Like alien autopsies and the second gunman, the belief that someone other than a glover's son from Stratford wrote William Shakespeare's plays is a conspiracy theory that refuses to die. Doubters started questioning the true identity of the writer in the late 19th century. Ever since then, the theory of an alternate author has flirted with the mainstream as some scholars and researchers have tried to get the broader academic community to treat the question as a legitimate debate, instead of the ramblings of crackpots. Now, almost 300 Shakespeare skeptics have made a very public plea to be taken seriously.
On Sept. 10, Shakespearian actor Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (a working modern replica of the London theater Will co-owned and acted at), unveiled a "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt." Created by the California-based Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, an educational charity dedicated to raising awareness of the Shakespeare identity question, the document asks the world of academia to accept that there is "room for reasonable doubt about the identity of William Shakespeare" and to start taking the research into who is really responsible for his works seriously. Along with Jacobi and Rylance, signatories include Charles Champlin, the former L.A. Times arts editor; Michael Delahoyde, an English professor at Washington State University; and Robin Fox, professor of social theory at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Some more famous names, like Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Orson Welles, also lent their posthumous support in a list of people who expressed their own doubts about the Bard when they were alive.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that, for a man who was so prolific with his pen, Shakespeare didn't leave much evidence of his life behind. Most scholars accept that there is enough to prove that a William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, became an actor in London and retired back in Stratford until his death in 1616. But that's where the agreement ends. Stratfordians, as they are known, believe that this William Shakespeare is the same man who wrote what would become known as the greatest body of literary works in the history of the English language. The Anti-Stratfordians say that there is, in fact, nothing solid linking Shakespeare with the plays, poems and sonnets attributed to him.
And so begins the game of tit-for-tat. Stratfordians note that Shakespeare's name is printed on the title pages of many of the plays published during his lifetime. The Anti-Stratfordians point out that nobody even knows if that's how Shakespeare spelled his name: the only surviving examples of his handwriting are six scraggly signatures spelled several different ways. Those pro-Will say that some of Shakespeare's contemporaries mention him in their writings; the naysayers counter that they only refer to him as an actor, never explicitly as a playwright.
Then there's the apparent disconnect between the life that William Shakespeare lived and the ones he wrote about. Anti-Stratfordians claim that Shakespeare's plays show a keen grasp of literature, language, court life and foreign travel not the kinds of things that a small-town actor without a university education would be familiar with. As the Declaration says, "scholars know nothing about how he acquired the breadth and depth of knowledge displayed in the works." And so doubting scholars look to well-traveled writers and aristocrats essayist Francis Bacon; poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe; theater patron Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford as the more likely candidates.
But Shakespeare advocates dismiss this as snobbery, saying that even a basic education at the time would have been enough for Will to write his plays. And, if you emphasize as Stratfordians do that most of Shakespeare's plays were adapted from older works, what he lacked in experience he could have made up for in imagination. "The problem is that argument presupposes that plays from the period consisted of this hidden autobiography," says leading Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate. "That's a modern image of the writer as someone who puts his own experiences into his plays, a very romantic idea of writing. But it's just not how plays were written back then."
As Shakespeare (or maybe Bacon or possibly De Vere) asked, "What's in a name?" The star-crossed lovers still die, there will always be something rotten in the state of Denmark, no matter who wrote the plays. So why all the fuss? Both sides argue that knowing the identity of the man behind Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest is essential to understanding them. "Our interpretation of Shakespeare's works would be entirely different if we knew who wrote them," says Bill Rubinstein, history professor at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and an academic adviser for the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition. "If he was heavily involved in politics, for example, every line in every play would have a different motivation."
The Coalition's "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt" doesn't claim to know who wrote Shakespeare's plays, but it asks that the question "should, henceforth, be regarded in academia as a legitimate issue for research and publication." Hoping to start the trend is William Leahy, head of English at Brunel University who, later this month, will teach the first ever M.A. course dedicated to the authorship question. "Shakespeare studies already look at his work from so many angles feminist, post-colonialist, historical," he says. "And I think it's important that the authorship question is one of them." This could be much ado about nothing. Or maybe, one day, the truth will out.