Monday, January 7, 2013
Yesterday, I posted a little note on FB that I'd just finished reading Doug Stewart's recent book, The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly (De Capo/Perseus, 2010). I'd found that book, quite by accident, in Lenox, Mass., when I was there early in December visiting my mom. In town is The Bookstore, a great independent shop from which I don't think I've ever emerged empty-handed. And a bonus? This copy was signed by the author.
I finally got around to reading it last week, and it told a tale both familiar and surpassingly strange. I say "familiar" because writing like Shakespeare--whether illegally (like the tale Stewart tells) or openly (as in Arthur Phillips' recent dazzling novel The Tragedy of Arthur)--has seduced poets and playwrights (and forgers) for centuries. Not to mention the ambition many writers have, the ambition to be in the Bard's league. To be (or not to be) mentioned in the same breath as the Bard? Not a bad question, not at all.
Stewart tells the bizarre story of William-Henry Ireland, who, beginning at age 19, produced a startling inventory of Shakespeare manuscripts, which he'd supposedly discovered in an old trunk in the house of an unidentified nobleman whom he worked for. He presented these items to his father, Samuel Ireland, a collector and a man without much modesty. Dad accepted the documents' authenticity with alacrity. Shakespeare, as Stewart notes, was emerging from a period--a long period--of neglect, and many in the literary world were curious about why so little documentary evidence had turned up.
William-Henry filled the vacuum. Letters, notes, even the entire manuscript of King Lear (which he modified), even an entire new play, Vortigern and Rowena, which Sheridan produced at Drury Lane with the star John Kemble in the leading role; Sarah Siddons, the era's great woman star of the stage (and John Kemble's sister), withdrew shortly before the production premiered. Kemble did not really believe the play was Shakespeare's, and, as Stewart points, out, did some things--subtle and otherwise--to sabotage the show. Reviews ranged from savage to unkind.
Most of literary London, though, swallowed the documents like snack food. Fans trooped to the Ireland home to see the ever-increasing pile. And Samuel Ireland (the father) even published a lush, illustrated edition of the papers--it sold well. (Dad would later have a horribly difficult time accepting the notion that his son had done this--for more than one reason. He wasn't all that impressed with his son's talents--and he also could not believe that his own son would shame him so publicly and callously. Freud would have loved this case.)
William-Henry, undaunted, thought he would write the "missing" history plays--completing the cycle of plays about the English kings that Shakespeare had commenced but never finished (the Richard and Henry plays). And so he wrote Henry II ... but all had collapsed before he found a producer for that effort.
Stewart does a fine job of filling in what readers need--about Shakespeare, the Elizabethans, about England and London in the 1790s. And he sketches Ireland's post-forgery career--as a writer.
Oh, and didn't all of this accelerate during the election cycle? I saw stories about busloads of Nigerians supposedly transported here to vote for Obama. That was bizarre. And there were egregious stories coming from the Dems, of course, as well.
We're probably hard-wired to believe one another--otherwise, chaos could ensue. Example:
Husband: It's Tuesday.
Wife: Prove it. Show me the calendar! And where did you get that calendar? How do I know it's accurate?
It was a very funny film. Frightening, too. Because our constitutional credulousness invites into our lives the charlatans, the Nigerian princes who just need a few thousand from us, the seducers, the forgers, the con artists, and more--all of whom prey on our immense capacity and desire to believe. All of whom will tell us anything to get us to believe. And pay.