Abusive emails, public insults and even the prospect of death threats – who'd have thought Shakespeare aficionados had it in them?
The debate as to whether the plays of the Bard really were written by William Shakespeare is being stirred again this week by the release of the film Anonymous. It contends that the works were penned by the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere – and both sides of the argument are suffering for their beliefs.
Members of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which supports the traditional view that their hero was the true author, and the Shakespeare Authorship Trust, leading the arguments for various alternative authors, have each seen sudden increases in insults – albeit well-written ones – from fanatics of the opposite persuasion.
Dr Bill Leahy, head of English at Brunel University and a believer that some of the plays were collaborations, said: "I've had an upsurge in hate mail, to the extent I'm half-expecting a death threat. It's that extreme."
The traditionalists are also suffering. "It's a topic where passions run high," said Lynn Beddoe of the Birthplace Trust. "I personally have received some quite abusive emails, as have my colleagues. As with many conspiracy theories, there's not a lot of rationale to them, and it's all about people's belief systems. There are a lot of people with axes to grind and there were 77 contenders for Shakespeare's authorship at the last count."
Neither of the two opposing trusts suggest their rivals are to blame, but arguments between them are heated and perhaps the level of ill-feeling should not be a surprise given the level of obsession Shakespeare attracts.
Dr Leahy said the Birthplace Trust had been "very aggressive in pre-empting this film", adding: "I think that's because for them Shakespeare has become almost like a religion and they treat Shakespeare a bit like Jesus."
The Birthplace Trust has taken the task of disparaging Anonymous to heart, campaigning against it by obscuring the name "Shakespeare" on signs around his birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon to underline his cultural influence.
"I think it's a film that's set out to deceive and that does make me feel cross," said Dr Paul Edmondson of the Birthplace Trust.
"If you start off by wanting to tell the story that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare, then you have to deny history – you have to ignore loads of evidence to show that he did."
However, Mark Anderson, author of Shakespeare By Another Name, said: "I think we need to reconsider the epic life of Edward De Vere. He is much closer to the centre of the Shakespeare mystery than traditional scholars appreciate. I think the movie Anonymous takes many liberties with historical facts, but it asks a question and I think it's up to us to provide some of the answers."