Richard Smiley never took an interest in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets until he wondered who really wrote them. At most, as an undergraduate with an interest in psychology, he wrote a paper about whether Hamlet was really crazy or just faking.
But three years ago Smiley read the book "Alias Shakespeare" by political columnist Joseph Sobran and was hooked. The book makes the case that the writings attributed to William Shakespeare were really written by Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford.
"I spent a couple evenings at home with my jaw hitting the floor every 10 or 15 minutes," said Smiley.
Now each day Smiley follows passionate online arguments among partisans of the man from Stratford and promoters of alternative authors. He reads about Elizabethan England. Each year he goes to conferences in Portland, Ore., about de Vere.
Smiley, an educational psychologist by training and a state education administrator by trade, said when he retires in a few years he might work on ways to carry the mystery to the next generation. He plans to prepare a presentation on the authorship question for local schools and libraries sooner than that.
Has his new passion changed his life?
"It's certainly changed my reading habits," said Smiley, who is the assessment director for the state Department of Education. "But this is typically how I do things. I get wrapped up in something and stay with it a long time."
Actually, Smiley is joining a centuries-old controversy in which some prominent literary figures, such as Emerson, have weighed in with doubts about William Shakespeare's authorship. Many scholars dismiss the whole question as nonsense.
"I find it absolutely fascinating that we all take for granted that the works of Shakespeare were written by this man from Stratford, when in fact there's no contemporaneous evidence," Smiley said.
Smiley said that attributing the works to the real author is a matter of fairness, and it would change the way people understand the plays if they knew they were written by a member of Elizabeth's court.
Among the evidence for de Vere's authorship that Smiley finds most convincing are references in Shakespeare's plays that puff up the earls of Oxford, a recently accepted doctoral dissertation that compares underlined passages in de Vere's copy of the Bible with similar references in the plays, and similarities between the man revealed in the sonnets and de Vere's life.
"The evidence for Oxford's authorship is all circumstantial, but it's a pile of circumstantial evidence," Smiley said.
David Kathman, co-editor of the Shakespeare Authorship Web site, says on the site that the evidence is cumulative and interconnected that one man named William Shakespeare was an actor in and co-owner of a theater company that exclusively produced many of the plays.
The de Vere Bible includes many underlined passages that aren't in Shakespeare's works, he says.
Anita Maynard-Losh, an actor and director in Juneau, has performed Shakespeare in festivals in Colorado and California, among other venues, and taught the works at universities and schools.
"I think Shakespeare was Shakespeare and wrote his own stuff," she said.
Shakespeare's middle-class background, which some doubters cite as making it unlikely he would have been educated enough to write plays with so many historical and literary allusions, actually may be supported by some of the factual mistakes in the plays, Maynard-Losh said.
And as an actor she thinks that whoever wrote the plays knew theater and how to give characters deep motivation, and knew lower and middle-class life. The plays intersperse beautiful poetry with low characters and slapstick "the Three Stooges part," Maynard-Losh said.
"They're frequently comic characters, but they're written in a believable way," she said.
If anything, Smiley's interest in the mystery has led him to the plays and poems. As he became familiar with the Elizabethan-era meaning of words and the language's flexibility in that era, he started to appreciate the power of the works attributed to Shakespeare.
His favorite lines are from Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York."
"I mean, that rings your bell," Smiley said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.