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Looking For Shakespeare

February 13, 1999

Miramax Films's recent comedy Shakespeare in Love portrays the young Shakespeare as an actor-writer whose affair with a beautiful but unattainable young aesthete releases him from a bad case of writer's block -- providing him with the inspiration to finish Romeo and Juliet, and with fodder for many works to come. In truth, however, little is known about William Shakespeare, and some respected scholars believe there is reason to suspect that the famous plays and sonnets may not have been written by William Shakespeare at all.

In 1991, The Atlantic Monthly solicited articles from two authors on opposing sides of the debate about the true identity of the author of the Shakespeare works. In "The Case for Oxford" Tom Bethell argued that the works were probably written by the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who, for fear of compromising his aristocratic name by writing for the public, falsely attributed his works to an uneducated actor from Stratford by the name of William Shakspere. Irvin Matus, on the other hand, argued in "The Case for Shakespeare," that there is inadequate reason to doubt that the actor from Stratford was in fact the true author of the Shakespeare works.

Bethell and Matus were each given a copy of the other's argument, so that each could write a rebuttal. The two opposing articles, with an introduction by the Atlantic editors, were published side by side in the October, 1991, issue of the magazine, along with subsequent rebuttals by Matus and by Bethell. Also included was "The Ghost's Vocabulary," an article by Edward Dolnick about the joint quest of a statistician and a mathematician to use computer analysis "to find out whether Shakespeare, rather than Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford or any of a myriad of others, wrote the plays and poems we associate with his name."

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