William Henry Ireland, via Getty Images
William Henry Ireland, via Getty Images

The Shakespeare Fraud That Tricked Late 18th Century London

William Henry Ireland, via Getty Images
William Henry Ireland, via Getty Images

In December 1794, a young man in London named William Henry Ireland brought his father, Samuel, a devoted collector of antiquities and curiosities, a parchment document sealed with wax. After carefully opening up the parchment, Samuel was astonished at what he saw: a mortgage deed dated 1610, signed by William Shakespeare and John Heminges, an actor in Shakespeare’s King’s Men troupe of players.

At the time, only a handful of signatures were known to have survived from Shakespeare’s handwritten records, so to have a personal document like this was an extraordinary coup. William Henry explained that the document was one of dozens like it he had found while rummaging in an old chest belonging to a rich gentleman whom William Henry described only as "Mr. H." The gentleman wished to remain anonymous to avoid being bothered, William Henry explained, but had assured the young man that he had little interest in the documents and could take whatever he liked.

Eager to figure out whether the documents were real, Samuel Ireland contacted the College of Heralds (an organization devoted to coats of arms and genealogical research), who determined that the documents were genuine, although they were unable to identify the image on the Shakespearean wax seal. Fortunately, Samuel’s young assistant Frederick Eden was an authority on seals, and he decided that the impression on the seal looked like a quintain—a revolving target used by knights in jousting practice. A tenuous association with actual “shaking spears” was all Samuel needed: These documents must indeed be Shakespeare’s own, he decided, and he promptly put them on display in his curio-filled home on London's Norfolk Street. Before long, A-list literary types were queuing up to take a look—and still young William Henry continued to unearth ever more impressive examples.

An example of William Henry Ireland's forgeries. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
At a time when interest in Shakespeare’s work was at the highest it had been since his death almost two centuries earlier, the Irelands had seemingly unearthed a gold mine of Shakespearean memorabilia. Handwritten IOUs, love letters to his future wife “Anna Hatherrewaye,” signed actors’ contracts, theatrical receipts, and even a bizarrely cartoonish self-portrait all found their way out of William Henry’s seemingly boundless document chest and into his father’s display. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Books from Shakespeare’s library with his own annotations in the margins also soon emerged, as did a first draft of King Lear hand-prepared by Shakespeare, and perhaps most significant of all of the Irelands’ discoveries, an entirely new play, Vortigern and Rowena.

The literary world was suitably shaken up. Although never a fan of Shakespeare (and despite saying he thought its script was “crude and undigested”) Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan was impressed enough to acquire the performance rights to Vortigern and Rowena, which he planned to stage at his newly expanded Drury Lane, then the largest theater in London. Even more impressed was James Boswell, biographer of lexicographer and noted Shakespeare fanatic Samuel Johnson. Aging and in poor health, Boswell arrived at the Irelands’ Norfolk Street home and was ushered into Samuel Ireland’s study. A glass of warmed brandy in one hand and the documents in another, he went through the pages one by one, holding them up to a light to examine their penmanship in more detail. After several hours’ analysis, he lowered himself onto one knee and kissed the collection of pages before him. “I shall now died contented,” he reportedly said, “since I have lived to see the present day.” Three months later, he was dead [PDF].

On Christmas Eve 1795, about a year after the first documents came to light, Samuel Ireland published Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments Under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare—a lavish anthology of all the papers in his collection, featuring facsimiles and reprints of the pages. The book was a success, but its popularity brought the Irelands’ discoveries under more widespread scrutiny.

While some experts of the day had been keen to authenticate the documents, over time the inconsistent handwriting and poor-quality prose began to raise suspicion. In March 1796, the foremost Shakespeare authority of the era, Edmond Malone, published An Inquiry Into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments—a detailed analysis arguing that the documents were nothing but a "clumsy and daring fraud." Even still, opinion was divided; Malone's book was long and scholarly, and not everyone had the patience to sort through its arguments, damning as they were.

The supposed Shakespeare self-portrait. Image credit: Internet Archive // Public Domain

 
In April 1796, Sheridan staged the performance of Vortigern and Rowena at Drury Lane theater. But trouble was brewing: although the first few acts were received enthusiastically, the writing went drastically downhill, and several skeptical actors overplayed their lines for effect. One, John Philip Kemble, the era’s leading theater performer, stole the show in the final act by pronouncing the line “and when this solemn mockery is ended” in a rumbling, drawn-out, overly dramatic voice, prompting minutes of laughter and whistling from the audience. When the curtain came down, the audience erupted into both applause and booing, and a fight erupted in the pit between those who believed the work was genuine, and those who did not.

London was divided. On the one hand, Malone and his supporters saw the Irelands’ collection as an elaborate and heartless deception. On the other, there were those who steadfastly wanted to believe that they were authentic, and that a true goldmine of Shakespeare’s lost works had been uncovered. Boswell and other diehard believers, including Poet Laureate Henry Pye, had even drawn up a “Certificate of Belief” stating that they “entertained no doubt whatsoever as to the validity of the Shakespearean production.” The latter camp, however, was about to be bitterly disappointed. Late in 1796 William Henry Ireland published An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts—in which he confessed that the entire collection were forged.

Knowing that his father was an obsessive collector of Shakespearean memorabilia, William Henry had staged the very first document—the mortgage deed—by copying Shakespeare’s signature from a facsimile printed in an edition of his plays. Doctoring the ink made the writing look aged. Blank pages were torn from old books as a cheap supply of old paper, and scorching the papers with a candle gave them a convincing brown tinge.

As time went by and Samuel’s collection began to gain prominence, William Henry grew bolder in his forgeries. Extracts from Shakespeare’s plays were rewritten with spellings tweaked and lines reworked, sometimes with entirely new sections added. The love letter to Anne Hathaway was made up entirely—as was the entire script of Vortigern and Rowena. No wonder Sheridan had found the text so badly written; it appeared to have been written by a 19-year-old.

Even after his son declared the whole thing a hoax, Samuel Ireland refused to believe the works were forgeries. He went to his death in 1800 believing his son incapable of such an elaborate fraud, and committed to the idea that the works were genuine. William Henry, meanwhile, found it hard to get work once his deceit was uncovered: After a time in debtor’s prison, he moved to France, where he wrote books about French history and culture. He also published his own edition of Vortigern in 1832 and a series of gothic novels, but still struggled to make ends meet, and died in poverty in 1835.

Nowadays, William Henry is viewed more sympathetically: his father, it has emerged, was cold and distant in his childhood, caring more for his precious collection than for his young family. Although naïve in producing his forgeries, William Henry was seemingly only trying to foster some common ground with his father—and the more he brought him, the better the two got on. Alienating themselves from the literary community, it appeared, was just an unwelcome consequence. No matter how he and his work are viewed, however, William Henry Ireland’s great Shakespeare hoax remains an extraordinarily audacious—and, for a time, extraordinarily successful—literary deception.

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Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono Mailed Acorns to World Leaders
 Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a big year in 1969. Following a quick wedding ceremony in Gibraltar, they hopped over to Amsterdam and used their honeymoon suite at the Hilton as a stage for their week-long “Bed-In for Peace” protest against the Vietnam War. A week later they were in Vienna wearing bags over their bodies and declaring the formation of a comical new philosophy called “bagism." Their goal, they said, was to promote "total communication" by getting people to focus on their message instead of their skin color, ethnicity, clothes, or in Lennon's case, hair length.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with a sign reading "bagism"
Bob Aylott, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These attention-grabbing antics were among their most famous peace efforts, but that same year they undertook a very different project. This time, away from the cameras, Lennon and Ono mailed acorns to some of the world's most important leaders and asked that they be planted in support of world peace.

The idea had been a year in the making. While filming a part for a movie called A Love Story on June 15, 1968, Lennon and Ono planted two acorns at England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during WWII and was later rebuilt as a symbol of peace. They were “planted in east and westerly positions,” symbolizing the union of Lennon and Ono and their respective cultures.

Then, in 1969, they decided to scale up their "peace acorn" project. Along with two acorns placed in a small, round case, they sent world leaders a letter that read: “Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures—which are acorns—in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace. Yours with love, John and Yoko Ono Lennon.”

Like the proverb “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” the couple understood the power of small gestures and wanted to start a conversation that would get world leaders thinking about the possibility of peace—or in Lennon's words, to encourage them to "give peace a chance."

John and Yoko hold up a protest sign that says "War is over if you want it."
Frank Barratt, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

They did provoke some thought, at least. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon explained, “We got reaction to sending acorns—different heads of state actually planted their acorns, lots of them wrote to us answering about the acorns. We sent acorns to practically everybody in the world.”

The two acorns were “submitted to Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II] in due course,” according to a letter that the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace sent to the Lennons. A response from Malaysia confirmed that the acorns were to be planted in Kuala Lumpur’s Palace Gardens, and another letter from South Africa indicated that they would be planted on then-president Jim Fouché’s farm.

Golda Meir, then-prime minister of Israel, reportedly said something along the lines of, “I don’t know who they are but if it’s for peace, we’re for it,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. An official response sent by Meir’s assistant director in 1970 read, “Mrs. Meir very much appreciated the gesture, the underlying symbolism of which she would indeed like to see take root within a realistic framework.”

One particularly polite response came from Cambodia's head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, who worried he had erred in addressing Lennon and Ono as Mr. and Mrs. (he hadn't). He wrote, “Dear Sir and Madam, I may have wrongly assumed the friendly donators of acorns are husband and wife, and would like to submit ‘preventive’ apologies, together with my sincerest thanks for their gift.”

Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event
Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event in 1960
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ono saved all of these letters, and photocopies can be viewed on her website. For his part, Lennon memorialized the event in The Beatles single "The Ballad of John and Yoko." In case you've ever wondered what the line "50 acorns tied in a sack" means, the verse in question references the events following their honeymoon and return to London:

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press
Said we wish you success
It's good to have the both of you back

To mark the 40th anniversary of the peace acorn offering in 2009, Ono recreated the act and sent acorns to 123 world leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Next year, for the 50th anniversary, it remains to be seen if the famous peace acorns will again make their way around the world. If you happen to be a president or the Queen, you might want to save a spot in your garden, just in case.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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