Fortean London: Shakespeare's Lost Play

By Scott Wood Last edited 101 months ago
Fortean London: Shakespeare's Lost Play

2304_theatreroyal.jpg April is a Shakespearean month: the bard was baptised in April, his birthday is celebrated on 23 April and, on 2 April 1796, his lost play 'Vortigern' was performed at the Royal Theatre, Drury Lane, to much excitement and controversy.

The play was one of a stream of papers to flow toward Samuel Ireland from a mysterious Mr H via Samuel's son William. There were legal documents, letters, sketches and original manuscripts of 'Hamlet' and 'King Lear'. The Prince of Wales, poets and William Pitt and James Boswell visited the Ireland's Norfolk Street, now Cleveland Street, house to marvel at the papers. Two scholars inspecting Shakespeare's newly found declaration of Protestantism said of the author "here is a man who has distanced us all".

Samuel sold Vortigern to the Royal Theatre for £250 sight unseen. When owner Richard Sheridan read the play he decided "Shakespeare must have been very young when he wrote it" but was convinced by the age of the paper it was on.

Things went bad when Samuel published 'Miscellaneous Papers under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare'. The press were scornful, accusing Samuel, a writer himself, of faking the papers. A 424 page book attacked their mock-Tudor language and it had a point, Shakespeare's declaration of faith, as all the papers did, read like contemporary English with lots of extra vowels: "I beynge ofe sounde mynde doe hope thatte thys mye wyshe..."

Also Mr H was getting strange, refusing to meet Samuel and praising William Ireland for being "a second Shakespeare". William had once been sent home from school with a note stating that he was too stupid to be taught,

'Vortigern' was performed, sceptics laughed, supporters applauded, the stage was pelted with fruit and everyone was drunk. There was a fifteen minute riot at the end. It was not shown again until 2008.

It had been William who had written Vortigern, who had written and drawn all of the papers. He used old paper stolen from his office and specialist forgers ink. Despite being written off as stupid he had a deep inner-life where he saw himself as a writer. And for a brief time, before his father published the papers and sold his player, when the great and good gasped at the Shakespeare papers, he was the greatest writer that had ever lived.

By Scott Wood

Last Updated 22 April 2010