Fooling the Experts: A Great Shakespeare Hoax

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In 1796 the word in London was, “Holy cow! A brand-new Shakespeare play!” Yes, a long-lost play by William Shakespeare, Vortigern and Rowena, was set to open at the newly-expanded Drury Lane Theatre. And everybody knew it was the real thing… because all the experts said so (

Opening night. By the time Act III roles around, the actors in the play have come to realize that they’re performing a hoax, and a rather clumsy one at that. They play the next two acts for laughs. The audience divides between believers and those who are mighty sore about having been had, and fistfights break out. The theater management has to scuttle all plans for any subsequent performances of this turkey.

But all the experts swore it was the real McCoy. There were some who wondered if Shakespeare might have been 11 years old when he wrote this, or drunk, or impaired in some other way–but even they swore the play was genuine.

In fact, it was a forgery cooked up by 19-year-old William Henry Ireland, whose motive was to show all those people, especially his father, who said he was a dullard. The Smithsonian article will tell you how he did it. And he got tired of trying to keep up the pretense, so he admitted what he’d done–and still there were those who refused to believe the play was a hoax. Mr. Ireland refused to believe his son had the brains to concoct such a scam.

The point is, all the cognoscenti, all the Shakespeare-wallahs who should’ve known better (with only a very few exceptions, who were shouted down), were completely taken in by this. It took a bunch of not-expert actors to tear away the curtain and reveal the humbug behind it.

If the play’s authenticity were being debated today, its defenders would surely be proclaiming, “The science is settled, so shut up!”

4 comments on “Fooling the Experts: A Great Shakespeare Hoax

    1. That was quite a read. The lesson I take from this is that they believed that which they wanted to believe. Legend had it that there were more plays out there, so they saw what they hoped to see. Samuel Ireland worshipped Shakespeare and wanted there to be more plays. James Boswell said that he could die contented having seen these papers. Both of these people wanted to see more from Shakespeare and they interpreted something they were shown accordingly.

      This is hardly unique in history. It’s happening all around us today. Various political causes see justification everywhere they look because the see what they hope to see. If something contradicts their assumptions it is ignored or even shouted down.

      If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Facts become meaningless when one endeavors to define their own truth. If “The Emperors New Clothes” were published for the first time in our present day, there would be groups calling for imprisonment of invisible clothing deniers. People believe that which they want to believe, that which serves their ends.

    2. Thank you Lee.

      I also want to thank you for verifying my long-held contention that Shakespeare wore pink-framed sunglasses. I have been persecuted for holding this belief, but your picture vindicates my position for all times. Pink Sunglass Deniers must be kept from the public forum by any and all means. 🙂

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