Shakespeare’s Lost Letters July 29, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
There are several of Shakespeare’s works that are lost. For example, his plays Cardenio (written with Fletcher) and Love’s Labour Won both appear to have disappeared down the plug hole of time.
And to these we should perhaps add a collection of Shakespearean letters that perhaps made it through to the very end of the eighteenth century. The only evidence for these letters comes in the following near contemporary text (1805).
Soon [in 1794] after my father went into the country, it being long vacation, I obtained permission of the gentleman with whom I was articled, to accompany him. The last place we visited before our return was Stratford upon Avon, where we remained about ten days; during which time, my father made eager enquiries concerning Shakspear, but acquired little more knowledge than those who went before him. We visited Clopton House, about a mile from Stratford, the gentlemen who occupied it, behaved with much civility. On my father saying, he wished to know any thing relative to our Bard the gentleman replied, that had he been there are few weeks sooner, he could have given him a great quantity of his, and his family’s letters. My father much astonished, begged to know what was become of them? The gentleman’s answer was that having some young partridges which he wished to bring up, he had, for the purpose, cleared out a small apartment wherein these papers lay, and burnt a large basketful of them, he said there were all rotten as tinder, but to many of them, he could plainly perceive the signature William Shakspear; and turning to his wife, said to her, ‘Don’t you remember it, my Dear?’ Her answer was, ‘Yes, perfectly well, and you know at the time, I blamed you for destroying them.’ My father exclaimed ‘Good God Sir! You do no know what an injury the world has sustained by the loss of them.’ He then begged permission to see the Room, which the gentleman acquiesced in, adding, ‘If there are any left, Sir, you may have them, for they are but rubbish, and litter up the place.’ Accordingly, we proceeded into the chamber, but found no trace of any such papers; and in every other part of the house our search proved equally ineffectual…
Now this passage was written by William-Henry Ireland (1775-1835) a notable forger of Shakespearean memorabilia including the play Vortigern – Shakespeare’s only Arthurian ‘work’. As such the testimony should be absolutely worthless – this after all was the scallywag who had ‘discovered’, inter alia, a letter from Elizabeth I to the Bard! But it comes from that author’s Confessions, 1805, written, after the forgeries had been discovered, in part to exonerate William-Henry’s Shakespeare-loving father from suspicion of any part in his son’s games.
In fact, reading between the lines of the Confessions it becomes evident that much of the young William-Henry’s efforts were undertaken to impress his father, the author Samuel Ireland. Would he have dishonoured his father, who had died in 1800, by coming up with such a story if it were not true, especially given that the residents of Clopton House could presumably contradict him and given also that the story adds nothing to his account?
The father, Samuel also remembered the visit in his Picturesque Views on the Warwickshire Avon though his description was far more circumscript: ‘Upon the demolition of New Place [Shakespeare’s final place of residence] above mentioned, all the furniture and papers were removed to the ancient mansion of the Clopton family, about one mile distant from Stratford. Amongst those papers I have long imagined that it was very possible some manuscripts of our Shakspeare might have been conveyed. Prompted by a faint hope of this sort, as well as by curiosity, I, last summer, visited this spot, but without the desired success.’
Beachcombing wonders if the amiable partridge-plucking rustics were not having their naïve metropolitan visitors on: ‘Go on, Dolly, let’s do our Shakespeare letter turn again!’ Or did they – members of the Clopton family – perhaps misread sixteenth- or seventeenth-century script? Certainly, Clopton House has no obvious link with Shakespeare apart from the possibility, noted by Samuel, that items from Shakespeare’s old mansion were moved hence.
Or were they and Ireland Junior right? After all, objects from Shakespeare’s day did survive through to the eighteenth century. A Catholic statement of faith signed by Shakespeare’s father John, which seems to have been genuine, came to light in the rafters of a house in Stratford’s Henley Street in the eighteenth century.
But, even if they were genuine, letters left out so carelessly will likely have been bills of exchange and payments for services rendered. They will not have been musings on the poet’s sexuality or his dramatic techniques. At least that is how Beachcombing is consoling himself…