May 15, 2012

“How happy I am to have lived to the present day of discovery of this glorious treasure,” wrote James Boswell, on the recovery of an archive of Shakespeare documents in 1795.  The discovery proved even more dramatic when the documents were revealed as a forgery by the nineteen-year old William Henry Ireland, son of a London engraver.  In characteristically exhaustive, even exhausting fashion, Malone challenged Ireland’s documents in his An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments (1796).

Ireland’s story continues to haunt, not least because so many Shakespearean editors went on to produce texts written in the style of, or sometimes attributed directly to their hero.   As Ireland said, in his wonderfully engaging Confessions (1805), reading–or, more precisely, hearing–Shakespeare drove him to the act of writing Shakespeare.  Ireland is eloquent as well on the dangers of reading Shakespeare to one’s children.  “I had daily opportunities of hearing Mr. Samuel Ireland [his father] extol the genius of Shakspeare,” he relates, “as he would very frequently in the evening read one of his plays aloud, dwelling with enthusiasm on such passages as most peculiarly struck his fancy.  At such periods, there was no divine attribute which Shakspeare did not possess, in Mr. Ireland’s estimation: in short, the Bard of Avon was a god among men.”

But how did he do it?  And what did a persuasively authentic Shakespearean document look like to a nineteen-year old forger in eighteenth-century London?  While he might have attributed his motivations to his father, Ireland traced his abilities as a forger to a “predilection for old books.”  He happened to buy a “small quarto tract” dedicated by its author to Queen Elizabeth, and decided to “establish it as the presentation copy from the author.”   In this beautifully elliptical passage, Ireland describes his moment of translation, from reader and owner, into author of the book: 

As the work was dedicated to the queen, and as from the appearance of the internal emblazoning, covers, &c., it had very probably once belonged to the library of that queen, I determined on endeavouring to establish it as the presentation copy from the author, whose name has now altogether escaped my recollection.  In order to compass this, I weakened some common ink with water, and on a piece of old paper wrote a dedicatory epistle, as if from the author, to Elizabeth, requesting her gracious acceptance and countenance of his work.  This letter I thrust between the vellum cover and the paper, which had originally stuck to it but had then given way.

This first venture led to a better source for old-looking ink, to a better supply of parchment and other materials, and to Ireland’s anxious creation of Shakespearean documents and seals.   Ireland describes his difficulties with wax, and the scorched appearance of the Shakespeare manuscripts, from being held too close to the fire, as he tried in haste to dry and fade the ink. 

Ireland’s account, some ten years later, hums with self-congratulation. And yet, it is worth noting that while Malone faulted Ireland’s craftsmanship, pointed out his inaccuracies, disclosed his errors, the two works, Ireland’s Miscellaneous papers and legal instruments under the hand and seal of William Shakespeare and Malone’s Inquiry into the Authenticity, are not dissimilar.  Together, they frame a forensic Shakespeare, an author reclaimed through the archive, through the dissection of material evidence.  In their facsimile illustrations of signatures and seals, of authentic and inauthentic handwriting, Ireland and Malone share an undeniable fascination with the detailed anatomy of a textual corpus, the physical evidence of Shakespeare’s remains.


May 14, 2012

As we’ve seen, Shakespearean characters and quotes could, by the mid-eighteenth century, step from their originating contexts into English popular culture, even as editors like Malone and Steevens debated what made Shakespeare’s texts better or more Shakespearean.   One efficient response to this discussion was offered in 1794, with the announcement of the discovery of several Shakespearean documents, including a letter from Queen Elizabeth, a letter to Anne Hatheway and, most satisfyingly, a catalog of Shakespeare’s library, among others.  In 1795, these were followed by a manuscript of King Lear and a fragment of Hamlet.  These and others were displayed in 1795 in the Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare, the title page of which proclaimed them “from the original MSS. in the possession of Samuel Ireland, of Norfolk Street.”

Miscellaneous papers and legal instruments under the hand and seal of William Shakespeare (London, 1796 [1795).  Call number 1976 229, Beinecke Library, Yale University

May 13, 2012

And editors also talked with other readers (and editors) about their editions of Shakespeare.  Below, a letter from John Courtenay to Malone, discussing the reception of Malone’s edition by Boswell, Courtenay and Shakespeare editor George Steevens.   The curators are grateful to Ivan Lupic, graduate student in English at Columbia University, who pointed out that the letter discusses Steevens’ (rather than Boswell’s) objections to the edition, and offered the transcription cited below. 

As Courtenay relates, he met “at the Club” with Boswell and Steevens, who “seems at least to speak candidly on the merits of [the edition]; — sais your investigations had gone farther than all the commentators put together.”   Steevens, however, made a few “objections,” among which that Malone had given himself “precedence to former Commentators” in the arrangement of his notes.   “This he proposes to amend in his work,” Courtenay helpfully relays, “but professed his disinclination to any critical controversy.”

John Courtenay Letters to Dr. Edmond Malone and Mr. Lucas. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.  Call number: Gen MSS File 71

May 12, 2012

The textual transmission and integrity of Shakespeare’s plays was a topic often found quite literally in the margins of copies of the Works.  Here, the Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone can be seen at work annotating correcting his 1821 edition of the Works, in this annotated copy and set of page proofs.

Malone’s notes and annotated copy of Shakespeare, collected by James Boswell the Younger, Gen MSS 89, Box 176, Folder 3109.  This section of the archive (and in fact the papers of James Boswell in their entirety) has been scanned and can be found in the Beinecke Digital Collections on the Beinecke Library web-site. From the Boswell Collection, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

May 11, 2012

But reading Shakespeare for pleasure was a practice not confined to lovers of Johnson’s Dictionary–or, for that matter, lovers of Shakespeare’s plays.   Editorial critics as well took to the pages (and margins) in the eighteenth century, in delighted or malevolent critique of new editions of the plays.   Here, Styan Thirlby can be seen, pen in hand, reading Pope’s edition of the Works.   Thirlby’s extensive marginal commentary was a resource for other editors, including Lewis Theobald and Samuel Johnson.

The works of Shakespear : in six volumes / collated and corrected by the former editions by Mr. Pope (London, 1723), with annotations by Styan Thirlby.  Item Osborn fpc13 from the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University

May 10, 2012

Shakespeare’s characters might have left the stage, as we have seen, to wander unattached in British popular culture.  They were joined there by Shakespeare’s language, in quotations excerpted from print or stage.   As  Matt Hunter has already discussed, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) amassed Shakespearean citations to define English words, alongside uses by Spenser, Milton, and other authors. 

This process can be seen, tantalizingly, in a proof copy of the first edition  of the Dictionary in the Beinecke Library collections and on display in the exhibition.  This copy contains notes accumulated by Johnson and his amanuenses towards a fourth edition, and bristles with slips, each containing quotations, stuffed into the copy. 

The Dictionary was read, and read for pleasure, by Johnson’s contemporaries and audiences.  Hester Thrale Piozzi, Johnson’s erstwhile friend and later biographer, can be found commenting on Johnson’s etymology in the margins of her copy of the Dictionary, shown here, in another beloved item not included in the exhibition.

May 9, 2012

The crowd in Strollers performing Hamlet before the squire, by R. St. George Mansergh, tells its own story about Shakespeare—and his audiences. Here a raucous country audience observes Laertes’s duel in Hamlet, while the corpulent squire dozes over his pipe next to his wife. The caricature sets the scene: “By order of His Worship ‘squire Richd Dunderhead … a company of comedians this evening will perform the Tragedy of Hamlet. To conclude with a Country Dance by the CHARACTERS.” The spectacle occurs in the “Kings Head Punch House,” with a tattered tapestry for scenery and actors in threadbare clothing.

Artist Unknown, Strollers performing Hamlet before the squire (London: Mary Darly, April 18th 1772). Etching. The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

May 8, 2012



 Macbeth’s line, “You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret, / That you are so” recurs in this print by Richard Newton, featuring the three witches, from 1799, as it had in the 1791 etching by James Gillray of the Weird Sisters, who are at once the witches from Macbeth  and contemporary statesmen.


Richard Newton, Macbeth (London, 1799).  From the collections of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University



James Gillray, Weird-Sisters; Minister’s of Darkness; Minions of the Moon (London: Hanna Humphrey, 1791).  From the collections of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

May 7, 2012

But even as Garrick extricated Shakespearean characters into the pageantry of the Jubilee, or re-wrote and improved upon Shakespearean texts for London theatre-goers, others extracted from a popular knowledge of Shakespeare for political commentary.

In Isaac Cruikshank’s 1799 Ghost, or, the closet scene in Hamlet, the monarch–“George”—is visited by the ghost of William Pitt, who tells him that they will drink a glass of burgundy together within the fortnight, but “Don’t be frightened George don’t be frightened.” To the side, the observer comments, “is that William? Send him to Ireland Send him to Ireland.”

Isaac Cruikshanks, The ghost, or, The closet scene in Hamlet!! ([London], 1799).  From the collections of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University


May 6, 2012

And, as the exhibition argues, the urge to Bardolatrous possession was by no means confined to his eighteenth- and nineteenth-century audiences.  Below, “Shakespeare’s Cottage” and “Anne Hathaway’s Cottage” teapots, loaned to the exhibition from a private collection.