The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare by Doug Stewart

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The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare by Doug Stewart

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James
Summary: Totally gripping account of one of literature's greatest hoaxes.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Da Capo
ISBN: 978-0306818318

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In the late 18th century, keen to impress the Shakespeare-obsessed father who paid him little attention, 19 year old William Henry Ireland forged a couple of Elizabethan documents to show him. With the older man completely taken in, his child then pretended he'd found a trunk full of lost artefacts belonging to the Bard – love letters to Anne Hathaway, a declaration of his Protestant faith, the manuscript of King Lear, and even entirely new plays. Ireland fooled not only his father, but also many of the prominent Londoners of the time, including Robert Southey, James Boswell, and the future William IV.

If this was a novel, it's at this point I'd be knocking stars off for the sheer implausibility of the plot. Incredibly, despite the sheer craziness of Ireland's ideas, this is a non-fiction account drawn together from reliable sources, including the documents themselves, letters between Ireland, his father, and the mysterious Mr H, the owner of the trunk (actually a figment of William Henry's imagination.) The young man really did, at a time when forgery was punishable by death, produce his own writing which he passed of as Shakespeare's, including immortal lines such as Is there onne Earthe a Manne more trewe thane Willy Shakespeare is toe you, supposedly written by the great poet to Anne Hathaway.

Ireland was clearly deluded to think that this could continue for long, but in fairness, it's absolutely astounding – especially given some of the risks he took – that it continued at all, let alone that men like Boswell reacted so eagerly to it. I won't go into too much detail about the risks taken or the eventual outcome – although Stewart lets us know fairly early on that Ireland eventually confessed – as the tale is probably more enjoyable without too much knowledge of the twists and turns. Suffice to say that as a non-fiction thriller, this is absolutely first class, and while my love of Shakespeare and of Tudor and early Stuart times added to my enjoyment, I think that even people who are unaware of most of the people involved here will find this account completely gripping.

Beneath all the excitement, though, there's a rather tender story of a boy, unsure of his place in the world, pining for his father's affection and yet knowing that his actions could eventually have dire consequences for that same father – it's almost Shakespearean itself, and Stewart draws on this beautifully.

In the course of a tightly focused narrative, the author also manages to provide a lot of really interesting information on life in Elizabethan times, and the power of the theatre and the press in the Georgian era. I was impressed by how much I learnt from the book and am still learning – an excellent three page note on sources at the end gives suggestions for further reading, much of it available on line, and I'm now looking through Google Books to find some of the documents it refers to.

Highest possible recommendation for anyone interested in Shakespeare, Georgian England, or true life thrillers.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: For more exciting, accessible history, try The Princes In The Tower by Alison Weir.

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