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York University professor Don Rubin, organizer of the Shakespeare and the Living Theatre conference in Toronto.
York University professor Don Rubin, organizer of the Shakespeare and the Living Theatre conference in Toronto.

Amid controversy, two Canadian universities financially back debate over Shakespeare's 'true identity' Add to ...

Could Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, have been the real author of William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry?

The short answer is: No, there’s no evidence whatsoever. And ever since a fellow named J. Thomas Looney first proposed the idea in 1920, academics in English and Theatre departments around the world have taught their students exactly that – even as the so-called Oxfordian theory has been persistently pursued by a mix of cranks and celebrities and even made into a Hollywood movie.

This week, however, two major Canadian universities are for the first time putting their names and money behind a conference being held by the two largest North American organizations devoted to proving that de Vere was Shakespeare.

Shakespeare and the Living Theatre, organized by York University theatre professor and self-proclaimed “reasonable doubter” Don Rubin on behalf of the Shakespeare Oxford Society and the Shakespeare Fellowship, runs from Thursday to Saturday at the Metropolitan Hotel in downtown Toronto.

York and the University of Guelph are supporting the conference to the tune of $4,000, with much of the cash going to help undergraduate students attend talks that will be given on de Vere’s purported bisexuality, the question of whether he had two different handwritings, and, in the words of one abstract, the “campaign to legitimize the Authorship Issue by April 23, 2016.”

For Oxfordians, the very involvement of York and Guelph (whose professor Sky Gilbert is also presenting a paper) is a significant step toward that goal. “It’s the first time that even one university, let alone two have actively participated by making money available for their students to attend,” says Roger Strittmatter, an outspoken Oxfordian who edits the movement’s journal, Brief Chronicles.

For mainstream academics who study the Early Modern period, however, the conference’s apparent stamp of approval from York and Guelph is an embarrassment.

“Insofar as York University is supporting free and open inquiry and the asking of questions, that’s great,” says Elizabeth Pentland, a York professor who specializes in Renaissance literature. “Insofar as we are lending credence to a theory that is very dubious – and dubious at best, and often not founded on rigorous scholarship – I find it troubling.”

Another Shakespearean at York, Prof. David Goldstein, put it more bluntly: “I think that it’s a real blow to the scholarly credibility of the university.”

The man responsible for Edward de Vere’s breakthrough into Canadian academia is Don Rubin, who at York is teaching a fourth-year course called Shakespeare: The Authorship Question, for the second time this year. A former Toronto Star theatre critic who helped establish the university’s theatre program in the 1970s, Rubin has made several notable contributions to the study of Canadian theatre, having edited a textbook used across the country and having founded the journal Canadian Theatre Review.

But William Shakespeare is not his area of expertise – and he only became interested in the “authorship question” five years ago when his wife gave him a book on de Vere for Christmas. Rubin is well aware, as he said in a recent talk to local theatre critics, that he “may well be shredding what reputation I have by being so public in this.”

In the interest of full disclosure, this theatre critic is one of those who feels that Rubin, just a couple of years away from his retirement, is doing just that – and that he may be shredding the reputation of the department he helped to start as well.

Usually seen sporting his trademark leather vest, Rubin moonlights as the president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association – and when he devoted much of a recent bulletin to the subject of his conference, I hit “reply all” to chastise him for using our organization to promote what I called his “fringe views.”

Rubin’s response was first to ask me, I hope facetiously, if I was in the pocket of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon – and then, more congenially, to invite me to meet with him to talk about his research in the area.

I finally took him up on the offer last week and met him for coffee at the Metropolitan Hotel, which will shortly be descended upon by Oxfordians from around the globe – none of whom have credentials on Shakespeare anywhere as impressive as Pentland and Goldstein.

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