The works of Shakespeare are universally recognised as one of the greatest literary achievements in history. The dramas explore the human condition - from the heights of lyrical passion to the depths of despair - in a manner that has rarely been equalled, making them as relevant today as they were to the Elizabethan audiences who first witnessed them.
For many people, the idea that there is any doubt as to the authorship of these great works will come as a surprise. Surely, they will ask, is it not only obvious but proven by archive documents that William Shakspere (the most usual contemporary rendering of his name) from Stratford on Avon was the towering genius who wrote them?
Certainly, this was the accepted position when people first began to research the biography of Shakspere in the late eighteenth century. Yet the more that was discovered about the man, the more doubts were awakened. No records exist that Shakspere received any education - yet the plays were clearly written by an accomplished classical scholar; no evidence exists that he ever travelled abroad - yet the fourteen plays set in Italy clearly betray direct personal knowledge of a number of Italian cities and a fluency in the language; the setting for all but one of the plays is right at the heart of a royal or imperial court and the characters display an easy familiarity with court etiquette and the political rivalries of court life - yet no record has been discovered that Shakspere was ever even a minor courtier.
Academics have never found a single document which proves that Shakspere was an author - from the contemporary documents that have been discovered all we know about the man's interests is that he conducted a number of business transactions which included a small share in the Globe Theatre. Six ineptly penned signatures are the only examples we have of his abilities as a writer - there are no letters home to his wife and there are certainly no original literary manuscripts.
As doubts about the apparent chasm between Shaksper's known life and the works of Shakespeare grew, people naturally asked the question, "Well if Shakspere wasn't the author, then who was?" And over the last hundred years or so many candidates - from Marlowe to Bacon and the Earl of Derby - have been proposed and championed by ardent followers.
Today, 400 years after his death, there is only one serious candidate left in the field, only one man whose life matches the historical and literary evidence in all repects - Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.