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OSF chief joins list of Shakespeare doubters

Count Paul Nicholson, executive director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, among the theater professionals who have gone public as — gasp! — doubting that the works of Shakespeare were written by the man who is buried in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Nicholson joined other theater professionals and academics in signing a document known as the "Declaration of Reason-able Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare." The 2007 manifesto says there is room for reasonable doubt about who wrote the works attributed to "Shakespeare."

"I think there are many of us who slowly grew into a position of disbelief about the story we've all been told," Nicholson said.

He characterized as a "literary Horatio Alger story" the narrative that says young William Shakspere went from Warwickshire to London in the 1590s and quickly began producing the body of work we know as the works of Shakespeare.

Nicholson added his name to the doubters at a ceremony held at the recent joint conference of the Shakespeare Fellowship and the Shakespeare Oxford Society in Ashland.

Other signers included Livia Genise, the artistic director of Camelot Theatre in Talent, and James Newcomb, a longtime OSF actor.

"I signed ahead of time because I couldn't make it to the conference," Genise said.

She identified herself as an Oxfordian, as those are called who believe the Shakespeare canon was written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a noted courtier and theater patron.

Newcomb is a well-known actor with a resume that includes the OSF, Santa Cruz Shakespeare and other theaters, playing such well-known Shakespeare characters as Richard III, Puck, Dogberry, Bolingbroke, Laertes, Oberon and others.

Others who signed at the conference were Chris Coleman, the artistic director of Portland Center Stage, Canadian actor and playwright Keir Cutler, and Christopher DuVal, an ex-OSF actor who now teaches at the University of Idaho.

Conference Chairman Earl Showerman, of near Jacksonville, said the theater community has been open-minded on what's often called the authorship question, while many academics are more likely to say there is no authorship question.

The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt takes no position on the question of who wrote the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare, rather asserting that there is enough room for doubt that it should be seen as a legitimate subject for research and publication.

The Declaration was introduced in April 2007 in signing events at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and at Concordia University in Portland, which hosts an annual Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference.

In September 2007, famed actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance held a signing event at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Chichester, West Sussex, England. That event followed a performance of Rylance's play "I Am Shakespeare," which toured England in 2007.

Brunel University in London now offers a master's degree program in authorship studies.

Nicholson says the Shakespeare plays show an intimate grasp of complex subjects such as court life, law, falconry, history, military affairs, royal gossip and so on.

"I cannot see how the Stratford man could have acquired all that knowledge," he said.

He said Shakespeare's sonnets, many of which seem to express the feelings of a middle-aged man looking back on life and talking to a younger man, are "one of the most telling things" pointing away from the Stratford man, who was still in his 20s when they were published.

Candidates for authorship have at one time or another included Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Mary Sidney and even Queen Elizabeth. For the last century or so the leading candidate has been de Vere, the scion of one of England's most powerful noble families.

The list of Shakspere doubters includes Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William and Henry James, John Galsworthy, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, Sir John Gielgud, Charlie Chaplin, and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Harry A. Blackmun and Lewis F. Powell Jr.

More than 300 current and former academics have signed the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt. The list also includes former U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor, plus Shakespearean actors such as Jacobi, Rylance, Jeremy Irons and Michael York.

Nicholson said he has yet to hear from any irate theater patrons of staunch Stratfordian convictions, although several people have expressed surprise. He said he told members of the OSF's board of directors of his thinking in advance so they wouldn't be blindsided by questions.

But he said that even if a smoking gun were someday to be found, don't look for the OSF to change its name to the Oregon Oxford Festival.

"I think we'd still call it Shakespeare," he said.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.