By the end of the 18th century, there were multiple editions of Shakespeare’s work in circulation, but no biography that could have been considered satisfying. Shakespeare had not left behind manuscripts or notes, and only few signatures in legal papers here and there. The first collection of his work, the Folio, had been published years after his death, and the portrait of the author on it had been drawn from memory; people interested in Shakespeare the author in short didn’t have much to go with. They couldn’t even know for certain how he looked like. So, it wasn’t a great surprise that when in the spring 1795 Samuel Ireland, a collector and antiquarian, announced that his teenage son had found a stash of papers belonging to Shakespeare – poems, letters and other notes, neatly signed by Shakespeare himself – people should flock to see them with great enthusiasm. Biographer James Boswell, the story goes, came to see these papers and sighed that he can now “die content”, and three months later did just that, presumably never discovering that what he had seen had been nothing more than a crude forgery by William-Henry Ireland.
Among the texts was a draft of a play called Vortigern and Rowena; it was staged by the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan in the spring of 1796 in the brand new Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and following its premier the hoax finally started to unravel in earnest. While many people in the audience were convinced, equally many were not – taking their cue from the Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone, critics called the play out as a clumsy fake, and after a couple months of the debate washing back and forth, William-Henry confessed. For a year and a half, he had been William Shakespeare, and his father never accepted that the papers were a fake created by his son – not out of affection for his son, but because he didn’t believe poor William to be clever enough to have made any of it up.
When the First Folio was published, 18 of the plays it contained had never been published in print before. Few had existed previously as quartos*, and none in manuscript. The Folio was compiled by John Heminges and Henry Condell, who used a combination of the quartos, transcripts, foul papers and manuscripts to put it together; missing from it are the collaborative plays Pericles and Two noble kinsmen, as well as two plays considered lost, Cardenio and Love’s Labour Won. So, it was known that there had been more plays beyond the thirty-six in the Folio, and that made people eager to believe in Ireland’s Vortigern. Maybe, just maybe, there was more to be found?
The Ireland forgery was a complete fabrication, but over the centuries any number of plays has been tried to have been attributed to Shakespeare. Jaggard’s “false folio” (an unauthorised collection of plays) contained Sir John Oldcastle and A Yorkshire Tragedy, neither of which have been serious candidates into the canon. Edward III has often been considered a possibility, but is nowadays attributed to Thomas Kyd. The London Prodigal was performed by the King’s Men, and originally was registered under Shakespeare’s name; it is now believed that he he may have written a plot outline for it, but none of the actual play text. Shakespeare, among many others, is also believed to have contributed a few pages to an Elizabethan play about Sir Thomas More; the manuscript still exists and is considered one of the few examples of his handwriting.
Love’s Labour’s Won is first mentioned having been performed in 1598, and is listed again among Shakespeare’s plays in 1603. We don’t know for sure if this is a genuine lost play, or a play that we now know with a different name. Much Ado About Nothing is the usual candidate (others being Taming of the Shrew, Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well), but it is already listed in contemporary sources alternatively as Benedick and Beatrice, which makes that less likely. It might have been a sequel to Love’s Labour Lost, but sequels to comedies were not fashionable at the time. The alternative name theory is popular, because this is a genuine literary mystery – why would a play that was known for at least five years during Shakespeare’s time disappear from the canon completely?
Another lost play is Cardenio, performed in 1613 and entered in the stationers’ registry in 1653 with Shakespeare and John Fletcher listed as its authors. There is a character called Cardenio in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and it is assumed that this play was based on him. Two existing plays, Double Falsehood and The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, have been implicated as possibly being this play, but only Double Falsehood is a serious candidate, so to speak. It surfaced in 1727, when literary editor Lewis Theobald published it, claiming to have edited it together from three Restoration-era manuscripts that were based on Cardenio. Much textual analysis has gone into verifying this play’s authenticity, with the 21st century view being that Shakespeare most likely did participate in writing the first three acts, with Fletcher writing the final two. The Arden Shakespeare cautiously points out the reason why people have been hesitant to accept Shakespearean authorship of Double Falsehood (and, similarly, most of the apocryphal plays) – this farcical tale of two brothers and their hapless friend, all in pursuit of various women, just isn’t very good.
The image at the top of the page is a portrait of Shakespeare drawn by William-Henry Ireland – it suggests that he had seen the Droeshout portrait.
*Folio and quarto refer to the size of paper they were printed on – folio is a sheet of paper folded once giving four pages on which to print, while quarto is folded twice, creating eight pages. Folio was a lot more expensive to produce back in the 1620s, so a publisher to run a print of nearly 800 copies of the is a testimony to how important Shakespeare was already considered when the First Folio came out.