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Among the other writers floated as possible authors of the plays included Francis Bacon (who is credited with inventing literary ciphers), Christopher Marlowe and even Queen Elizabeth. Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud doubted Shakespeare's authenticity. So did Walt Whitman and Malcolm X. Hell, in 1989, Muammar Qadhafi even weighed in on the debate, claiming that Shakespeare was a 16th-century Arab sheik named Zubayr bin William.
In other words, fascinating stuff. But does it really matter?
Well, if you're a theater lover, or literary-minded, or a conspiracy buff, or a history expert, or a Libyan terrorist sponsor, its attraction is self-explanatory. If, like Freed, you're a writer intrigued by the creative process, it's also obvious.
"I've always had a very, very strong fascination with how people come to be incredibly creative writers, how they master the language and emotion and imagery," she said. "How do you become someone who uses 21,000 words with that kind of confidence and fluidity and ease if you're half-educated and more of a school-of-life person?"
Freed recognizes, however, that there are deeper layers in the authenticity debate than merely her private exploration of genius.
One of those layers has to do with class. Extreme defenders of Shakespeare's salt-of-the-earth origins have "turned him into the literary equivalent of Jesus, with the same trappings," Freed said. "Born almost in a manger in Stratford, kind to animals, ascending to be the father of Western poetry without any help." That notion obviously doesn't sit well with those who believe genius is a product of breeding.
"Over the years, every time an alternative Shakespeare has been proposed, he has represented the ruling aristocracy," Freed said. "There's probably truth to the accusation of the Stratfordian orthodox that many people—for various reasons of snobbery and ancestry—have historically refused to accept that a lower-class person was able to write these plays."
Another layer in the authenticity controversy concerns one of the basic tenets of classical liberalism: the assumption that the individual is paramount. Some have argued, quite convincingly, that Shakespeare was the first writer to fully articulate the concept of the self as a being unto itself. Shakespeare's characters are remarkable for their sense of self-comprehension, their ability to look inward. He created the inner monologue in literature. He invented Freud.
"That's the difference between Shakespeare and Marlowe: the ability of his characters to reflect upon themselves, to reveal the interior part of the psychology, their doubts and fears and cowardice," Freed said. "There was nobody else like him in the English language. It was like a huge curtain opening up."
Traditionally, Shakespeare's keenly self-aware characters have been used as a measure of his insight into the human condition. By extension, Shakespeare is often hailed for his great compassion and humanitarianism. So if the architect of this concept of the self were actually revealed to be a pampered, profligate aristocrat (such as the Earl of Oxford, who is the reigning alternative candidate), what would that say about this pillar of Western thought, which places such supreme importance on the individual?
Maybe it would say nothing at all. But that's what is so fascinating about the whole debate. Much like the Bible, or the Tarot, or the entrails of a disemboweled chicken, you can find whatever you're looking for in Shakespeare, whether you're reading his words, studying his life or exploring the many conspiracy theories that swirl about both.
So what does Freed believe? She isn't saying. She intimates that this isn't an anti-Stratfordian play, but she still confesses to an obsession with understanding how a relatively unschooled commoner could have created such a monumental body of work.
But while she won't say what side of the debate she's on, she does issue a warning: "If you start reading about this [authenticity controversy], you'll go mad," she says. "Trust me."
The Bard of Avon at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5500 and (714) 708-5555. Opens June 1 (sold out); Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m. Through July 1. $18-$49.