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To thine own history be true?

If an exhibit involves Shakespeare artifacts, it must follow, as the night the day, that a lot of what you're looking at could be false.

By Associated Press
Published August 31, 2003

WASHINGTON - When the subject is William Shakespeare, even fake artifacts warrant their own show.

A Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit called "Fakes, Forgeries, Facsimiles" opened Wednesday. It includes a love letter to his wife and a lock of his hair, neither of which really came from the bard. There's also a display where visitors can guess which items are real and which are fakes.

They can puzzle over a book that goes back a century before Shakespeare was born - Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. One page belongs to the original printing; another bound to it is a carefully handwritten pen-and-ink version. It's not necessarily meant to deceive; some collectors like to have missing pages replaced this way.

A wooden goblet and rolling pin may been made from a mulberry tree allegedly planted by Shakespeare in his garden. When a later owner chopped it down and offered it for sale as firewood, a local entrepreneur named Thomas Sharp bought it and turned it into mementos for tourists. The goblet and rolling pin on display are allegedly part of his product.

Today's visitors to Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare's hometown, find thousands of Shakespeare curios for sale.

"It was the beginning of the Shakespeare industry," said Erin C. Blake, the Folger's curator of art.

The love letter was penned by 17-year-old William Henry Ireland. In 1794, nearly two centuries after Shakespeare's death, he bought old paper, singed the edges and composed it in what he imagined was the style of Shakespeare's time. The hair, he wrote later, came from a woman in a love affair of his own.

A cartoon of the period shows his family busy at forging, with the help of a huge cascade of hair. That's a little unfair to the father of the family, Samuel Ireland, an engraver and antiquarian who gave his son an infatuation with Shakespeare. At one time the son wrote that he wanted to get his father's attention, at another he compared himself with Thomas Chatteron, a poet who killed himself at 18 and who also did forgeries.

Young Ireland wrote two plays, which he claimed were Shakespeare's. The Drury Lane Theater prepared a big production of one, "Vortigern and Rowena," amid suspicion in the London theatrical world. On April Fool's Day, 1796, on the eve of the opening, a leading Shakespeare authority, Edmund Malone, published an expose.

At the performance, some of the cast treated it as a farce. A note in the library exhibit says the star, John Philip Kemble, used a particularly sepulchral tone in delivering the line:

"And when this solemn mockery is o'er . . . "

The play closed that night. Young Ireland published a full confession before the end of the year. But his father died maintaining that his son was not clever enough to be the forger. A single hair the father vouched for as genuinely Shakespeare's also hangs in the exhibit.

Others still were eager to be deceived or admired the forgery. The original fabricated love letter has disappeared, and the library has six of the many copies young Ireland himself made for his admirers.

Heather R. Wolfe, the Folger's curator of manuscripts, explained how young Ireland satisfied his father's curiosity about the "finds." He produced a manuscript with a story of Shakespeare vowing gratitude to an Ireland family ancestor who saved him from drowning. Young Ireland said the manuscripts had been in possession of a "Mr. H" who did not want to be identified.

A needle case in the show has no known connection with the Irelands. The wood is full of worm holes and looks like it might date back to the 1500s. But there is no hard evidence that Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife, had anything to do with it.

There also are forgeries of forgeries treasured by collectors. A handsomely carved tea chest, sold as made from the famous mulberry tree, is under suspicion.

The exhibit will be open until Jan. 3, 2004. Admission is free.

[Last modified August 28, 2003, 09:23:42]

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