In about 1785, a retired Warwickshire cleric named James Wilmot started visiting libraries around Stratford-upon-Avon, looking for evidence that a local lad had written the single greatest canon of Western literature. He found nothing - no books, no correspondence, no records.
He became the first in a long line of skeptics persuaded that, whatever else William Shakespeare might have been - glove-maker's son, grain merchant, moneylender, actor - he was incapable of having produced those transcendent plays and sonnets.
Two years ago, the distinguished British actors Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance issued their "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt," asking how a boy with a Grade 6 education acquired the knowledge displayed in the plays - including foreign languages, law, heraldry, medicine, horticulture and astronomy. It has been signed online by more than 1,700 people, including 200 academics, actors Jeremy Irons and Michael York and two U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Mainstream critics say both historical documents and computerized style analysis provide no justification but snobbery for doubting the Stratford case. But if the doubters are right, who wrote the plays? Here are some of the leading alternatives.
Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford
A well-connected nobleman, de Vere received a Cambridge education and travelled widely on the continent. He was both a patron of writers and actors and an accomplished poet and playwright in his own right. His backers in the Shakespeare debate say his wide classical learning and easy knowledge of Italian culture and the many high-quality works under his name support their case. They say he kept his authorship of the plays secret because they were critical of court life, and that all the greatest Shakespearean dramas were completed by 1604 - the year de Vere died.
Not only one of the great Elizabethan playwrights but also a reputed spy, the Cambridge-educated Marlowe was a friend and some-time collaborator of Shakespeare. The Marlowe-as-Shakespeare camp say Marlowe's use of imagery, words and phrasing can be indistinguishable from that of the Bard. They suggest that his supposed murder in 1593 was in fact a ruse to avoid arrest and torture, and that he afterward lived incognito in Italy, writing plays under cover of Shakespeare's identity.
The Cambridge-educated lawyer, philosopher and essayist capped his career as statesman with the key position of Lord Chancellor. The "Baconians" who champion him as the real Shakespeare point to his learning, life experiences, wit, prodigious vocabulary and especially his contemporary reputation as a "concealed poet" to make their case. They note various facts of his life with parallels in the Shakespeare canon, and suggest that he hid self-identifying ciphers within the plays.
William Stanley, the sixth Earl of Derby
Another cosmopolitan aristocrat, Stanley was a son-in-law of that other would-be Shakespeare, the Earl of Oxford, with whom he is said to have collaborated on writing projects. Though no literary works survive under Stanley's name, a 1599 intelligence report noted that he was "penning comedies for the common players." In the late 1590s and until about 1620, he had his own acting troupe, known as Derby's Men
Sources: The Shakespearean Authorship Trust; www.bardweb.net.