the first place, and the poetry was sentimental doggerel. But encountered under lamplight as hard-to-decipher script on sepia-colored paper, the documents seemed to be a window directly into Shakespeare’s heart.
Doug Stewart is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about history and the arts for Smithsonian magazine. His articles have also appeared in Time and Discover. He lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly (Da Capo Press, 2010) is his first book.