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Friday, October 10, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Alas! Poor Shakespeare: Society Debates Authorship

Seattle Times Theater Critic

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other word would smell as sweet."

- from "Romeo and Juliet," by William Shakespeare (or perhaps, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford)

What's in a name? Plenty, if you ask the members of the Shakespeare Oxford Society.

The 40-year-old society, whose mission is to convince the world that the 17th Earl of Oxford was the real author of Shakespeare's works, is in town through Sunday for its 21st annual convention. The gathering, at Edmond Meany Hotel in the University District, started yesterday.

The 600-some members of the society, about 100 of whom are at the conference, believe that the historical figure of William Shakespeare - the commoner from Stratford-upon-Avon - could not possibly have been the author of those brilliant plays and poems.

The Shakespeare authorship controversy dates back to about the mid-19th century. Those who believe William Shakespeare, the Stratford man, did not write the works, are called anti-Stratfordians, of which the Oxfordians (those who believe the Earl of Oxford was the author) are one, albeit the largest, sect. Names brought up in the past as possible "real" Shakespeares have included Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and even Queen Elizabeth I.

"The reason there's been so much doubt about Shakespeare is this man of Stratford with the name Shakespeare - his life doesn't link up to his work," said Joseph Sobran, author of the book "Alias Shakespeare." Sobran spoke yesterday before a scheduled debate last night with Alan H. Nelson, an English professor from University of California, Berkeley. "There's nothing in his life that reminds you of his work or vice versa."

Whoever wrote Shakepeare's sonnets seemed to be an aristocrat, Sobran argued. "He addresses an aristocrat in one sonnet on equal terms," he said. In two sonnets, the author also refers to himself as lame. "We have no reason to think Shakespeare was lame. But Oxford was lame," Sobran said.

Shakepeare's plays often involved political intrigue; Oxford served for a time in the court of Queen Elizabeth. Other coincidences abound, Sobran said.

"Why is Shakespeare the only great author whose authorship has been questioned by other great authors" such as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, Sobran asked.

Sobran's debating partner, Professor Nelson, has an answer.

"The reason there was an argument that it's not this man (Shakespeare) is that for all we know about this person, the legal documents don't provide a personality," Nelson said in an interview before the debate. "In the general public, there's this enormous desire to know this personality, and therefore his works get attributed to people whose lives are better known."

There's a wealth of legal documents about the man from Stratford (tax and property records, mention as a poet in manuscripts by his contemporaries, for example), Nelson said. "The problem with the pieces of evidence is they don't create a personality. They create a poet, a playwright, but not a personality," he said.

People know more about the personality of the Earl of Oxford, a "minor poet" who wrote many letters, 78 of which have survived, said Nelson, who is writing a book on the earl and is planning to write one on Shakespeare.

Anti-Stratfordians use primarily the poems and plays to sustain their arguments as opposed to documentary evidence, Nelson said, a position he doesn't agree with.

"Literature is imaginative. It's not autobiography. Particularly drama: Drama is an attempt to imagine the lives of other people," he said.

But, one may ask, what does it matter? Wouldn't Shakespeare's plays be just as sublime, no matter who ultimately wrote them?

"To say it doesn't matter is to say that biography doesn't matter," said society president Randall Sherman. " . . . Once you understand who wrote it and why, the plays take on a whole new dynamic and meaning."

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Society events

These Shakespeare Oxford Society events are free and open to the public, at Edmond Meany Hotel, 4507 Brooklyn Ave. N.E.:

-- A teachers' and newcomers' workshop led by David A. Richardson, an English professor at Cleveland State University and Robert Barrett Jr., a high-school English teacher from Bremerton (10:30 a.m. tomorrow).

-- A slide show called "Images of Shakespeare" by Katherine Chiljan, scholar and founder of the Horatio Society, the San Francisco chapter of the Shakespeare Oxford Society (10:40 a.m. Sunday).

-- Lectures: "An Introduction to the Authorship Controversy" by Professor David Richardson, and "Update on Oxford's Geneva Bible" by Roger Strittmater (2:15 p.m. Sunday).

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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