Collections of Distinction

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Shakespeare Unauthorized: the Proofreader’s Forgery

Posted on October 2nd, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

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.