Phew, what a relief.
It seems that the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare's Globe won't have to change their names any time soon. The squabble so beloved by academics, conspiracy theorists and Hollywood film-makers – which only surfaced in the mid-19th century but continues to rumble on – over the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, may finally be called to a halt by a new book.
In Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, leading scholars marshal the arguments and evidence to prove that Shakespeare really did write Shakespeare's plays. It puts paid to speculations that Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford (as suggested by the movie Anonymous), or Christopher Marlowe or Francis Bacon, or even Queen Elizabeth I when she was having a day off from running the country. Great. That means the rest of us can just go on seeing and enjoying the astonishing plays, which may have enigmatic authorship, but which are constantly revealing in their examination of what it means to be human.
Except that it won't. The arguments, between those who want to rewrite literary history and those who don't, will keep going, constantly stoked by an internet-fuelled interest in any kind of conspiracy theory – the madder the better – and the fact that there is now so much money, and so many academic careers, bound up in the Shakespeare industry.
There is a moment in Alan Bennett's play Kafka's Dick when one of the characters, Sydney, admits he'd much rather "read about writers than read what they write". His wife, Lynda, is similarly uninterested in the poems of WH Auden, but alights on juicy tidbits about the poet including his predilection for not wearing underpants. It sometimes seems as if the contested authorship debate around Shakespeare's plays is full of Sydneys and Lyndas – people for whom the life of the writer is infinitely more important than the works themselves.
The plays are what count and they will outlive the debate, no matter whose name is on the title page, whether written alone or in collaboration, and whether someone can definitively prove whether the author was wearing underpants or not. So it should be, because the play's the thing.
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