A leading Midland Shakespeare academic has savaged attempts to throw doubt over the authorship of the playwright's plays, sonnets and poems.

More than 300 people, including actor Sir Derek Jacobi and theatre director Mark Rylance signed a "declaration of reasonable doubt" yesterday, which they say will prompt debate over who was responsible for the works attributed to the bard.

But Professor Carol Rutter, of Warwick University, said attempts by doubters to rubbish Shakespeare's reputation showed a profound ignorance of history.

The declaration was unveiled by the Shakespeare Authorship Commission at a theatre in West Sussex, following the final matinee of a play investigating the identity of Shakespeare.

And a copy was presented to Dr William Leahy, head of English at Brunel University in West London, where a course in Shakespeare Authorship Studies, will start later this month.

It claims the plays, with their expertise on law, history and mathematics, could not have been penned by a 16th-century commoner raised in an illiterate household in Stratford-upon-Avon.

And it points out there is no record of any payment made to Shakespeare for writing his plays, and no mention of books or manuscripts in his will.

However, Prof Rutter said the people who signed the declaration had obviously not looked into the Bard's past and his education.

And she added she was at a loss to explain why so many people seemed keen to show Shakespeare did not write his own plays.

"You might just think about the need to diminish, the need to be sceptical. What are they trying to prove?

"If Derek Jacobi is doing that, then more fool Derek. I think the answer for the sceptics is for them to look at themselves the grammar school education, and what Shakespeare knew.

"He would have been taught structures for thinking, reading and writing. The grammar school system that Shakespeare attended would have been one that would have prepared Shakespeare to be a writer.

"As for the payments, there must have been an accounts book at the Globe for the Lord Chamberlain's Men [Shakespeare's playing company].

"But we don't have payments for any of the plays, the documents just don't exist any more.

"And the will is just a list of items. Shakespeare had a large family, and I suspect most of the things had been taken before he even died."

There have been a number of conspiracy theories about the authorship of Shakespeare's oeuvre. Some believe that contemporaries like Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and the Elizabethan nobleman Edward de Vere could have actually been responsible for the plays.

Sir Derek, who has starred in dozens of Shakespeare plays and films, said: "I subscribe to the group theory. I don't think anybody could do it on their own. I think the leading light was probably de Vere as I agree that an author writes about his own experiences, his own life and personalities."

But Prof Rutter said: "Anyone who thinks that way is completely misunderstanding the aesthetic of the way they thought about literature at that time."

Dr Leahy said the new course at Brunel had no agenda other than to question Shakespeare and authorship. He said: "It's a legitimate question, it has a mystery at its centre and discussion will bring us closer to that centre."


The case against:

* In the 1700s, several authors pen doubts about Shakespeare credentials, and scholarly cleric James Wilmot proposes that Sir Francis Bacon was the true author;

* Other alternative authors proposed include poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe, King James I, Cervantes and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

* Doubters of Shakespeare's authorship (known as anti-Stratfordians) argue mainly that Shakespeare as a man is an unsuitable candidate to be the writer of his works, based partly upon evidence that his mother, father and youngest daughter were illiterate.

* They claim a lack of evidence that he had attained a necessary education to produce such works.

* It's also claimed that the "true" Shakespeare died in 1604, 12 years before the recorded death of the William Shakespeare of Stratford.

The case for:

* Orthodox Shakespearean scholars (or Stratfordians) say the evidence points to a man who attained a good education in politics, languages and classics at a good school, and continued to educate himself much like his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, who came from a much poorer background.

* Orthodox scholars cite Ben Jonson referring to Shakespeare as the "sweet swan of Avon", and contend that evidence from his will and his parents' illiteracy are merely circumstantial (his own literacy is proved from several sources).

* Often Shakespeare's descriptions of foreign places are flawed: in The Two Gentleman of Verona he names landlocked Milan and Verona as seaports, in All's Well that Ends Well he suggests that a voyage from Paris to Northern Spain would pass through Italy.

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