By WILLIAM S. NIEDERKORN
In England, the ridicule invariably heaped on those who suggest that Shakespeare was someone other than the venerated Stratford-on-Avon native is usually enough to stifle discussion of the subject. But now, a high-profile forum for study of the authorship question has emerged right at Shakespeare's Globe, that nucleus of Shakespeare performance and education in London modeled on the renowned theater where the author's plays were produced and performed in his lifetime.
The Globe is pressing the issue in several ways. This summer and last, it held authorship conferences, which it plans to continue annually. It includes a display on possible alternative authors in its exhibition space. And an entire page of its play programs is devoted to "The Authorship Question," mentioning Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, and William Stanley, the Sixth Earl of Derby, and including glosses on Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford; Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Albans; and Christopher Marlowe.
"We each have a different idea of who Shakespeare was," the programs say. "Whoever you imagine him to be, you are most welcome here."
Recently a book publication party was held at the Globe for "The Shakespeare Enigma" (Polair Publishing, London), which updates the theory that Bacon was the main author of the Shakespeare canon. Peter Dawkins, an adviser to the Globe who is helping to lead a series of conferences there on the plays of its 2004 season, wrote the book, and Mark Rylance, the actor and director, who is artistic director of the Globe and leads its authorship exploration, wrote the introduction.
"I know I'm a particular difficulty for a lot of scholars, because I'm an actor, a man of the theater, and yet I'm denying that an actor wrote these plays," Mr. Rylance said in a recent interview.
He finds the studies on alternative candidates, particularly Bacon, useful to him as an actor. "I don't think I've really given equal consideration to the different candidates," he said. "I've read mostly about Bacon and secondarily about Oxford."
Citing Bacon's "insistence that we look accurately at nature, not just stay in an Aristotelian kind of philosophical world of learning as was being taught to him when he was at Cambridge," as well as what Bacon wrote about poetry, his love of Julius Caesar and his love for fables, Mr. Rylance said, "There's just so much evidence there that you cannot write Bacon out of these plays."
"With Oxford," he continued, "what I've read - the comparisons of his life to Hamlet's life, the wildness, the fact that he's very much complimented for comedy - I find it difficult at the moment to completely remove Oxford from the writing of these plays."
The candidacy of Marlowe "is interesting to me because of his relationship to Mary Sidney and because of the early days of the Shakespeare work," he said, adding, "and that leads me mostly into the idea of collaboration and group work."
"Derby, I don't know enough about yet to really comment, and Mary Sidney I am beginning to learn more and more about," he said, noting that a writer who has spoken at authorship conferences, Robin Williams, is soon to publish a book about the Countess of Pembroke, to whose sons, William and Philip Herbert, the First Folio was dedicated.
And that's not all. "I haven't talked about the fifth candidate or the sixth, or the Stratford man himself," he said.
But that's all right, because all of them will get a further boost at the Globe, as it plans to add a research library that currently comprises about 600 books related to which Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The library is the collection of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust, "a registered charity under English law," said John Silberrad, 75, a trustee and retired barrister.
The trust, created in 1981, is the successor to the Shakespearean Authorship Society, which Mr. Silberrad joined in 1974 and which in turn was a successor to the Shakespeare Fellowship, a group formed in the 1920's by writers like Sir George Greenwood, J. Thomas Looney and Abel Lefranc, whose books laid the groundwork for authorship studies.
Mr. Rylance is the trust's chairman, and he and Mr. Dawkins, who were named to the trust's board in 2000, are trying to raise funds to house the library at the Globe.
"In such a way the Globe could become a major resource for research into all aspects and interpretations of the Shakespeare story, allowing scholarship and interest to blossom, rather than being curtailed as it currently is and has been," Mr. Dawkins said, adding that the books are now in storage and that "an enlightened sponsor or sponsors is greatly and urgently needed."
The trust, Mr. Silberrad said, is open-minded about all the candidates, including the incumbent. "We merely say that in the present state of knowledge, we certainly don't think that the Stratfordians have made out their case," he said in a telephone interview, "but we equally don't believe that the Oxfordians have either."
"For a long time, over on this side of the Atlantic at all events, to doubt that William, the man of Stratford, wrote the plays, was for a person who hoped to have a literary career in the university a very dangerous view to entertain," he said. "It was not popular, to put it very bluntly. Very unpopular. It was felt to sort of suggest you were, to use a word, 'unsound.' I don't know whether that rings a bell on your side of the Atlantic, but it does here."
He added, "A person who is unsound may be very clever, but 'he's unsound' was a very serious blot on your c.v."
That situation, he said, has "changed enormously," with the conferences at the Globe bringing the question "into the public domain," and speakers' proudly including their participation on their curricula vitae.
Still, there is no apparent evidence that traditional academics in England are more open to the question as a result of the conferences. Even the distinguished scholar Brian Vickers, whose book "Shakespeare, Co-Author" (Oxford University Press, 2002) laid out the case for major contributions to five Shakespeare plays by writers like George Peele and John Fletcher and who has now nominated the poet known as John Davies of Hereford as the author of "A Lover's Complaint," dismisses the Globe's endeavors.
"I don't know what the Globe people think they're doing, apart from rumors that Mark Rylance doubts Shakespeare's authorship," he said in an e-mail exchange. "But since neither he nor Derek Jacobi does any scholarly work in these fields, their positions are really another kind of role-playing. No serious scholar I know of bothers with the doubters."
It can be said, though, for Mr. Jacobi and Mr. Rylance, as well as for Sir John Gielgud, Orson Welles and many other actors who have bothered with the authorship question, that they approach Shakespeare from the inside, committing the plays to memory, getting under the skins of the characters, finding ways to make their parts work onstage - and perhaps discovering in that intimacy more things than are dreamt of in scholars' philosophy.
"They really are repressive of different ideas," Mr. Rylance said of the Shakespeare establishment. "Even if we all agreed that the man from Stratford wrote the plays, we'd all have very, very different images of who that man is."