In 1790s London, William Henry Ireland was a young lawyer’s apprentice in his twenties with one consuming conundrum: He didn’t really know whether or not he was a bastard. His presumed mother ignored him; his so-called “father,” Samuel Ireland, a facile painter and passionate collector of antiquities, regarded him as a dullard not worthy of interest. This left William Henry without parental affection, a need he had suppressed by remaining as invisible to them and others as he thought his caretakers would wish him to be.
During an unexpected visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, however, Samuel revealed his obsessive determination to discover what, beyond certainty, must certainly exist: a trove of Shakespeariana — documents, poems, records, even manuscripts of plays. Nothing had ever been found of the Bard’s writing except two signatures on land transfers. Somewhere there must be a huge collection of accumulated papers, and Samuel – with William Henry’s help — was determined to find them. Nothing in life would mean so much to him.
Having perhaps discovered a way to Samuel’s respect, and even his affection, William Henry did his research and practiced Shakespeare’s signature, eventually presenting to Samuel a Declaration of Protestant Faith, signed “William Shakespeare”! Ecstatic, and convinced, Samuel demanded more. After initial trepidation, William Henry decided to give it to him.
Poems to Anne Hathaway followed, along with documents of every description, finally the original manuscript of KING LEAR in the Bard’s own hand. When eminent scholars examined the papers and pronounced them genuine, William Henry slowly began to believe his talent was being accepted as equal to that of the Bard’s.
Meanwhile, The Shakespeare Papers gained the attention of the theatre community as well as the Royal family. What else could William Henry do but write his own original play by William Shakespeare, one never seen before? And what else could happen with it than it would be performed at Drury Lane, produced by the theatre’s owner Richard Brinsley Sheridan, starring the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day, John Philip Kemble?
And wouldn’t Samuel, in his gratitude, at last call William Henry, “Son”?
(The play is written in two acts, has a cast of 8, and calls for bare free flowing scenery with needed furniture.)
(The Actor, tricked out in eclectic glitter enters.)
Dramatic custom wants a prologue here,
To set the scene and state the theme as clear
As you, our splendid audience may need
To trust us well, wherever we may lead.
You’ll play your part in this, we promise you.
Until then, please sit back, enjoy the view
of Stratford-upon-Avon! Here begins this plot
of forgery, what’s fact and what is not.
You’ll judge the jagged line ‘twixt truth and lie, and please! Remember that before we die:
We all will forge our lives t’improve our lot.
We do the best we can with what we’ve got.
(Across the stage, Samuel Ireland, pompous and self-absorbed, with his son, William Henry Ireland, near 20, insecure and filled with restless confusions, enter. The Actor crosses to William Henry, who paces.)
And who did more with what he had than he?
You’ll see him reach toward immortality,
Oh, yes, for fame, and for a father’s care —
All this and more to complicate the dare
Of fate. So much for prologue; now the play!
(My role is all the actor’s parts!) Away!
So you attended the Jubilee, Father?
I did. I’d gained my reputation for painting landscapes and portraits, just been made a member of The Royal Academy of Art. It went on for three days, more mud than you can imagine. What days were those! What nights.
Was my Mother at the Jubilee as well?
Yes, as a matter of fact. Why do you ask?
She mentioned once she’d met you for the first time at Stratford, but said nothing of a Jubilee.
When did Mrs. Freeman tell you that?
I don’t remember. Some time ago.
Are you sure you didn’t hear it somewhere? Some gutter gossip picked up in a coffeehouse?
Mother told me.
Mrs. Freeman had no reason for telling you, and you have no reason for asking. It isn’t done. It’s bad manners.
Bad manners to ask of my mother and father’s meeting?
It is a distraction in such a place as this. Listen to me. My soul has drawn me here, for here Shakespeare lived, and wrote, and died. Perhaps there are treasures here in Stratford, waiting to be found, and I am determined that you and I will …
But you are my father, aren’t you?
You dare ask me that?
I’ve never dared ’til now.
How could you possibly doubt that I…?
Sir, I have good reason for it. Your name is Samuel Ireland. My mother’s name is Mrs. Freeman. You’ve never married, a circumstance that all your friends accept, but never mention.
No wonder there. It’s a common circumstance in Georgian society.
To society, perhaps, but to a supposed son, it’s, well, peculiar.
To a respectful, grateful son, it’s of no consequence.
My gratitude, sir, is what drives me to know the truth of my heritage. It is uncertain.
Why do you question it?
At home, Mrs. Freeman regards me as an intruder. She said on several angry occasions that you do not consider me your son.
She what? Mrs. Freeman was wrong for telling you so! She brays in anger about things of which she should not speak! I’d advise you to content yourself with the fact of home and family which is provided you.
“Content”? What’s unknown is a void, sir. It’s impossible to exist contentedly in that.
Then fill the void with your legal work, and now with this great challenge.
You mean finding bits of paper with ‘Shakespeare’ written on?
Yes! Think of this: Not even a single letter, a scrap of foolscap of his work has ever been found subscribed with Shakespeare’s name. Only two bare examples of his signature exist on property transactions. Surely an admirer must have collected piles of his desiderata. Any day now, somewhere in England, a rich trove of Shakespeare’s memorabilia will be brought forth from some ancient repository. Oh, to be that discoverer, to add all that to my own collection of historical antiquities. It would define me to the world! In history! A peerage might be mine! We must keep searching. I’ll go first. Stand by and keep watch.
(Aside, to the audience)
So my life-long question remains: What am I, a bastard or not? I’m not ashamed if I am a bastard. It’s simply my overwhelming need to know if I am one, and if so, whose I might be. If Sam Ireland is indeed my father, Mrs. Freeman my mother, I’d accept that fate, God help me. But if they be not, aren’t I entitled to conjure up a family history? Presently, that history is an empty page, the only certainty being that I was indeed born. My mother, Mrs. Freeman — oh wait until you meet her! — has a little money but no family she has ever mentioned, or who have ever mentioned her. One does not dare ask who Mr. Freeman might have been. Then again, it is said as far behind my back as Dover, that she was once one of the Earl of Sandwich’s many mistresses. His Lordship was the most profoundly reprobate and depraved lechers of our time. Perhaps the Earl himself is my sire. Then again, perhaps it was his groomsman. But just as easily, it was the Prince of Wales, often the Earl’s guest to whom every favour — including a mistress — was offered. I can, I suppose, forge myself into anything I want: poet, clown, or royal prince. Why not, if I am no one else? It seems a bastard must beget his own life, fill the empty page and draw a family onto it. Therefore without the normal help of God, and none from a father or mother, I must create a William Henry Ireland that cannot be denied, by Sam Ireland, by the world, … or even by me. But I so crave the truth! Don’t you?