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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

Now, I'm not an Early Modern scholar – though neither is Rubin, whose master's thesis at the University of Bridgeport was on the emergence of the new Regional Theatre Movement. (He does not have a PhD.) But the arguments he presented to me are the discredited ones that have circulated for decades. His first point, for example, was the canard that Shakespeare's name was printed as "Shake-Speare" on some early versions of his plays and that a hyphenated name at the time "always" meant it was a "made-up name." (That's simply false – plenty of other real names were printed with hyphens.)

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In probing his exact views rather than the questions he wishes to raise, Rubin will only say that he'd "put his money" on Edward de Vere as the author of plays such as Romeo and Juliet and King Lear. But he does not deny that there was a man named William Shakespeare living at the same time who worked at the Globe Theatre. He simply calls that man "William of Stratford" or "Shakspere", based on a variant spelling that turns up on some documents.

"Did [the real author] choose the name Shakespeare because there was somebody named Shakspere, or did he decide he was going to use a conduit because it was similar to a name he had chosen?" he asks. "That's a question nobody can answer – on either side."

Well, actually, Rubin's colleagues at York in the English department could easily answer that if he spoke to them. And they've had to answer many such queries from undergraduates who have taken Rubin's course.

"It can be confusing for students, I think," says Pentland. "There is some controversy over [Rubin's] course being offered, because from the perspective of the people who deal in the Early Modern period, the scholarship in support of these theories is pretty questionable."

"There's no scholarly justification for this argument," adds Goldstein.

While there may be concerns in the rank and file, Teresa Przybylski, acting chair of the Theatre department at York, and Alan Filewod, chair of the department of English and Theatre Studies at Guelph, don't believe Rubin and Gilbert's involvement with the Oxfordian movement will harm their schools' reputation – and they defend the tenured professors' right to access funds for research and conferences. "The university is not allowed, unless there's a breach of ethics, to tell a professor what to research and what not to research," notes Filewod. "To withhold the funding that I would give to anyone would be a violation of academic freedom."

For many years, academics kept a hands-off approach to the Oxfordian argument or other authorship conspiracy theories. But in recent years, certain professors have begun to engage in public debate on the subject as the Internet has spread the Oxfordian thesis wider than ever before and Roland Emmerich's flop film on the subject, Anonymous, came out.

In 2010, Columbia professor James Shapiro published Contested Will, which traces the strange and fascinating history of those who have argued that a man of Shakespeare's middle-class background couldn't have written his plays, while the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust recently responded with a book called Shakespeare Beyond Doubt.

At the same time, however, in obscure outposts of academe, the "authorship question" has made inroads. Concordia University in Portland, Ore., has a Shakespeare Authorship Research Centre, while Brunel University in London has offered an MA in Shakespeare Authorship Studies.

Guelph and York are, comparatively, big fish. Sky Gilbert, a playwright who teaches at Guelph, is responsible for his department's support. An open Oxfordian, he is forthright about the movement's strategy to get as many people with credentials – no matter whether they are in medicine or computer science – on board. "They completely have an agenda to get as many academics as possible because they are dismissed as looney tunes," says Gilbert, who is known for his contrarian opinions on a number of subjects, but does not teach about the authorship issue.

Wary of lending legitimacy to this issue, every local Shakespearean academic in Toronto who Rubin approached to debate at the conference this week declined.

Rubin, wounded, feels the refusal of English scholars to engage him runs contrary to the spirit of academic debate – and compares himself to Galileo, who was persecuted by the Catholic Church for defending Copernicus's theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. He believes these Shakespeareans, like the church, will eventually come around. "I do believe that apologies will come [from] those who are hanging back with the apes, those who feel it's okay to ridicule, those will feel it's okay to say this is heresy," he tells me.

I wouldn't hold your breath, Don.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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