We are all familiar with the childhood tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where the Emperor so wants to believe that he is wearing a fine new material, and his subjects are too scared to speak truth to power, that it takes a child to point out that he is naked.
Hoaxes are much like that. People really want to believe something, particularly if they are powerful in a particular context (usually wealth or academic prowess or political power), that they ignore the evidence to the contrary and engage in confirmation bias.
About 7 months ago I wrote in this blog about some of the biggest literary hoaxes in Australia, namely Ern Malley, Helen Demidenko, and Dark Emu:
These hoaxes pale in comparison to that of the 19 year old William-Henry Ireland, who, in 1795, had the audacity to impersonate William Shakespeare, to the extent of ‘discovering’ a long lost play by Shakespeare, Vortigern, which he had indeed written himself. The play was actually performed, once, in Drury Lane, starring the actress mistress of the future William IV (who was in the audience both to support his mistress and because he believed it to be a genuine Shakespearean discovery).
Whilst there were some very determined skeptics, including the one who published a rebuttal of the authenticity of the rediscovered documents, two days before the play was staged, there were even more people, including not only royalty, but most of the leading lights of the English intelligentsia of the era, who were willing to believe in it.
I have just finished reading The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, the most recent and possibly sympathetic of the three accounts about that affair which I possess (the other two being called The Great Shakespeare Fraud and The Great Shakespeare Hoax).
I find it an extremely amusing episode, the more so because I believe that the only real damage done may have been to the relationship between William-Henry Ireland and his emotionally distant and excessively credulous father, and even then, I think that the relationship was, from the context framed in this account, doomed to estrangement regardless of whether the son ‘discovered’ a magical trunk full of lost Shakespearean documents or not. No one seems to have been hurt by it, and five thousand ribald members of the opening night audience for Vortigern seem to have had a hilarious time watching the show.
Of course, the ‘bardolaters’ of the time would have taken great offence at the misguided hoax, more so given some of them had uncritically accepted the documents as real, and been taken for fools. But I think that anyone who is both pompous and that careless deserves that, just like the Emperor with his new clothes.
That today, we get new hoaxes and are too eager to believe preposterous things, and to allow those who consider themselves cleverer than us to shut down or otherwise cancel discussion on the authenticity of such assertions is a sign that in about 225 years, we have not grown much wiser than William-Henry Ireland’s father and the others who so eagerly accepted a nineteen year old’s clever new forgeries as the real deal.