William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright in the history of the English language, was born around April 23, 1564, the son of an alderman from Straford-upon-Avon. He married (in a hurry) in 1582 and moved to London around 1587, working for a theater company. Eventually he became a writer of some reknown; he retired a wealthy man in 1611 and died in 1616. His works ring through history; as his colleague Ben Jonson wrote, they are "not of an age, but for all time!" That is, unless the above is a lie and "Shaxpere" is not "Shakespeare". In that case, Shakespeare was born Edward de Vere, Viscount Bolebec, heir to the duchy of Oxford, in 1550. De Vere was the nephew of William Golding, whose translation of Ovid’s Metamorpheses was a source of a number of Shakespeare’s plays. He roamed the Continent, visiting the places that would later turn up in his work that he wrote under the name of William Shakespeare. He wrote some poetry under his own name, but occasionally frosty relationships with the Queen (helped not a bit by his philandering with her ladies-in-waiting) convinced him to use a pen name. He was a fan of the theater, a possible sponsor of Thomas Kyd (who wrote a sort of proto-Hamlet, The Spanish Tragedy) and the leaseholder of the Blackfriars theater in London. He died in 1604, having written all of Shakespeare’s plays before that. Anyone who dates The Tempest to 1611 is mistaken. That is, unless the above is a lie.

If de Vere was not Shakespeare, then surely Shakespeare was born Christopher Marlowe. Christopher Marlowe was well-known author and playwright under his own name (he wrote "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and Doctor Faustus, among others). A somewhat shady character — a seminary drop-out, involved in a brawl that killed a man, accused off blasphemy by Thomas Kyd, and an occasional secret agent — Marlowe chose to fake his own death by stabbing in 1593 and lived on to write the works attributed to William Shakespeare. That is, unless the above is a lie.

If he wasn’t "the Stratford man" (and say it with contempt!), de Vere, or Marlowe, Shakespeare was surely born Francis Bacon (not to be confused with Roger Bacon, theologian, or Francis Bacon, painter) in London in 1561. He lived an eventful life: a barrister at 21, member of the House of Commons at 23, Lord Chancellor at 57, the culmination of his lengthy political career. Three years after his appointment, he was convicted of accepting bribes and imprisoned in the Tower of London. There he wrote philosophical works, including The New Atlantis; upon release, he puttered about before dying of a cold brought on by scientific experimentation in the snow. In between these efforts, he wrote the works of William Shakespeare, concealing important messages with ciphers he designed. Unless, of course, the above is a lie.

Despite what anti-Stratfordians claim, there is ample documentation of Shakespeare’s life and involvement with the theater. As one of the principals of the acting troupe known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men), his ownership of a share of the Globe theater is not in doubt; nor is the fact that the First Folio credits him as an actor in the plays he wrote; nor is the fact that, even if you ignore the First Folio, you can see his name alongside that of Richard Burbage, the lead actor of the King’s Men, atop a column of actors who premiered a Ben Jonson play. In fact, there’s rather more documentary evidence of Shakespeare’s life than one might expect for a commoner of the time.

Although the publication of works was still stigmatized, Elizabeth and James were literature- and theater-mad. It might be feasible that Bacon or de Vere would conceal themselves if they wrote plays (the idea that "common players" were to be lumped with vagabonds and sturdy beggards as undesirables was still in currency), but what about the poetry? There’s a reason that we talk of the Elizabethan sonnet: you couldn’t throw a brick in London without braining a sonneteer striving after royal favor and patronage. (Elizabeth herself tried her hand at poetry.) As the best-known playwright in all of England, Shakespeare naturally attracted attention from the throne. (Among the documentary evidence of Shakespeare’s life is a 1604 mention that he was given scarlet to wear during a royal procession.) Essex’s use of Richard II during the 1601 rebellion against Elizabeth. For good or ill, actors, poets, and playwrights were very much under the royal gaze in this period.

Why do we continue to debate who Shakespeare was? We know practically nothing about Thomas Mallory, author of Le Morte D’Arthur, but his identity isn’t the subject of television specials. There’s little documentary proof of Shakespeare for much the same reason that there’s little documentary proof of anyone. Plays were not generally published in official editions; playwrights didn’t publish because it would allow other companies to steal hit plays. Paper ephemera, by and large, simply hasn’t lasted; a single contemporary drawing of the Globe, one of the most popular theaters in London, survives. Some critics think Shakespeare was just too uneducated to write as he did, blithely ignoring the quality education he would have received in grammar school from its university-trained headmasters in favor of more exciting candidates. Some want Shakespeare, a man whose work speaks to all the trials of the human spirit, to have lived a larger life than that of a successful writer and businessman who moved to London, worked, wrote, lost his children Judith and Hamnet to disease, saw one daughter married, retired, died, and willed his wife his second-best bed.

And people love a mystery. Look for patterns and you will see them. After all, Occam’s razor might suggest that the man praised and defamed as the playwright Shakespeare, who spent his entire known career working in the theater, is the man who wrote Henry V and Love’s Labors Lost, but what entertainment value does Occam’s razor provide compared to a 400-year old secret message? Works of literature are well and good, but I suspect many people prefer riddling a mystery not for an age, but for all time.