W.H. Ireland Shakespeare Forgeries

The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation


The Meanwhile team found 3 key themes from this collection and worked on them during a charrette with other museum professionals. From there, each team brainstormed a big idea, mission and loose walk-through. Each of these ideas will be prototyped in some form from December 2013–February 2014.

Scroll down to read more about the key themes and prototype ideas. If you are interested in becoming involved or learning more, sign up for our newsletter. 

Research and Development Stage



The William Henry Ireland Shakespeare forgeries are a series of bound manuscripts within the Rosenbach Museum’s collection. The manuscripts contain forgeries of some of William Shakespeare’s legal and personal documents as well as some of his most famous works. According to a Rosenbach employee, their  value as a collection derives from the fantastic, convoluted and juicy story that lies behind their creation– “everything else is just a masterpiece”.


William Henry Ireland—purported dunce, and son of social climbing Shakespeare enthusiast, Samuel Ireland—began his forging career in 1794 while a young law clerk at the age of 19. He started small, with love letters and legal documents and grew more and more audacious as his works were blindly accepted by fanatic collectors and experts alike. His forgery career culminated when he wrote his very own “Shakespearean” play, Vortigern and Rowena. It ran only one night. Before the curtain closed on its debut performance, the audience knew it to be a forgery. Scandal ensued. Within a few months, Ireland was forced to publicly confess his misdeeds. The rest of his life was spent reproducing his forgeries (creating forgeries of forgeries), having never been able to replicate his earlier success.

Design Stage

From our research and charrette, the need to design a story that presents history as it is became apparent. While little is known of W.H.Ireland and for that matter, Shakespeare, there are a few known facts. There was a man named William Henry Ireland, a play titled Vortigern and Rowena was performed on April 2, 1796 at the Drury Lane Theatre, and several Shakespearean documents were forged. However, beyond these, little can be stated as known fact.

Did W.H.Ireland forge these document to gain the love of a father that never accepted him? Did his father, in a bid for notoriety he never achieved on his own, put his dim-witted son up to the task and force him to suffer the consequences? Many questions were raised by the audacious tale forgery and lies. Some point to the idea of authenticity at a time before copyright existed and some to the man being forged. Project Meanwhile will take these ideas and prototype keys aspects throughout the city of Philadelphia in collaboration with the Philadelphia Free Library.

Prototype Ideas

Below are the three key ideas that we will be prototyping throughout the city. Sign up for our newsletter and check back here for future testing dates.