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Vortigern, a fake Shakespearean play

Vortigern, an historical tragedy, and Henry the Second, an historical drama, supposed to be written by the author of Vortigern

William Henry Ireland, Vortigern: An historical tragedy, and Henry the Second, an historical drama, supposed to be written by the author of Vortigern (London, 1799)


Ireland began forging pseudo-Shakespearian texts and artifacts at an early age, but the public performance of “Shakespeare’s” Vortigern, an Historical Tragedy surely ranks among his most audacious achievements. Inspiration for the story of Vortigern, like Shakespeare’s authentic King Lear, derived from medieval chronicles adapted, copied, and reprinted over the centuries. By the time of Vortigern’s performance, it had already been denounced by some as a thinly veiled fake, sparking a brief pamphlet war between Ireland’s father, Samuel, a dedicated champion of his son’s version of Shakespeare, and the play’s detractors. It was only because of Samuel’s objection that the opening date of the performance was moved, as recorded in this extremely rare theatrical broadside, from its debut on April Fool’s Day to April 2.

The very first and only performance of Vortigern was shouted down in the fifth act by a scandalized and skeptical audience. Ireland’s forged, pseudo-Shakespearean play would not receive a second performance for another two centuries, though it had remained unconfessed until 1805, when Ireland first published his Confessions.

This copy bears Ireland’s own autograph.