Collections of Distinction

Shakespeare Unauthorized: the Proofreader’s Forgery

by jmoschella


An photograph of the BPL’s 1603 edition of Plutarch’s Lives taken in 1881 shows what was once thought to be the sixth known example of Shakespeare’s handwriting.

The BPL is home to one of the finest collections of Shakespearean rarities in the world. A selection of these books will be on display in the upcoming Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibition at the central library in Copley Square from October 14, 2016 through March 2017. 

Forgery artists, conspiracy theorists, and mischief makers of every sort have plagued Shakespearean scholarship for hundreds of years. A number of the great Shakespeare scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example — from Steevens and Theobald to Halliwell-Phillipps and Collier — have been accused of everything from tampering with archival collections and lying about sources to petty theft and the brazen and seemingly compulsive forgery of documents. So pervasive is the practice of forgery and falsification in the history of Shakespearean scholarship that both collectors and scholars have been drawn to the subject of forgery on its own merits.

Like many of the major Shakespeare collections in Europe and America, the BPL holds a number of forgery specimens. In some instances, these specimens were collected for what they are: deliberate and often skillful fakes. But in other cases, the forgeries in the collections were purchased — either by the library or by previous owners — based on the assumption that they were genuine artifacts.  One particularly scandalous example, purchased by the BPL in the late nineteenth century, appeared for a time to be one of the most important Shakespearean documents ever discovered.


(Above and below) two of the many newspaper headlines in the late-19th/early-20th centuries to declare the authenticity of the forged signature at the BPL.



The story of this forgery began in 1880, when an unemployed proofreader named Samuel Gasking came to the BPL hoping to find a job. Though he wasn’t ultimately hired, Gasking also offered to sell the BPL several rare books, including a copy of Ben Jonson’s 1616 folio and an excellent copy of Plutarch’s Lives, translated by Sir Thomas North and printed by Richard Field in 1603. Mellen Chamberlain, the head librarian of the BPL at the time, bought the Plutarch. A retired judge with a deep interest in paleography, Chamberlain had noted that several slips of manuscript waste were visibly exposed within the binding of the book, one of which bore an unusual inscription in an early style of handwriting called secretary hand:

“Wllm Shakspeare
hundred and twenty poundes.”

Chamberlain, a noted expert on historic autographs and handwriting, understood the stakes: at that point, there were only five confirmed examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting known to scholars, all of them signatures. This would have been the sixth and, with its second line of text, would have also represented the most extensive specimen of Shakespeare’s handwriting then known. Chamberlain was convinced that the BPL had just purchased the genuine article.


Pictured above, the slip of waste from the BPL Plutarch bearing the forged signature. It was eventually removed from the original binding.

Chamberlain based his belief in the authenticity of the handwriting on several factors. He noted that Gasking, the unemployed proofreader, had not asked any additional money for the book despite pointing to the presence of the signature. Chamberlain also noted that a worm hole, visible in the image above, ran through the second line of text, indicating that the handwriting was, if not contemporary to Shakespeare, then at least not particularly recent. Finally, Shakespeare had numerous connections to the printer of the book, Richard Field, making it more likely (or so Chamberlain claimed) that scraps of his business papers might have ended up on the floor of Field’s shop to be sent out to a binder as waste.


Charles William and Hulda Wallace (image courtesy of University of Toronto Libraries)

One also has to wonder, though, about the degree to which Chamberlain had simply convinced himself that an obviously fake autograph was genuine. An eccentric historian and scholar from Nebraska named Charles William Wallace (1865-1932) harbored no such illusions. Wallace, who famously uncovered a number of major documents relating to Shakespeare (including a genuine signature), debunked the notion that the BPL’s autograph was genuine. He believed that the two-line note did in fact date from the seventeenth century. However, he also believed that the note had originally read, “The sum of one hundred and twenty poundes,” and that someone had more recently written over the first line of text, adding in the letters “W” and “S” along with a number of other clumsy pen strokes so that the line appeared to contain Shakespeare’s name.1 In other words, the signature is a forgery.

It is still unclear what the first line of the inscription originally read — the modern inking covers too much of the earlier writing for it to be legible. Gasking’s relationship to the forgery is also unknown. It is possible that he faked the signature himself, though it seems equally likely he purchased the book as-is. Either way, Chamberlain purchased a fake signature, but a real book — a genuinely important rare edition that still maintains its artifactual significance. With the passage of time, even the forgery itself has accrued a certain level of scholarly value, complementing the many other forgeries, piracies, and falsifications within the BPL’s collections.

The BPL copy of Plutarch’s Lives and its fake Shakespeare signature, along with examples of forgeries by the infamous counterfeiters John Payne Collier and William Henry Ireland will be on display from October 14th, 2016 through March 2017 in the BPL’s Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibition. The book will be situated within a portion of the show that deals with the many ways that forgeries and conspiracy theories have eroded and distorted both public perceptions of Shakespeare and the historical record itself.



The BPL inscription transcribed. Charles William Wallace believed the second line to be a genuine 17th-century inscription, while the first line, with Shakespeare’s name, a partially modern forgery.



A close-up rendering of the BPL inscription without the added capital letter “S” in the first line shows a portion of what appears to be the original, lowercase letter “s” of the word “sum” underneath. The blob of ink to the left of the capital “S” used to be the letter “e” (from “the”) before a clumsy letter “m” was written over it in heavy ink.


  1. The source for Wallace’s claim that the BPL autograph is fake comes from the BPL card catalog (G.290.59 FOLIO)

Tags: , , , ,