And Now a Word from Our Forger….

One of the great stories in the Shakespeare world is that of John Payne Collier, who in 1850 was among the foremost scholars of his generation:  a man of prodigious learning, the preeminent editor of the Bard, the author of more than forty books of critical commentary and literary history.  A decade later, however, he was the object of universal contempt and scorn – accused of outrageous crimes of forgery and theft, and one of the most despised men in England.  Despite attempts to exonerate Collier, the consensus of scholarly opinion has remained convinced of his guilt.

John Payne Collier (1789-1883)

On my shelf is an 1844 edition of Collier’s seven volumes entitled The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare with A Life of the Poet, and Notes, Original and Selected, published in 1836, and if you read just the opening sentences of his “Life” of Shakespeare it becomes immediately clear, in my view, why he began to invent stuff – especially given the lines below that I have emphasized by italics:

“Little more than two centuries has elapsed since William Shakespeare conversed with our tongue, and trod the self-same soil with ourselves; and if it were not for the records kept by our Church in its registers of births, marriages, and burials, we should at this moment be as personally ignorant of the ‘sweet swan of Avon’ as we are of the old minstrel and rhapsodist of Meles.   That William Shakespeare was born in Stratford upon Avon; that he married and had three children; that he wrote a certain number of dramas; that he died before he had attained to old age, and was buried in his native town, — are positively the only facts, in the personal history of this extraordinary man, of which we are certainly possessed; and if we should be solicitous to fill up this bare and most unsatisfactory outline, we must have recourse to the vague reports of unsubstantial tradition, or to the still more shadowy inferences of lawless and vagabond conjecture.”

After Collier had spent so many hours digging for Shakespeare’s life as a writer and theater man and without finding anything at all, without question he was tempted to “fill up this bare and most unsatisfactory outline” of the man – as if he had a suit of clothes without a body inside it!  And given the extent to which this fabrication eventually grew … given the extent of the illusion that he and others created … it’s no wonder that we’ve had so much trouble trying to recognize the true Shakespeare!

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Can you expand? It seems you are suggesting that a good deal of the Shakespeare myth can be traced to an early primary source that was later discredited, while the myth persevered. One see this in academic publishing today as new edition textbooks borrow from previous editions preserving errors and wrong ideas through many generations.
    Stephen Jay Gould once wrote a nice essay on the subject. I will find it and send you the reference.

    • Yes, do send on the reference. it’s an incredibly important topic, often overlooked, and I’ll write more about it on the blog. I have a couple of “biographies” of Shakespeare from the early twentieth century that incorporate many things that came from forgeries and are totally wrong, just nonexistent, such as a letter from Southampton to the Privy Council, if I recall, asking something in support of his pal Shakespeare, and all of it is a total Collier forgery — yet incorporated in this biography as fact. A good inquiry is when anyone countered these fictions, and overturned them, if they ever really did in the next Shakespeare biographies, or did they just let them trail off into the mist? The impact was enormous, I’d say. A great topic and thanks for asking about it.

  2. This is indeed a big part of the Stratfordian story, that needs to be more widely known. I believe there is an important unconscious group psychology that helps maintain the traditional authorship legend, since it fits what George Lakoff called “deep narratives” that our mind– and even our brain– demand. For example, the narrative of the ascent from humble beginnings; the narrative of defenders of the man from Stratford rescuing him from “unscrupulous attackers” such as us; etc.

    I believe most traditionalists have forgotten all about Collier and his forgeries. At some point during the decades after he was exposed, I suspect the anger toward him got displaced onto Delia Bacon, and every authorship “heretic” since.


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