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THE year 1593 saw the publication of the first work attributed to "William Shake-speare," the narrative poem Venus and Adonis. Subsequent years saw other publications with this attribution: another poem, a number of plays, a collection of sonnets, and finally, in 1623, a large volume entitled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies appeared, containing thirty-six plays. This collection, usually referred to as the First Folio, contained introductory material eulogizing the deceased author, but provided remarkably little biographical information. Ben Jonson addresses the author as "Sweet Swan of Avon!" and Leonard Digges refers to "thy Stratford Moniment." These references have been interpreted to mean that the author was William Shaksper, a native of the village of Stratford-on-Avon. This interpretation, bolstered by further events, such as the appearance of Nicholas Rowe's biography (1709) and David Garrick's Stratford Festival (1769), became the orthodox belief.
The first major public challenge to belief in the Stratfordian Shakespeare occurred in 1856 with the publication of Delia Bacon's book, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded. Bacon argued that the plays had been written by a group of Elizabethan courtiers including Francis Bacon (no relation), Walter Raleigh, and Edmund Spenser, an assertion that in public debate soon took on the simpler form, "Bacon wrote Shakespeare." This debate stirred up interest in the authorship question, and several other candidates were proposed, e.g. Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Derby, and the Earl of Rutland. The paucity of evidence for the Stratfordian attribution was authoritatively summarized in George Greenwood's book The Shakespeare Problem Restated (1908), a work which inspired Mark Twain's essay "Is Shakespeare Dead?" (1911). Both Greenwood and Twain are careful to point out that they are not claiming that Bacon was the author; rather that it was impossible that it could be the Stratford man.
The modern phase of the authorship question began in 1920 with the publication of a …