Strange Shakespeare: Vortigern and the women making and faking Shakespeare

William Henry Ireland is perhaps the most notorious Shakespeare forger in history. Less well known is the role women played in creating, promoting, and ultimately undermining the Ireland forgeries. These women included members of Ireland’s immediate family and two leading actresses of the day, Sarah Siddons and Dorothy Jordan.

In the early 1790s, Ireland purported to have discovered a cache of supposedly Shakespearean documents. The Shakespeare Papers, as they became known, occasioned much debate but were soon debunked as inauthentic. The centerpiece of Ireland’s collection was a tragedy entitled Vortigern, allegedly a newly discovered original work of Shakespeare’s. The play received a single performance at London’s Drury Lane theater on April 2, 1796, before being dismissed as a fake.

Vortigern and Rowena
Vortigern and Rowena. Forgery by William Henry Ireland, ca. 1796. Folger Z.e.12

The caricature The Oaken Chest or the Gold Mines of Ireland, a Farce, explored in detail in a recent Folger blog post, mocks the pecuniary motives of the forgeries and implicates the entire Ireland family in their production. In addition to William Henry and his father Samuel, three women are depicted: William Henry’s two sisters, Anna Maria and Jane, and a woman known as Mrs. Freeman but whose real name was Anna Maria de Burgh Coppinger. The latter was thought to be the Irelands’ housekeeper but was in fact Samuel Ireland’s mistress and the mother of his children.

William Henry Ireland forgery caricature
Caricature by John Nixon. The oaken chest, or The gold mines of Ireland, a farce [graphic] : the earth hath bubbles as the water has & these are them, Shakspere. 1797. Folger ART File S527.6 no.2 copy 1

Two of the women (presumably the sisters, who interestingly were both artists) are pictured seated at a desk with quills in hand, hard at work on producing new versions of Shakespeare. The other woman (presumably Mrs. Freeman, who had published satirical poetry and had herself written a play) stands in the center of the image, appraising the items being produced from the trunk by Samuel. One of the most notable of these “discoveries” is shown here in the form of a comically oversized strand of Shakespeare’s hair (the Shakespeare Papers featured a letter to Anne Hathaway, accompanied by a lock of the Bard’s hair as a love token).

This image suggests that the Ireland women were regarded at the time as being key to the production of the Shakespeare Papers. And given their literary and artistic abilities, the claim is not far-fetched.

The caricature specifically references Vortigern in the satirical verses that accompany the image. The play’s status as a fake was evident not just from its failure to match Shakespeare’s language but also from the fact that it was clearly written with leading performers of the day in mind. Some might read the similarities between Vortigern’s characters and other roles in the Shakespearean canon as evidence of its authenticity. But a closer look reveals that these connections are specifically with Shakespearean roles that had been made popular by the period’s most significant actors.

Vortigern’s wronged wife and mother Edmunda, for example, calls to mind Constance in King John and Queen Katherine in Henry VIII. These were both roles that Sarah Siddons had revitalized for late-eighteenth-century audiences and in which she had achieved enormous success. Like Constance and Katherine, Edmunda was designed to allow Siddons to showcase her skills in portraying nobility strongly marked by pathos.

The part of Flavia, daughter of Vortigern and Edmunda, was tailor-made for Dorothy Jordan, another star actress of the day. Flavia finds herself exiled from court and forced to adopt a cross-dressing disguise, evoking Shakespearean characters such as Rosalind and Viola. Famed for her figure in breeches and for her ability to combine sprightliness with melancholy, Jordan had played both these roles to immense critical acclaim.

Vortigern, therefore, drew its inspiration in terms of characterization not just from other works of Shakespeare but specifically from plays that Siddons and Jordan were currently popularizing on stage.

The echoes of Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear discernible in Vortigern’s eponymous tragic hero show that Ireland employed the same strategy in creating the lead role for Siddons’s brother, John Philip Kemble. As well as being the leading tragedian of the period, Kemble was also the Drury Lane manager. But working under the theater’s proprietor, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, he could not refuse to appear in Vortigern.

He didn’t have to like it, however, and hence made some rather transparent attempts to undermine the play. Kemble pushed for Vortigern to open on April Fool’s Day, but when that idea was vetoed he instead used his acting to sink the play. Tasked as Vortigern with delivering a key soliloquy about life and death, Kemble was accused of repeating and emphasizing in performance the line “And when this solemn mockery is ended,” much to the amusement of the audience.

Sheridan, for his part, did not necessarily have a desire to promote a new Shakespeare play (he was himself rather ambivalent about the English national poet) or an interest in provoking debate about Vortigern’s authenticity. He staged the tragedy simply because he knew that Shakespeare’s popularity would make it good box office.

But even before Kemble made a “solemn mockery” of Vortigern in performance, Siddons struck a blow that proved equally damaging to the play. The actress weaseled out of appearing as Edmunda by claiming ill health. Letters between the Irelands and Sheridan in advance of the play’s performance show their anxiety reaching fever pitch as it became clear that Siddons would not appear in the play.

A few weeks before opening night, Siddons wrote to her friend Hester Piozzi that she was studying the part of Edmunda. But she also expressed her doubts about the play’s authenticity: “All sensible persons are convinced that ‘Vortigern’ is a most audacious impostor. If he be not, I can only say that Shakespeare’s writings are more unequal than those of any other man.” This letter suggests that the Irelands were right to suspect her excuses were not entirely genuine. By refusing to appear in the play, Siddons avoided the mockery that the Ireland women incurred in the caricature of the family.

Jordan took a different tack. Not only did she seize the opportunity to play Flavia, a role so in tune with her usual repertoire, she also publicly championed Vortigern. Jordan was in a relationship with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV (by this time they had two children together and would go on to have eight more). She persuaded him to purchase several copies of the Shakespeare Papers when they were printed and convinced him to attend the performance of Vortigern to demonstrate royal support.

Many years later, William Henry wrote of Jordan’s kindness to him during the play’s performance as she watched with him from the wings and kept his spirits up. He also praised her acting abilities, implying a contrast between Jordan’s commitment to the play on the one hand and Siddons’s refusal to appear and Kemble’s deliberately poor performance on the other.

Perhaps Jordan, like Sheridan, recognized that the play’s value lay in the attention it would attract for its purported connection with Shakespeare and not in a presence or lack of authorial authenticity. She might have decided to underline further the public’s perception of her link with Shakespeare (in whatever form he took on the eighteenth-century stage) in order to bolster her own fame, just as the famous actor David Garrick had done before her.

Ultimately, Jordan’s enthusiasm and Clarence’s backing were not sufficient to save Vortigern. Had Siddons deigned to appear in the play and had Kemble done so in good faith, the tragedy would have stood a much better chance of success. The backing of all three leading Shakespearean performers of the day would have stamped Vortigern with the theatrical authenticity needed for it to succeed. But for Siddons and Kemble, the risks of being associated with a Shakespeare play that could turn out to be a fake were too great a threat to their reputations as Shakespearean performers.

Jordan, Siddons, and the women of the Ireland family played an important and hitherto unexplored role in the fortunes of Vortigern. It was not only male actors, writers, and theater managers who laid claim to Shakespeare at this pivotal moment in the late eighteenth century when the dramatist’s cultural status reached the pinnacle from which it has yet to be displaced. Women also made and unmade eighteenth-century Shakespeare in strange and surprising ways.

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