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Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford in 'Anonymous.'

If the Kennedy assassination doesn’t interest you, and you’ve got a few extra years on your hands, you might want to look into the debate over who wrote William Shakespeare’s plays.

Welcome to the morass.

Though the Shakespeare authorship question has been a topic of lively controversy for nearly two centuries now, it’s likely to generate some renewed debate this week. That’s because of the release of the new movie Anonymous (in theaters October 28), a period historical thriller, directed by Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day) and based on the theory that someone else wrote the plays normally attributed to Shakespeare.

In the case of the new movie, that someone is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans), a cultured aristocrat in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (played variously by Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave).

There are websites and even whole societies devoted to the proposition that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays. And among those who believe that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays, de Vere can be said to be the leading contender to unseat the Bard, but he’s far from the only one – there have been dozens of candidates proposed and thousands of books and articles written on the so-called Shakespeare authorship question.

As in the plays themselves, there are many warring factions and charges of dark conspiracies to suppress the truth, so it’s with some trepidation that we enter these waters at all.

But let’s start with a little history.

Other than the plays themselves, we have precious little documentary evidence about Shakespeare. Among the meager items: a few signatures, a record of his marriage to Anne Hathaway, a strange three-page will, some papers detailing business transactions totally unrelated to writing, and just two portraits. No record of his schooling. Not one single manuscript in his own hand of even a fragment of his amazing body of work.

History abhors a vacuum, especially when it’s in the form of a lack of written evidence about one of the world’s greatest writers. Although scholars desperately searched for documentation to flesh out Shakespeare’s biography in the decades after his death, they found very little, and, to make matters more confusing, much of what they found was fraudulent.

But it’s especially interesting to note that for a span of more than two centuries after his death, no one even suggested that the Shakespeare of Stratford was not the author of his own plays.

In fact, the first person to make the argument did it as a joke, as Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro points out in his book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? In 1848, a young Lutheran scholar from Pennsylvania named Samuel Mosheim Schmucker, dismayed about the academic trend of using historical and biographical evidence to doubt the existence of Christ, argued that the same approaches could be used to argue that Shakespeare never existed.  But he meant it all as a parody.

Shapiro says that Schmucker’s forgotten book, Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare: Illustrating Infidel Objections Against the Bible, foreshadows all the major themes of the Shakespearean doubters: the lack of documentary evidence, a distrust of disputed texts, the improbable success of an unlikely individual, and the notion that the “official” story can only be perpetuated by general ignorance and conspiracy by the establishment.

“Schmucker has a great time of it,” writes Shapiro, “mostly because it never entered his head that his readers could seriously imagine that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare.”

But, if anything, the joke was on Schmucker.

A mere few years later, the suggestion that Shakespeare’s biography just didn’t jibe with his amazing body of work was all the rage. How could an untraveled, poorly-schooled commoner have written so widely on topics about which he would have had no first-hand knowledge – court intrigue, the legal process, life in other countries, even stories and information that had never been translated into English?

The great minds who have asked these questions are legion.

Mark Twain, one of the most famous doubters, author of the essay “Is Shakespeare Dead?” wrote: “So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life.”

“I am ‘sort of’ haunted by the conviction,” wrote novelist Henry James, “that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”

Sigmund Freud, whose own work is often equated with Shakespeare’s in its cultural impact and who drew heavily on Hamlet for some of his own theories, also believed that someone other than the actor from Stratford wrote the plays. “It is undeniably painful to all of us,” he said, “that even now we do not know who was the author of the Comedies, Tragedies and Sonnets of Shakespeare.”

“I can hardly think it was the Stratford boy,” wrote Charlie Chaplin of the plays. “Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude.”

Such famous doubters have been  joined by everyone from Orson Welles to Helen Keller.

Even Malcolm X became “intrigued over the Shakespearean dilemma,” as he referred to it in his Autobiography. “If Shakespeare existed, he was then the top poet around,” the modern revolutionary leader wondered, asking why he didn’t work on the King James Bible. “If he existed, why didn’t King James use him?”

Since the mid-nineteenth century, Shakespeare authorship theories have maintained an upward trajectory in popular discourse, even if they’ve never gained even a foothold among establishment Shakespeareans.

Now, of course, authorship theories are going viral, with a host of websites dedicated to exploring the question.

Take, for example, the Shakespearean Authorship Trust, a society that’s been around since 1922, whose current chairman, actor Mark Rylance, along with fellow doubter Derek Jacobi, appears in Anonymous.

There’s the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, which, under the website, sponsors the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about the Identity of William Shakespeare, a petition that has more than 2000 signatories.

So there are lots of people who feel there are lots of reasons to think Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays. But who do they think wrote them? Let’s take a look at the arguments for some of the most popular authorship contenders, beginning with Sir Francis Bacon.

NEXT: The case for Sir Francis

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By Paul Hechinger