C = Claire Repsholdt, E = Ellen MacKayView podcast page
Falsified Beauty Transcript
C: Welcome to A Thing of Beauty. I’m your host, Claire Repsholdt, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University studying English and History. This podcast is part of Themester, a themed semester brought to you by the College of Arts and Sciences. This fall we are exploring beauty as a core component of human experience. In each episode, we’ll invite faculty to share an object of beauty with us. So, let’s meet our guest.
C: I’m Claire Repsholdt. Welcome to this week’s episode of A Thing of Beauty. I’m here with Professor Ellen MacKay Professor of English and resident dramturg and director of educational outreach for Cardinal Stage as well as the chair of this semester’s Themester. So, thank you for being here today.
E: Thank you for having me.
C: And we’re going to be talking to Professor MacKay about a thing of beauty that she’s chosen. Professor MacKay could you let us know what that is?
E: Yes. I’m gonna to be talking about a compilation of forgeries of Shakespeare produced by William Henry Ireland in 1795 slash 1805, very hard to date specifically when these forgeries were produced, but they are a thing of beauty.
C: And they’re a campus resource--I think.
E: They are an amazing campus resource. So, versions of Ireland forgeries are available at very fancy research libraries around the world--the British library, the Folger library, Harvard’s Hotton library--have some very lovely versions, but our version is gorgeous and beautifully bound and wholly accessible to anyone who asks the research librarians to draw it up.
C: And it’s at the Lilly Library?
E: It is at the Lilly Library.
C: And you’ve had a chance to look at these personally? Have you done research with them, or just as an admirer have you seen them?
E: I initially pulled them in order to offer some context on Shakespeare as a cultural figure, in a Shakespeare course, and I became so smitten with them that I turned William Henry Ireland into a pet research project.
C: So, could you describe for us listeners a little bit about what the actual physical experience of the object is, kind of, your description of how it is to sit in a library and go over them.
E: Sure. So, um, it’s a little bit of a paradox to be, um, examining Ireland’s work as though it were a precious artifactual object because— Although it is that, right: They’re genuinely old. They’re fascinating representations of cultural history. They’re, of course, spurious, right, and they in no way possess the value that they would have were they authentic.
So it’s a strange experience, and that’s partly why I chose them and partly why I’m interested in discussing them, is that they force us to notice the ways that we behave around objects that are deemed precious, beautiful, unique, and culturally definitive. It would be interesting to have both Shakespeare folio and quarto and Shakespeare forgery--
C: Side by side…
E: Side by side, in the vault together, is kind of a fascinating thought. Um, but it comes in uh, folio sized book, sort of like a coffee-table-size book, a pretty large, leather bound book. It was bound by the owner, so as with most book production, prior to the 19th and 20th centuries, you know, if you owned a library of value, you would often have all of your works bound by a single binder so there was a look of uniformity (C: I see) to your library so it was pretty, right?
So these individual paper items that represent, uh, his sort of quotidien life are framed within, like in a scrapbook-- They’re framed within a folio page, and they’re actually cut out and carefully inlaid so that both sides of the page are legible when you turn the page. You can see the reverse, um, so you have nearly the full experience of examining the artifact prior to its binding.
C: And as a scholar of early modern English drama, I’m thinking that you’ve probably had an experience with some Shakespeare artifacts, of his actual like ephemera, so how does this compare, seeing the Ireland things, compared to whatever--in any library around the world--the Shakespeare items?
E: So, Shakespeare items that would constitute, sort of, life matter, are extraordinarily rare, right. We have his will, we have his signature on a few deeds, we have him mentioned, uh, within his own lifetime in manuscript form in a few places. We can’t price them, but they would be in the millions, in the tens of millions, of dollars for any of these singular documents.
So, um, I’ve never handled them. I-- I know people who’ve handled them. I would say, but actually even for a Shakespeare scholar who, you know, is established in the profession it would be a true rarity to be able to make the case, that you actually need to handle, for instance, Shakespeare’s will. So it’s-- So gaining actual physical access to those items is extraordinarily rare, which explains, in part, right, the extraordinary excitement around this false discovery that Ireland staged of these forgeries that he said he recovered from this oaken chest of an old gentlemen.
C: And tell me a little bit more about that story, I think, if you have, kind of, maybe an understanding of Ireland as a character that helps, kind of, influence your experience of the folio.
E: Yes, um, so Ireland has a bit of a sad history in that he seems to be the-- Let’s say less than ideal son of, um, sort of auto-didact, um, man of letters and sensibility in the late 1700s. So, he doesn’t live up to the expectations of his father. He’s not a great scholar. He flunks out of school and is sent to a school on the continent—
E: Right-- And, his father, who embraces at that period this tremendous bardolatry keeps trying to instigate in him a proper reverence, um, of, you know , what it means to be an English man of culture, and poor Ireland fails to, sort of, live up, so it seems like the triggering incident for the forgeries is that his father, when he was in his late teens, took him on a trip to Stratford to the various places where Shakespeare had resided or alighted (C: Ok) and he, his father, Samuel Ireland, had taken him, had gone on this rip because he was actually trying to put together a book of picturesque views of the area for a tourist guide--
C: So they were all, kind of, looking at capitalizing on Shakespearian, sort of, life story before he even forged anything.
E: Absolutely, so this period is the sort of high watermark, the instigating point of the obsession with Shakespeare, and it’s the first moment where there’s kind of a race to discover anything that could have been left over from his life.
So, after Shakespeare’s death, Shakespeare died not long in any state of anonymity but with nothing like the acclaim that he now receives and it was not until the Stratford Jubi-jubilee launched by Gerrig in the middle of the 18th century that transformed Shakespeare from one of many dramatists in this golden age in this golden age, this Elizabethan, Jacobin age, to THE transcendent national poet, and it was quite a sea change.
And so there was suddenly this, this race to find any pieces of Shakespearian evidence that hadn’t already been worked. And to the great disappointment of Shakespeare’s biographers, bibliographers, um, and admirers, there wasn’t much there. So, there wasn’t-- There wasn’t really anything to find. And, as a result, uh, the impulse to collect Shakespeare started taking on a slightly different dimensionality and, in fact, the founding of the National Trust and the founding of the Birthplace Trust are coincident, right, this is really—
It’s the unfulfilled effort to find literary remains of Shakespeare that were heretofore undiscovered that really transforms into an impulse to recover the world of the poet, and as a result we have the foundation of the birthplace and the transformation of Stratford from really an anonymous town into the sight of literary pilgrimage.
C: And how important was beauty when they’re developing those things? Were they thinking about the aesthetics of it? (E: Sure) Was that part of the drama? And how was that going on?
E: So this impulse to curate and, sort of, freeze in time, Shakespeare’s world is certainly built on a, kind of, an agenda, an aesthetic agenda of the picturesque, right? Where the idea would be to walk into a bucolic vision of, you know, “ye oldee,” Renaissance England and breathe in an atmosphere that then would be appropriately inspirational to the works of Shakespeare.
C: Was this at the level of making it a theme park? Was it going to be, like a Magic Kingdom, or was it something (E: That’s great) much different?
E: So Magic Kingdom is a terrific phrase in this context. I don’t think there’s any self consciousness around-- That’s a little bit unfair, but the-- the kind of cynicism that we in a post-Disney environment bring to this kind of enterprise was not so present there, right?
And so when people sort of try to retrofit the world of the Renaissance to the works and the kind of appreciation that they now receive, they produced an environment-- I think not so self-consciously, right? They produced an environment that explained how Shakespeare became Shakespeare. And, uh, the result is this very pretty world, right, a world of Shakespeare gardens, a world of cottages with, um, you know pretty vistas out the window that was associated with Shakespeare.
C: Now Ireland and his father were there at the beginning of all this.
E: Prior to it, really, they are right at—I mean, Ireland, senior, Samuel Ireland, is, in some, in some assessments, the instigator (C: Ok) to that preservational process. Samuel Ireland produces the first, kind of guidebook, he writes a series of these guidebooks, but the Stratford guidebook is the first, sort of, Shakespeare tourist book that walks people through these environments and tries to create some kind of causal connection again between environment and poetic genius and poetic beauty.
C: So in the, this new picturesque environment that they’ve created for Shakespeare’s birthplace and his life, then enter William Henry’s forged manuscripts.
E: That’s right. So, the junior Ireland, William Henry Ireland, observes his father’s drive to recover—So his father actually tours the spaces where Shakespeare lived and asks the question that everybody has been asking to the current occupants of those places, “Do you have anything in your attic?”
And William Henry watches this and realizes that one way to gain his father’s esteem would be to produce that evidence. And so, he, as a not very prodigiously intelligent student, is apprenticed to a lawyer in the period where his job is basically to transcribe documents, but in a lawyer’s office in this period, there are-- There’s an attic full of legal documents, and access to many many many more, many of which are produced over several centuries, documents dating way way back, documents on parchment that date to the medieval period.
So he gains, uh, a fairly rec-reasonable knowledge of what archival materials, paper matter, deeds, legal documents, would look like from the period of Shakespeare’s existence. And he realizes he’s in a strong position to invent this material. So, he produces a deed with a Shakespeare signature on it, and what turns out to be a coincidental stroke of genius, he actually peels off a wax seal from a document he finds in the attic of the lawyer’s office that has as its insignia something called a “quintain,” which is a bag full of sand or woodchips that a jouster would aim his lance at if he were training, (C: Huh) um, and it’s seen as a, a clever punning evocation of “Shake-speare.”
C: So the jouster is “shaking the spear” as he throws it.
E: It has some relation to the world of jousting and fencing and swordplay, and therefore seems as an appropriate insignia for Shakespeare to take as his own insignia and when people examine the document they say, “Eureka!,” right? It must be the thing, itself, it must be the man himself. So he is immediately sent back by his father with all haste to return to this box from whence he drew this deed and draw up more matters.
C: William Henry Ireland sounds like he had some sort of intuitive aesthetic taste that he happened to find these objects and created something that could pass as a legitimate thing by scholars who had been looking into all of that.
So, when you’re looking at the object, you having, kind of, studied Shakespeare yourself, does it seem legitimate to you, or is it so erroneous now that you can’t get into that mindset?
E: Oh, no to me, I, I, I completely understand the logic of William Henry’s forgeries. And I think they’re beautiful on a number of registers.
You know, the first document that, that he produces is just this legal document, right, where he’s really doing almost nothing creative. He’s taking the language that is found in a separate deed, transcribing it, and then just subscribing Shakespeare’s signature to it. Basically the only thing that would represent a kind of connection across the ages is the signature, itself, right, the hand of Shakespeare signing. But, then when his father asks for more, says, “Go back to that box,” um, “and bring home everything you can find,” he starts becoming very creative.
So, he fills in the biographical profile that a person living in the late 18th century would hope to attribute to Shakespeare. So, he’s a man of good sense writing notes promising generosity but also, sort of, good rites of borrowing between fellow players. He writes a love poem to his wife, Anne Hathaway. Of course, biographers in the current moment and for a long time have believed that Shakespeare and his wife did not have the closest relationship since they spent most of their lives apart, but he envisions, that is, William Henry envisions this very close, nuptial relation with this very silly poem, in which he talks about how Willy loves his Anne.
He writes, um, a profession of faith, so one of the big questions of this post-Reformation moment is where Shakespeare’s religious leanings lie, many critics have argued for many years about how Protestant or, potentially, how Catholic Shakespeare was, um, So in order to make him a kind of approved and licensed poet, William Henry writes this declaration of faith for no particular reason that Shakespeare would just sort of take an oath to good Anglican Protestantism from the period, and then, of course, he starts writing full-fledged works, and he says that he’s found a complete manuscript of an undiscovered play of Shakespeare’s.
C: And is that in the Lilly folio, or?
E: Pieces of that are in the Lilly folio, and that was published, and so you can find it on print, if you actually, you can find it in print.
C: And at what point does William Henry Ireland transfer from being dunce student to being an artist whose making a work of beauty however many hundred years later to be a work of beauty that we’re talking about today?
E: Well that’s a great question, and I would say… He doesn’t really. This is in a way, you know, my critical intervention in the Ireland trove is to say: we have for a long time taken Ireland as a cautionary lesson, that we have to be careful what we wish for and the blindnesses we produce in wishing so fervently, uh, for a certain history, right?
So, the beauty of the narrative produced by the William Henry archives forgeries was so attractive to the community that received them that all of the reasons why those documents were unlikely to be authentic were bypassed in the race to embrace this vision of a national poet that corroborates perfectly with the sort of persona we would love to attribute Shakespeare, right.
I mean, it was, it was an idealization of Shakespeare that then became proved, right?, through this narrative that nobody wanted to relinquish, nobody wanted to let go of by examining the documents closely enough to see the ways in which they probably were not authentic.
But I would say only recently, I mean in my own work it seems to me that what is beautiful about, about Ireland is how demonstrably he undertakes this process of curation for us, so once we recognize that the content of the book is false, the structure of the book, the ways in which it frames its objects, show us a lot about the reverence that we hold for Shakespeare and the beauty that we try to capture when we do this work of trying to curate a culturally significant person; and that gesture—
Those gestures of curation and the attempt to really carve out a niche in which to project this imaginary figure-- That gesture, to me, is fascinating, fascinating for its aesthetic principles, fascinating as, something that is built into us as historical researchers, and to me that’s what’s most telling about the Ireland archive, that the ways in which he produces the evidence and frames it is a representation of, you know, how we try to cordon off scenes of beauty, how we try to orchestrate attention, our attention, so that we notice what’s valuable and beautiful about them.
Because the fact of the matter is a signature on a deed is not intrinsically beautiful. And so in order to enter into the right state of reverence, and the right, sort of, emotional state of beauty, right, to feel the affective, kind of, ecclat of beauty we need a kind of pointer—
C: And, could you describe ecclat.
E: Oh ecclat. It means-- In French it means explosion, right. So it means this, sort of, detonation of the beauty effect.
And so what I love about Ireland’s volume at the Lilly is that he actually had his sisters produce these beautifully illustrated little frames or introductory title pages to each of the evidences, and those are actually much more beautiful to me than the contents. The contents are a little bit prosaic, right? The vision of Shakespeare’s life that Ireland had was fundamentally, incredibly, predictable-- (C: Yeah), and silly, right? It’s sort of the vision that a 19 year old would have--
C: Who maybe didn’t love Shakespeare that much.
E: Right, I mean it’s probably true. He didn’t really—he didn’t love Shakespeare as a critic or a scholar. He loved Shakespeare because he was taught to love Shakespeare, and so that form of love is extremely conventional.
But, what I find really affecting is this-- is the way in which these evidences are arranged for consumption in the way that rooms in a museum gallery would be arranged, and looking at the system of curation tells us a lot about our own practices of appreciation, and how we stop for beauty, how we stop to notice beauty. And so the, the book of scraps, which is a, which is really a thing of the 19th century has its origin in the binding together of matters prior to the 19th century.
And this scrapbook, because of its attention to Shakespeare, really tries extraordinarily hard to be a kind of 30:50 high water marker, right, of how you arrange not particularly exciting pieces of documentation to create that beauty effect, to create that beauty ecclat.
C: And Ireland really collapsed everything that was Shakespeare--from the experience of seeing the performances to the resurrection of his home and his town to just the general excitement about not having anything of his--and he collapses them into, like a tangible object that we still have—
E: That’s exactly right.
C: --so he really created an intermediary between the untouchable Shakespeare and the people who loved him so much.
E: That’s right. (So) So the book is like an intercessory object, right. So, um,
C: Like they could commune, over this book, between the bart, the bard that they had never met, and then the things that they had never seen--
E: That’s exactly right. And so, when you think of the way, um, medieval books of praise or piety were put together beautifully over-illustrated, super illustrated, and these books we now find have trace DNA sedimented inside them where people regularly kissed parts of them, right? (C: Mmm) Kissed the Madonna, kissed the infant Jesus. Protestantism forbids that kind of material, incarnational focus-- (C: Right, the iconography)—of the divine--
That’s right. So the iconophobia of Protestantism, this-- this desire to sweep clear the altars of Christian churches of objects that become almost possessed by divinity, really spreads through all levels of English thinking, and there really is a steep falling off, obviously with the Reformation, of that practice of readership, that practice of readership.
But I would say this compilation of forgeries is an exception, in the sense that it is designed for that kind of emotional use, to be poured over, to be loved and admired in this very direct and unfiltered way and many many scholars have written about bardolatry as, of course, a latter incarnation of idolatry, of the sort of wrong form of belief that Protestantism critiqued in English Catholic practice and ultimately replaced.
C: And I can’t help but think about the Lilly Library also having the Gutenberg Bible and thinking about this folio as what is a substitute for some sort of spiritual experience, like a, a capsule of this physical intimacy that was lost in the system
E: That’s right, that’s absolutely right.
And if we think about beauty… Beauty ultimately raises for us this fantastic quandary, which is: we have this feeling, and it seems to come from beyond ourselves, and so we-- We attribute it to a force that exists in the world. Beauty is extrinsic to us, but the appreciation of us is built in, is intrinsic, and yet over the course of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, really, I mean, embedded deep into debates over beauty, but this question, I think, really hits a high watermark in the 18th century.
The question is, really: so how much of beauty is a universal? And how much of beauty is specific to our particular judgment? How can we generalize our emotional responses? How can we know that what we feel is the same as what others feel? Either the person who sits across from me at the table or the person who lives on a separate continent. And this question of beauty and where it resides and whether it’s an emotional effect that is simply, you know, the product of the juices that flow in our individual and capricious bodies, or whether it’s, kind of, the touch of the divine, right, whether its something that comes to us as a perfect experience and that is universal and transcendent.
This is a question that’s very hard to answer because, of course, we’re all prisoners of our own experience. We can’t actually measure how other people feel, but I do think that Ireland’s book is built around the triggering of emotional beauty in a way that tries to, sort of, expose to us what those feelings were like, right. I mean, it really is an attempt to delve into the emotional center of the, of the reading experience.
And we as scholars don’t often think about that. I would be fascinated to see, you know, what aliens dropping in from another planet would think if you dropped the-- the Ireland folio alongside say the first folio of Shakespeare, alongside--which we have a copy of, a beautiful copy of, at the Lilly--alongside say, as you point out, the Gutenberg Bible or another masterwork in the collection, Audobon’s Birds of America, right. I mean, what would they say about the ways in which these works are designed to make us stop and notice beauty?
C: Well, Professor MacKay, thank you so much for talking about beauty with us today. I think that it’s clear that anybody listening should book it to the Lilly Library and request each of these masterworks to see, as an alien student in the Lilly Library, what they might think of these different, uh, essences of beauty, but I would also like to request, uh, for students who might not be able to get to the Lilly Library right away, some beauty tip that you could offer us of a way to experience beauty today, a simple thing maybe it’s an experience you’ve had or a suggestion that you’ve had. How do I encounter beauty this afternoon?
E: Oh. Well, you know, beauty is around us in all, in all, kind of registers, right, there are lots of philosophers of beauty who said that--particularly in the 19th century--that order and symmetry of everyday objects like the back of a leaf lead us closer to that transcendent experience of-- of beauty, but I would say to students at IU, that you really are in the middle of an extraordinary archive of beauty.
Just walking through the Union? I can’t believe how much art is just sort of laying out there for-- for anyone to contemplate at any moment. The architecture of the campus, you know, there’s an owl on top of the IMU that you can see from Owen Hall that is just the most fabulous Hogwartzy owl you’ve ever seen, and I love feeling that it’s sort of-- there are these unheralded moments of beauty that look down upon us and wait for us to catch them, right, wait for us to unlock them, um, by looking up, and-- and leaving behind the distractions, uh, the business of our everyday thinking.
So I would say, the campus is replete with opportunities to stop and notice, and almost anything can lead you to-- to thinking about the, sort of, emotional experience of beauty, almost anything can be a prompt to that around here.
C: Well thank you very much for that tip. I think you heard it here first, Professor MacKay encourages you to look up on your way through campus today. I’m Claire Repsholdt, and this has been A Thing of Beauty.