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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

William Cobbett (1763–1835)

Writing Plays Like Shakespeare’s

From “Advice to a Young Man”

IT is the practice to extol every line of Shakespeare to the skies. Not to admire Shakespeare has been deemed to be a proof of want of understanding and taste. Mr. Garrick, and some others, had their own good and profitable reasons for crying up the works of this poet. When I was a very little boy there was a jubilee in honour of Shakespeare; and as he was said to have planted a mulberry-tree, boxes and other little ornamental things in wood were sold all over the country, as having been made out of the trunk or limbs of this ancient and sacred tree. We Protestants laugh at the relics so highly prized by Catholics; but never was a Catholic people half so much duped by the relics of saints as this nation was by the mulberry-tree, of which, probably, more wood was sold than would have been sufficient in quantity to build a ship of war or a large house. This madness abated for some time, but later on it broke out again with more fury than ever. Shakespeare’s works were published by Boydell, an alderman of London, at a subscription of £500 for each copy, accompanied by plates, each forming a large picture.

Amongst the madmen of the day was a Mr. Ireland, who seemed to be more mad than any of the rest. His adoration of the poet led him to perform a pilgrimage to an old farm-house near Stratford-upon-Avon, said to have been the birthplace of the poet. Arrived at the spot, he requested the farmer and his wife to let him search the house for papers, first going upon his knees, and praying, in the poetic style, the gods to aid him in his quest. He found no papers; but he found that the farmer’s wife, in clearing out a garret some years before, had found some rubbishy old papers which she had burnt, and which had probably been papers used in the wrapping up of pigs’ cheeks, to keep them from the bats. “Oh, wretched woman!” exclaimed he; “do you know what you have done?” “Oh, dear, no!” said the woman, half frightened out of her wits; “no harm, I hope, for the papers were very old—I dare say as old as the house itself.” This threw him into an additional degree of excitement, as it is now fashionably called. He raved, he stamped, he foamed, and at last quitted the house, covering the poor woman with every term of reproach; and hastening back to Stratford, took post-chaise for London, to relate to his brother madmen the horrible sacrilege of this heathenish woman.

Unfortunately for Mr. Ireland, unfortunately for his learned brothers in the metropolis, and unfortunately for the reputation of Shakespeare, Mr. Ireland took with him, to the scene of his adoration, a son, about sixteen years of age, who was articled to an attorney in London. The son was by no means so sharply bitten as the father; and, upon returning to town, he conceived the idea of supplying the place of the invaluable papers which the farm-house heathen had destroyed. He thought, and he thought rightly, that he should have little difficulty in writing plays just like those of Shakespeare. To get paper that should seem to have been made in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and ink that should give to writing the appearance of having the same age, was somewhat difficult; but both were overcome. Young Ireland was acquainted with the son of a bookseller who dealt in old books; the blank leaves of these books supplied the young author with paper; and he found out the way of making proper ink for his purpose. To work he went, wrote several plays, some love-letters, and other things; and, having got a Bible, extant in the time of Shakespeare, he wrote notes in the margin. All these, together with sonnets in abundance, and other little detached pieces, he produced to his father, telling him he got them from a gentleman, who had made him swear that he would not divulge his name. The father announced the invaluable discovery to the literary world; the literary world rushed to him; the manuscripts were regarded as genuine by the most grave and learned doctors, some of whom gave, under their hands, an opinion that the manuscripts must have been written by Shakespeare; for that no other man in the world could have been capable of writing them.

Mr. Ireland opened a subscription, published these new and invaluable manuscripts at an enormous price, and preparations were instantly made for performing one of the plays, called “Vortigern.” Soon after the acting of the play, the indiscretion of the lad caused the secret to explode; and, instantly, those who had declared that he had written as well as Shakespeare, did everything in their power to destroy him. The attorney drove him from his office; the father drove him from his house; and, in short, he was hunted down as if he had been a malefactor of the worst description.