They've been mocked, threatened and degraded. Called traitors, cultists, crackpots, amateurs and worse. They've been denied post-graduate degrees and employment in their field.
They're among the most reviled scholars on the planet -- and all because they assert that William Shakespeare of Stratford was not the person who wrote the group of plays and sonnets considered the greatest in the English canon.
"I hope you have tenure," read one particularly nasty e-mail to Daniel Wright of Concordia University in Portland, "because you'll never get it anywhere else."
So perhaps it's not surprising if an occasional note of defensiveness creeps into remarks made at the third annual convention of the Shakespeare Fellowship Foundation, in Baltimore through Sunday. The roughly two dozen Fellowship members attending the conference claim that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote such masterworks as Hamlet and King Lear.
"We're used to being scorned and looked down upon for saying that Oxford wrote Shakespeare's poems and plays," says Roger Stritmatter, an assistant professor at Coppin State University. "So we're a little hesitant about jumping into another controversy."
He's referring here to the conjecture by some Oxfordians (as they call themselves), that Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, may have been the Earl's lover.
More on that later.
The four-day conference is open to the public and includes lectures with such titles as Having It Both Ways: A Study in Stratfordian Hypocrisy and Intertextual Evidence for Shakespeare as an Authorship Front Man. During a recent afternoon session, the hard, clear light of early fall tried its best to shine into the conference room, but was defeated by gauzy white curtains. The people crammed into rows of folding chairs were as motley a collection as might be expected, from the woman with dreadlocks who wore traditional African garb to the elderly gentleman with the cherubic face and fluffy hair-wings of a modern-day Einstein.
The authorship question first surfaced in the 18th century: partly because the plays weren't published under anyone's name until 1598, seven years after they first were printed; and partly, because so little is known about the life of William Shakespeare, glove-maker's son.
But mostly, the question arises because the little we do know is (for many) unsatisfyingly petty and bourgeois: The former grain merchant who sued his neighbors, quarreled with his youngest daughter and willed his estranged wife his second-best bed. The man whose most famous portrait gives him a receding hairline and suggests love-handles. This was the author of that achingly sweet tale of youthful romance, Romeo and Juliet?
In an unguarded moment at the conference, Wright refers contemptuously to Shakespeare as "that buffoon," and adds: "I just have a hard time believing that the person who produced this revolutionary body of work could be squeezed into the little life of the man from Stratford."
Those interested in the authorship question also wonder how such an uneducated playwright could possess the vast knowledge of French, Latin, law, the military, of foreign lands and of church and court protocol that the plays demonstrate
"I taught Shakespeare for 25 years at the middle school, high school, community college and university level," says Lynne Kositsky of Toronto, "But I never said more than about two sentences about Shakespeare's biography because I never was comfortable teaching that the man who had come from that background had written these works."
Over the years, dozens of candidates have been put forth as the true Bard, including the playwright Christopher Marlowe and the scientist Francis Bacon. (The debate gets tweaked lightheartedly in the 1998 movie, Shakespeare in Love. Young Will is struggling with a play he's tentatively called, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. During a chance meeting in a bar, Marlowe offhandedly suggests an improved title.)
Both Marlowe and Bacon enjoyed a fine education and were surrounded by the requisite degree of romance. Bacon was the most famous scientist of his day; Marlowe, the author of Dr. Faustus, may have been a spy.
But their candidacies also contain pitfalls. For instance, Marlowe died mysteriously in 1593, while new plays attributed to Shakespeare continued to be written for the next 20 years.
Then, in 1920, J. Thomas Looney (don't laugh; it's pronounced "Low-ney") published a landmark study assigning the plays and sonnets to de Vere, a volatile, brilliant young nobleman, poet and theatrical producer. Over the years, support for that argument has grown.
For Oxfordians, the answer to the authorship question can be gleaned by clues scattered throughout the works themselves. An analysis of Venus and Adonis, for instance, suggests to them that the Virgin Queen gave birth to an illegitimate son fathered by de Vere, and their child became the third Earl of Southampton. Alternatively they speculate that de Vere himself is Elizabeth's son.