Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
Where do we locate the authentic Shakespeare? This was the question asked, rather less bluntly, by Stephen Orgel in his influential Representations essay of 1988. Taking and testing Shakespearian examples in manuscript, in print, in the theatre and in portraiture, Orgel asked how the category of the authentic varied historically in, and was varied historically by, these different but clearly related contexts. Orgel argued that although these locations can perform authenticity they cannot themselves be authentic; despite their variety, Shakespearian authenticity oddly still exists elsewhere:
What is authentic here is something that is not in the text; it is something behind it and beyond it that the text is presumed to represent: the real life of the characters, the actual history of which the action is a part, the playwright’s imagination, or the hand of the master, the authentic witness of Shakespeare’s own history. The assumption is that texts are representations or embodiments of something else, and that it is that something else which the performer or editor undertakes to reveal. What we want is not the authentic play, with its unstable, infinitely revisable script, but an authentic Shakespeare, to whom every generation’s version of a classic drama may be ascribed.
What we want, as Orgel put it, others have wanted also; and this article explores an earlier version of those desires for Shakespearian authenticity: the Shakespeare forgeries of William-Henry Ireland. The story of those forgeries has been often told, and the narrative of the young William-Henry Ireland’s ‘discovery’ of a trunk of papers containing not only Shakespeare’s long-lost correspondence with Queen Elizabeth, Lord Southampton, Richard Burbage and others, but also manuscripts of King Lear and Hamlet, with, to top it all, two ‘lost’ plays, Vortigern and Henry II, does not need retelling here. Rather my argument focuses on the relation between the forgeries and their most devastating exposure, Edmond Malone’s An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments (1796).