James Shapiro's book, Contested Will is an excellent history of the so-called Shakespeare Authorship Question (theSAQ).
It's a book which all doubters and authorship theorists love to hate because it is well-researched, well reasoned and well-written, any one of which would be enough to make it unique in its field. It includes lots of research that the armies of Doubters didn't bother to do themselves and introduces them to thousands of things they didn't know. This is just a brief synopsis of his long survey. One of the reviews on Amazon neatly but unkindly described the book as 'A history of how irrational people think'.
For a brief overview, scroll down to the present day
Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a lot of his rather boozy chums decide that Shakespeare wasn't interesting enough to have written all that work. Whilst they didn't formulate any theories about who else might have been responsible, every other authorship theory is based on this arrogant, Wilberforcian quicksand. They argue 'If I can't see the author in the play, then he's not there and it must be written by someone else' as if their judgement had some kind of decisive weight in some sort of balance.
Delia Bacon is the first to go one step further in her musings and posit a different author. Francis Bacon (no relation) is her choice, a Renaissance Man and a genius of universal interests. And she puts her back (and her career) into it. At first no one listened or took her seriously but some late nineteenth century poets and novelists (NOT playwrights!), also thought there might be something in the idea that a more interesting character might be behind the work. The stone rolled but failed to gather much moss. Whitman and Twain were amongst those who liked Delia's ideas about Bacon and though neither of them had the smallest inkling that there would soon be 70 alternative candidates, their support is claimed by all. Oxfordians regard Mark Twain as a patron saint despite the fact that he was almost certainly unaware of Oxford's existence.
Encouraged by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Delia travelled to England, believing that she had decoded enciphered instructions in Bacon's work which revealed his authorship. Thus began a long and shaming association between the SAQ and ciphers. In 1888 Orville Ward Owen built a cipher wheel which searched for hidden ciphers, leading to a claim that Bacon's autobiography was concealed in the plays (a similar claim is still made by Oxfordians today). Wright also claimed that Bacon was the son of Queen Elizabeth, another ridiculous claim Oxfordians would later emulate.
Capturing the attention of the unprofessionally curious was not difficult for the early doubters. It is a sensational subject, after all. Getting scholars and academics interested has always been the hard part. Different standards of evidence being the main difficulty. So, as an eye-catching publicity stunt the early doubters staged a mock trial. The doubters were trounced. However, academics remaining unimpressed, the moot court stunt has since been pulled repeatedly, though always unsuccessfully.
The second most significant date in the SAQ as another candidate emerges and opens the field. Wilbur G Ziegler published It was Marlowe. Now the doubters had to take sides and join a race. Soon Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland, entered the lists, closely followed by the Earl of Derby, proposed by a German, Karl Bleibtrau, and a Frenchman, Abel Lefranc. The debate was now international. Although no one had spotted an 'aristocratic bias' in the plays before, it was absolutely essential to discover one now with two Earls in the running. So, of course, the relevant doubters 'discovered' the plays had been written by an aristocrat. Later, Alden Brooks argued that Sir Edmund Dyer wrote the plays and Will 'brokered' them to theatre groups. Play-brokering turned out to be another madcap idea which Oxfordianism would later borrow.
Finally, 'borrowing' the idea that an aristocrat wrote the plays, and introducing the totally new idea that everyone who had ever written anything about the order and chronology of the plays was completely mistaken, Thomas J Looney, an obscure English schoolteacher and religious cultist, takes the stage. His book, with the hubristic title Shakespeare Identified was published in 1920. Doubters thus far had picked alternative candidates who were alive when the plays were written. With more than 20 candidates now in the field, Thomas chose Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford who inconveniently died in 1604 with a third of the work still unwritten. By redating all of the work and throwing The Tempest out of the canon,Thomas did his level best to get over this hurdle. His disciples, Oxfordians, have been wrestling unsuccessfully with it ever since. Even the extremist tendency admits it's not the strongest side of their argument. Most attempts, like Eva Turner Clark's, have been met with ridicule and amazement by scholars. This has not prevented Oxford rising to the top to the pile. If you can feel your grip on reality loosening at this point, then welcome to SAQland.
The excess of candidates caused a vast increase in the SAQ's stupidity quotient, which in turn resulted in a loss of interest, burying the debate amidst the generality of crackpot theory. It became much harder to make headlines. To revive interest, Charlton and Dorothy Ogburn produced a staggeringly long tome, This Star of England, launching the Oxfordian strategy of drowning opposition in multitudinous seas of irrelevant matter. Needing a hook, they proposed a relationship between Oxford and Queen Elizabeth, following the early Baconians' example. The offspring of this relationship, they claim, was Henry Wriothesley (pron. Risley). This became known as the Prince Tudor Theory, so silly it has been known to make grown men choke.
Hidden from the world, cryptanalysis made a series of major leaps in WW2. To people like William F Friedman of the NSA, Baconian and Oxfordian ciphers must have looked like kindergarten games. It is perfectly safe to say Friedman knew what he was talking about when it came to cryptography. What he said was that no one in the SAQ understood Thing 1 (something which remains true to this day). After retiring in 1956, he and his wife wrote The Shakesperean Ciphers Examined dealing Baconism a blow from which it failed to recover, clearing Bacon from the field but opening it to second and third rate options like Oxford. To this day, however, there are Oxfordians who clearly haven't read his work, as they continue to discover cryptic messages in Elizabethan texts, all of which, naturally, point at their Earl.
Another decade, another Ogburn, Charlton Jnr this time. A lawyer, he realised he was getting nowhere in his attempts to turn the SAQ into an academic argument and came up with the idea of a trial in the form of yet another moot court. On 25 September 1987, three Supreme Court Justices heard the case and ruled in favour of Will. One of them, Justice Stevens left Ogburn with a small crumb of comfort, saying "If the author was not the man from Stratford, then there is a high probability that it was Edward de Vere". Oxfordians have been trying to make hay with that ever since. The problem, of course, is that it was the man from Stratford. Stevens also said the Oxfordian case "suffers from not having a single coherent theory". Amen to that. You won't see that quote on Oxfordian websites, though.
The Shakespeare Wars flared up in 1990, echoing up to today. They began with another Oxfordian initiative, involving the extension of Looney's ideas, using computers to identify similarities between the work of Will and De Vere. This looked dangerous but at first seemed sympathetic to the Oxfordian cause. Elliott and Valenza, of The Claremont Shakespeare Clinic, gradually took the lead in the early field, developing their tests through the 1990s as computers became faster and cheaper. It all ended in tears. E&V's research eliminated Oxford (and all the other main candidates). Ooops. They have offered £1,000 to anyone who can knock a hole in their method. No one has come close. Dealing with stylometry remains the most difficult aspect of maintaining a credible alternative candidacy. For Oxfordians, it has the further side-effect of placing the plays in a chronology which encompasses the whole of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and which, disastrously, extends far beyond the life of their candidate. Double trouble. Oxfordians would love to rebut Elliott and Valenza but so far it has proved beyond them. Meanwhile the science of stylometry goes from strength to strength. And it has turned the case for Will's authorship into concrete. Reinforced concrete, one might say.
The announcement of Anonymous restored Oxfordian faith and morale. A big-budget Hollywood film of the theory directed by Roland Emmerich, a specialist in popular blockbusters, was just what the debate needed to restore it to prominence. The film did cause the debate to flare and brought a lot of new people in, mainly outraged Shakespeareans and historians. This site started as a response to the film. Once again, however, Oxfordian joy turned to dust as audiences openly laughed at the ridiculousness of its premises rather than its attempts at humour. The portrayal of Elizabeth 1 as a nymphomaniac in thrall to the comedy Cecil villains raised even more eyebrows than its portrayal of the bard as a drunken, illiterate murderer (of Marlowe, no less). Whatever Oxfordians were hoping for, it can't have been the spectacle of their ideas being met with derision on all sides. Threading their nonsense into a coherent, 100 minute film script exposed all the silly non-sequiturs, the ludicrous conclusion-leaping and the wild improbability of their so-called theory. Simon Schama called the film "inadvertently comic' and said of its thesis that the real problem was not so much the "idiotic misunderstanding of history and the world of the theater" but rather the "fatal lack of imagination on the subject of the imagination."
Hopes are justifiably high in the Shakespearean community that Anonymous may have done enough to end this long and embarrassing imposture, now contemptible in its arrogant, unjustified claims for legitimacy, its childish misdirections and its deeply unattractive, unwarranted triumphalism.
Which brings us up to date. It's important that ridicule remains the default response to Oxfordianism, otherwise lazy journalists will be responding to the two big Shakespearean anniversaries by inviting Oxfordians to try and separate Will from the credit for his work. And that just won't do.