LONDON (Reuters) - Something is rotten in the state of Shakespeare scholarship.
Two academics say they have discovered the "real" William Shakespeare, the never-before-identified Henry Neville, whipping up a tempest of debate among the Bard's followers who have had to defend him against a host of pretenders.
Academics Brenda James and Professor William Rubinstein have recorded their findings in a new book in which they make the case for Neville, a Tudor politician, diplomat and landowner whose life span matched that of Shakespeare almost exactly.
The authenticity of Shakespeare, author of dozens of sonnets and plays still performed today, has been argued over since the 19th century, with Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and even Queen Elizabeth I among proposed alternatives.
James, a Briton, says she stumbled upon the new contender Neville while decoding the Dedication to Shakespeare's Sonnets, which led her to identify Neville as the author of the plays.
She spent the next seven years gathering evidence to prove her point. When she asked Rubinstein, of the University of Wales, to check her facts, he was sufficiently convinced to agree to advise on and co-author the book.
"I was an agnostic when I started," American-born Rubinstein told Reuters. "I am certainly not now. A bolt from the blue, that's the way I describe it."
James said a notebook written by Neville while locked in the Tower of London around 1602 contained detailed notes which ended up in "Henry VIII" first performed several years later.
His experience in the tower, where he faced execution for his part in a plot to overthrow the queen, would also explain the shift in 1601 from histories and comedies to the great "Shakespearian" tragedies.
He was learned, traveled around Europe and was a close friend of the Earl of Southampton to whom the Shakespeare sonnets are believed to be dedicated.
"I cannot see any point on which this theory falls down at the moment," James said.
OTHERS NOT SO SURE
Not all Shakespeare experts are so sure.
"Given the amount of documentation showing William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays one can only suppose that the conspiracy theorists are in it for the money they can make out of peddling their bizarre wares," said Roger Pringle, director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Ann Thompson, professor of English at King's College London and an editor on the Arden Shakespeare series, has not read the new book "The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare," but has her doubts.
One of the chief reasons given by James and Rubinstein for doubting Shakespeare's authorship is his lack of formal education and familiarity with the ways of the court.
"It is snobbery, basically," Thompson told Reuters. "People think you would have to have a university education at least to write as he does."
She also argued that someone of Neville's knowledge of Europe would not make the same basic geographical errors that appear in the Shakespeare canon.
The fact that Mark Rylance, artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe theater, has written the forward to the new book published by Longman has added weight to its authenticity.
Yet for many lovers of the plays attributed to Shakespeare, the whole authorship debate is much ado about nothing.
"I'm of the view that it's not a question that is even worth asking. The plays are Shakespeare; it is they which are fascinating," said Michael Clamp, an editor on the Cambridge School Shakespeare series.
"In the history of network television, no remake of a previous hit series has ever become a hit itself on network television. "