English and Drama blog

4 posts from March 2016

31 March 2016

‘Is this a forgery I see before me?’

Vortigern and Rowena: A Shakespearean April Fools’ Day farce?

The plays of William Shakespeare are full of star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Ferdinand and Miranda, Vortigern and Rowena…

Well, maybe not that last pair, although there was a time when many people cherished high hopes for Vortigern and Rowena being a valuable addition to the list of Shakespeare’s known plays; hopes that unfortunately ended in catcalls, derision and farce at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on April 2nd 1796 (the performance thus avoiding going down in history as arguably the most lamentable April Fools’ Day event ever by a handful of hours). The play, although it only enjoyed the one shambolic performance, did achieve a certain enduring notoriety and the story behind it is of considerable interest in terms of the light it sheds upon our enduring fascination with Shakespeare and his work.


Above: A handbill defending the authenticity of Vortigern, commissioned by Samuel Ireland and distributed outside the theatre before the performance on 2nd April 1796. Folger Shakespeare Library

Vortigern, although presented to the world in 1796 as a lost play by William Shakespeare was in fact the product of William Henry Ireland, a poet and playwright of immeasurably more modest talents. William Henry Ireland was the son of Samuel Ireland, an antiquarian and devoted admirer of William Shakespeare. Samuel Ireland was continually hoping to turn up documents and papers that shed a greater light on Shakespeare. Following the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, a celebration of Shakespeare’s genius masterminded by the actor David Garrick, interest in Shakespeare and his life had become intense. More the pity then that Shakespeare the man remained essentially unknowable. The plays survived, as did a few legal documents containing his signature, but the thoughts of Shakespeare himself were seemingly lost. What did he think of his fellow actors and playwrights? What did he make of London, or of his native Warwickshire? What were his religious beliefs? Alas, with no surviving letters or personal papers it appeared the answers would remain forever hidden in the darkness of time. William Henry Ireland, seeing at first hand his father’s frustration at being unable to unearth any genuine letters or documents by Shakespeare, sought to remedy the situation by filling the numerous gaps in our knowledge with forgeries.

Ireland began by forging legal documents, using paper he had access to via his work as a clerk in a lawyer’s office. To present them first to his father, and then to the world, he had to come up with a story about where he had found them. Enter the mysterious ‘Mr H’. Ireland claimed that an acquaintance of his, Mr H, had in his possession a large oak chest that contained a number of old documents. Emboldened by the success of his first forgeries William Henry Ireland returned to his father’s house with an increasingly varied array of documents, all supposedly from the capacious trunk of Mr H. There were letters from Shakespeare to his wife, Anne Hathaway, often complete with locks of hair; there were documents in which Shakespeare outlined his religious beliefs (Protestant, of course); there were fragments of plays and then finally complete plays, including one called Vortigern and Rowena, based upon figures from 5th-century British history.


Above: ‘The Oaken Chest, or the Gold Mines of Ireland, a Farce’, a print by John Nixon satirising the ‘discovery’ of what turned out to be forged Shakespeare manuscripts, 1796. William Ireland is on the far left. His father, Samuel, is kneeling at the chest, a lock of Shakespeare’s hair at least a yard long in his hand. British Museum, London.

As the procession of documents emerging from the oak chest of Mr H increased then so did the amount of interest, and suspicion, surrounding them. The Irelands began charging admission for people wishing to visit their house in order to view the papers. Many believed the documents to be genuine. The writer James Boswell was so overcome during his visit that he fell to his knees, kissed the edge of the papers and announced that having seen them he could die in peace, which he duly did some three months later. Others, however, were less convinced. Newspapers, noticing the somewhat comic attempts at Elizabethan spelling attempted to outdo each other in the publication of ludicrous Mock-Elizabethan letters: one supposed to be from Shakespeare to Ben Jonson ran: ‘To Missteeree Beenjaammiinnee Joohnssonn: Wille youe doee meee theee favvourree too dinnee wytthee meee onnn Friddaye nextee attt two of thee clocke too eatee somme muttone chopps and some pottaattooesse?’

The charade could not continue, and as more knowledgeable individuals began to study the papers, including the critic Edmond Malone, the more obvious it became that the documents were forgeries. The final nail was hammered into the Ireland coffin of shame on April 2nd 1796 when Vortigern was performed on the London stage. The actor John Philip Kemble, who was clearly aware that the play was not the product of Shakespeare’s considerable genius but rather that of a less-accomplished talent, originally pushed for the play to be staged on April 1st (April Fools’ Day) but that was seen as perhaps a mockery too far. All the same, the production on April 2nd rapidly descended into farce. Kemble delivered his lines shamelessly for laughs and with his particularly pointed delivery of the line ‘and when this solemn mockery is o’er’ the play was revealed for what it was, a shambles. The performance staggered to a conclusion, at which point scuffles broke out in the pit bringing the evening’s events to a fittingly farcical end.


Above: Playbill for the only performance of Vortigern at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 2 April 1796. Although the play was widely touted as a newly discovered work by Shakespeare, the theatre manager, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, refused to print Shakespeare’s name on the bill. British Library 937.c.14

William Henry Ireland was never really forgiven for the Shakespeare forgeries. When Ireland bumped into the eminent man of letters James Boaden in Bond Street some twenty-five years later Boaden exclaimed: ‘You must be aware, Sir, of the enormous crime you committed against the divinity of Shakespeare. Why the act, Sir, was nothing short of sacrilege; it was precisely the same thing as taking the holy Chalice from the altar and pissing therein’. William Henry Ireland died in poverty, as did his father, but, ‘crime against the divinity of Shakespeare’ or not, Vortigern undoubtedly retains its fascination as a curious chapter in the story of our enduring love for all things relating to Shakespeare.

Examples of William Henry Ireland’s Shakespeare forgeries, and a wealth of material relating to Vortigern, will be on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts, which opens at The British Library on the 15th April and runs to 6th September 2016.

by Greg Buzwell, Curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts

29 March 2016

Recent Acquisition: Shirley Jones’ ‘The Quest’

by Jeremy Jenkins, Curator for Contemporary British Published Collections Emerging Media

As part of the Library’s brief to collect a copy of every book published in the UK, the Contemporary British Publications team takes a keen interest in publications outside the mainstream, including the publications of fine presses and artist’s books. Recently, we were pleased to welcome the internationally acclaimed Welsh book artist Shirley Jones of Red Hen Press who visited us to deliver a copy of her latest work, The Quest. Located in Powys, Wales, Red Hen Press has been in operation since 1983, creating limited edition letterpress books that present poetry and prose in concert with etchings and mezzotints.

 Quest title page crop

 The title page of the artist’s book The Quest by Shirley Jones

The Quest represents an artist’s book of the very highest order. The book contains five of the most sumptuous coloured mezzotint plates augmented with gold. Jones’ skill and experience as a book artist is plain to see from her reimagining of this folk tale, drawn from the middle Welsh epic Culhwch and Olwen. The Quest explores a stimulating and imaginative narrative of Gwrhyr’s search for Mabon, the son of Modron, which picks at the threads of folk tales which extend back to some of the very earliest oral and folk traditions.

In the tale, Gwrhyr, a warrior emissary of King Arthur, petitions various animals in his search for the whereabouts of Mabon, the son of Modron. Each animal refers Gwrhyr to another, older creature. They illustrate their ages by making reference to how the landscape and physical environment have changed over a great length of time. The Blackbird of Cilgwri, pecked away every evening at a smith’s anvil, and in this way she has eroded it to the size of a nut.

Quest blackbird crop2

A depiction of The Blackbird of Cilgwri in mezzotint plates augmented with gold from artist’s book The Quest

The Blackbird of Cilgwri refers Gwrhyr to the Stag of Rhedynfre, who in turn demonstrates his age by outliving an oak tree, which now is only a withered stump.  The Stag of Rhedynfre has no knowledge of Mabon the son of Modron. He goes on to suggest that Gwrhyr visits the Owl of Cawlwyd. In turn the Owl of Cawlwayd, unable to help, suggests he visits the animal that has travelled most, the Eagle of Gwernabwy. The Eagle of Gwernabwy, to illustrate his great age, makes reference to pecking the stars in the sky.  He had heard of Mabon when he was searching for food, and attempted to catch the Salmon of Llyn Llyw. The Eagle of Gwernabwy brought Gwrhyr to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw.  Finally the Salmon of Lyn Llyw tells what he knows of the fate of Mabon, the son of Modron. It transpires that he is imprisoned in a watery Gloucester dungeon.

The five full page mezzotint plates depict each of these animals in stunning and uncompromising detail. They are interleaved between six folded sheets containing the text. 

The story may act as a metaphor for the changing environment and the impact of man on the delicate balance of the natural world. The Owl of Cawlwyd makes reference to men coming and uprooting a wooded glen and its being replaced two times over. However what is most interesting about this depiction is the different ages of the animals mentioned; as the narrative unravels, the animals become progressively older. This is an interesting feature of the tale and contrasts the idea of all animals being the same created on the same day within Christian tradition. 

The connection of the salmon and wisdom or knowledge is well established in mythology, and in the quest for Mabon, the son of Modron, it is noteworthy that the salmon is the oldest of the creatures that we come across in the tale. This is similar to the folk tale of the Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Salmon of knowledge, where, while preparing the fish for his teacher, Finnegas, Fionn burnt his finger and inadvertently tastes the fish from his finger and in doing so acquired the gift of all knowledge.

Another more contemporary reference brought to mind by the plates Jones has produced for this tome is the images on Irish coinage prior to the introduction of the Euro.  Although the punt and sterling remained linked until 1979, Ireland retained legal tender of its own design.  In 1926, the poet William Butler Yeats chaired a committee to plan new Irish coinage. The committee agreed that the national symbol of the harp should continue to adorn the face (common obverse).  A set of designs by Percy Medcalf were agreed by the committee for the reverse. Amongst those designs was the salmon, which adorned the florin and then after decimalisation, the ten pence piece.  In 1990 the pound coin was introduced, designed with a red deer by the Irish artist Tomas Ryan very much in the style of Percy Metcalf's 1928 design. On seeing the images of the stag and the salmon, from the plates in The Quest, I was immediately reminded of the Medcalf design that rattled around in my pocket during my teens and early twenties while studying in Dublin.

The Quest Delivery 2 IMG_1305

Dr Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library receiving a copy of The Quest from Welsh book artist Shirley Jones 

The British Library’s copy of The Quest can be ordered up for consultation in our reading rooms. It is stored at British Library shelfmark: RF.2015.b.75. The Quest is also being exhibited at the Craft in the Bay, Members Showcase, Cardiff until 24 April 2016.

Jeremy Jenkins

March 2016

Further reading:

Shirley Jones and the Red Hen Press John R Kenyon, Museum of Wales, 2013.

The Mabinogion, translated with an introduction and notes by Sioned Davies. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2007. General Reference Collection Nov.2008/1344

The Mabinogion translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, Dent, 1906. Document Supply W70/2881

Culhwch ac Olwen, Part Three, Celtic Literature Collective 



17 March 2016

How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?

By Christina Hardyment, complier of 'Pleasures of Nature: A Literary Anthology' now available from British Library Publishing.

Having enjoyed compiling literary anthologies about gardens (Pleasures of the Garden) and food (Pleasures of the Table), I turned to a much more challenging subject: Pleasures of Nature. Where to start and where to stop? I decided that a challenging way of classifying literary mentions of natural things would be to consider them in the context of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Earth’s ‘sweet interchange of hill and valley, rivers, woods and plains’ are mournfully recalled by the exiled Satan in Paradise Lost, a tranquil scene quite unlike the ‘mighty polypus mouth … chewing and digesting its food in its throat and belly’ of the earthquake described by Sabine Baring-Gould in his tempestuous romantic novel Winefred. Trees are firmly rooted in earth, particularly such ancient giants as the Borrowdale yews apostrophized by Wordsworth, and the hunched beech and juniper of the ancient combe found in the Marlborough Downs by Edward Thomas. And then there are particularly earthbound creatures: D H Lawrence’s ‘little Titan’ of a tortoise and Richard Braithwaite’s hedgehog, ‘a whole fort in himself’.


‘View of the Source of the Arveyron, by Belanger and Vanlerberghe, engraved by Malgo’, 1829. British Library Maps K.Top.76.84.b.

Writers conjure air up in rainbows, winds and mists, the ‘tremendous voice’ of James Thomson’s thunder, and the ‘livid flame’ of his lightning. Leonardo da Vinci analysed the varying blues of atmosphere: smoky grey, azure, profoundly dark. Coleridge made startlingly vivid notes on sunsets and moonsets, observed while upturning his chamber pot out of the window of his Keswick residence, Greta Hall. It’s also the domain of Tennyson’s eagle, falling like a thunderbolt, Dorothy Wordsworth’s tremulously fluttering swallows, and Emerson’s ‘burly, dozing humble-bee.’


Plate from The Beauty of the Heavens by Charles F. Blunt, 1840. British Library 717.g.4*

Fiery phenomena invade all the elements of course, be they volcanoes (observed at Pompeii by Pliny, and at Krakatoa by R M Ballantyne), ‘phosphorescent billows’ as whales’ tails lash the sea in Moby-Dick, or Robert Service’s ‘wild and weird and wan’ Northern Lights dancing in the polar sky. Thomas Hardy likened the great bonfire lit on the heath in The Return of the Native to ancient funeral pyres and Bartholomew Anglicus’s phoenix crawled into a nest ‘of right sweet-smelling sticks’, which is set on fire by the sun.


Plate from Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies by William Hamilton, Ambassador to the Court of Naples, 1776. British Library TAB.435.a.15, volume 1.

Water includes the sound of rain and what Henry Beston called the ‘awesome, beautiful, and varied’ voice of the ocean; the ‘fleecy fall’ of Hardy’s snow, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘darksome burn, horseback brown’. It too has its creatures: Grey Owl’s beaver people, Henry Williamson’s otters and Graeme Stones’s  ‘storm-orphaned seal pup’.

But time and again I came across passages that escaped my quartet of categories. So I added two more. One was Surprise, in honour of Terry Pratchett, who once jokingly defined it as a fifth element, which I could fill with fun in the form of Lewis Carroll’s Bread-and-Butter-Fly, Jean Fabré’s macabre account of the courting habits of the grasshopper, and Aldous Huxley’s jokey skit on Darwinism, ‘Jonah and the Apes’. Finally, I found a home for the most arresting passages and poems under Deep Thinking. God recurs: as a ‘vast Chain of Being’ for Alexander Pope, in the changing seasons for Henry Vaughan, in the form of Space for Coleridge, jokingly in Rupert Brooke’s piscine ‘Heaven’. The Japanese poet Bashö reads Buddhist poems under the moon, Robert Louis Stevenson wanders the bird-enchanted highlands in ‘a trance of silence’. The pioneer environmentalist Aldo Leopold reminds us that ‘in wildness is the salvation of the world’, and the physicist Chet Raymo gazes at the stars from a dark hillside, listening and watching ‘for the tingle in the spine’.

I found much to comfort, but also much to dread during my reading. We are taming and tidying our world too thoroughly. In our gardens, birds, bees and hedgehogs disappear in the face of pesticides. The rockpools on our beaches are all but deserted. In South America, Africa and Asia, forests shrink unimaginably quickly, and round the globe the oceans are being ruthlessly harvested and polluted. As we reach greedily for the stars, let’s stop a while and remember Gilbert White’s tortoise, digging himself into the ground with a movement that ‘little exceeded the hour hand of a clock’, and the tall old shepherd in the Lakeland Hills who, Harriet Martineau tells us, ‘has trod upon rainbows’.

04 March 2016

J. G. Ballard: Streets in the Sky and the Secret Logic of the High-Rise

by Chris Beckett


Hardly a day goes by without a news report about London’s social housing crisis. There are currently more than 260 high-rise buildings (of 20 floors or more) either under construction or in the pipeline that are set to dramatically change the London skyline. Yet the high prices of the apartments they will offer, and their attractiveness to foreign (and absentee) investors, means that they will have little impact on London’s urgent need for affordable housing. In stark contrast, residential high-rise buildings constructed in London in the late 1960s and 1970s – such as Balfron Tower (1967), and Trellick Tower (1972) and the three residential towers at the Barbican (1973-76) – were social housing projects.


Balfron Tower (1967)

When Balfron Tower, in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, was completed in 1967, the building’s architect, Erno Goldfinger, took up temporary residence for two months in a flat on the 25th floor to experience at first-hand what it was like to live there. He talked to all the residents in turn at a series of ‘get-to-know-you’ parties that he and his wife hosted in their flat. An inadequate number of lifts was one particular problem: Balfron Tower had only two lifts, so a third lift was added to the plans for his next project, Trellick Tower (1972). Greatly influenced by Le Corbusier, Goldfinger envisaged the floors of his buildings as a series of streets in the sky. Almost all the original residents of Balfron Tower had been re-housed from Tower Hamlets, and it was Goldfinger’s belief that their deeply-rooted sense of local community would transfer smoothly to their new elevated neighbourhood.


Trellick Tower (1972)

But Goldfinger’s high-rise buildings did not develop along the socially cohesive lines he had envisaged. Isolation, crime and vandalism took hold, and life in the stark and fortress-like concrete towers moved ever closer to the dystopian architectural vision of J. G. Ballard’s contemporaneous novel High-Rise (1975): ‘With its forty floors and thousand apartments, its supermarket and swimming-pools, bank and junior school – all in effect abandoned in the sky – the high-rise offered more than enough opportunities for violence and confrontation.’ Rather like Erno Goldfinger, the architect in Ballard’s novel, Anthony Royal, is a resident who throws parties. It is his Alsatian dog that Laing is roasting on his balcony as the novel begins. And the secret logic that Wilder discovers as he fights his way up the high-rise towards Royal’s penthouse at the top is that ‘free and degenerate behaviour became easier the higher he moved up the building’.

By the time that Goldfinger’s buildings were completed, American studies of life in high-rise buildings had already come to the firm view that their design made them inherently prone to crime, and they were entirely unsuitable for families with young children. Unattended lifts (prime sites of conflict in Ballard’s novel) were hazardous play areas, and the taller the building the greater the propensity for crime. One influential study that Ballard had read, Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space (1972), argued that in a high-rise block the only ‘defensible space’ is the apartment itself. Without concierge-controlled entry (which the GLC had not implemented in Goldfinger’s buildings), the entrance lobby, stairs, lifts and corridors were open to all-comers: ‘these interior areas are sparsely used and impossible to survey; they become a nether world of fear and crime’. With a typical Ballardian twist, however, the inherent weaknesses of his high rise building lead not to attack from strangers without but to a breakdown from within as the building’s occupants quickly turn upon each other. The residents of Ballard’s building belong to an entirely professional class, in fact a self-selected grouping that should, according to American studies, be most suited to living there. Yet Ballard typically portrays them as affectless and detached, and most susceptible to the malign influences of the building. In this topsy-turvy world, the ascent of Wilder (the wild man) is a form of descent to an infantile primitivism. He’s a primitive with a cine-camera. High rise buildings, wrote Newman, ‘encourage crime by fostering feelings of anonymity, isolation, irresponsibility, [and] lack of identity with surroundings’, the very qualities that spur Ballard’s occupants towards their new (and apparently welcome) life of dereliction.

Goldfinger died in 1987, his reputation in ruins. Today, however, Balfron and Trellick Towers are desirable addresses, both Grade II-listed Brutalist treasures. The residents of Trellick Tower turned their situation around in the 1980s, and the housing association Poplar HARCA is currently carrying out a full refurbishment of Balfron Tower. Everyone was decanted from Balfron while the work was carried out, and residents were to have the option of keeping their flats in the blocks, or of moving into new low-rise homes nearby, in which case the vacated flats would be sold to finance the works. However, in 2015, HARCA concluded that it could no longer afford social housing in Balfron Tower, and the building is about to transfer unchecked to the lucrative private sector, cleansed of any dream of social housing.

On Friday 11 March, there will be a special preview showing at the British Library of Ben Wheatley’s new film of Ballard’s High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston.



On Sunday 13 March, the British Library is hosting a one-day Ballard conference: ‘Inner Space: J G Ballard in the Seventies’.



To accompany both events, in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery there will be a display of Ballard’s draft manuscript for High-Rise and Ben Wheatley’s annotated film script.