The eighteenth century in England saw the rise of a modern concept of canon together with a new philological practice, which aimed precisely at preserving national culture and identity through the selection of representative texts and the relevant detection and expulsion of false texts. Yet, the two opposite practices of philology and forgery went hand in hand, and the eighteenth century was literally flooded with fakes of all sorts, from hoaxes such as George Psalmanazar’s who pretended to be from Formosa, an exotic and unknown island which he wrote about in his Description of Formosa (1704), to the false Shakespearean manuscripts fabricated in the 1780s by William Henry Ireland and published as facsimiles by his credulous father Samuel. Thanks to their close relation to their historical and cultural contexts, texts created to be falsely attributed to dead (or living) authors make us reconsider the stability of the contemporary canon, and raise the issue of the fictional in relation to truth and to imitation. The essay analyzes how in eighteenth-century England forgeries played with authenticating devices just at the time when debate on the novel highlighted the same issues; they raised the problem of falseness in an age when satire assumed the shape of a false scholarly text, and when critical editions of Shakespeare’s plays started facing the impossibility of attaining truth or genuineness.
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