It is difficult to imagine a landscape farther removed from the bucolic, half-timbered English towns of Warwickshire than the grimy, shoddily built district of Moscow where Ilya Gililov lives.
But here, in the cramped apartment he shares with his wife, cat, and a great many books, Mr. Gililov has thrown himself into the world of William Shakespeare.
After more than 20 years of teaching himself to read English, poring over Shakespearean texts, sending out envoys to examine original manuscripts in foreign libraries, and combing through scholarly work, he believes he has solved the ancient riddle of who really wrote the plays and poems signed "Shakspere."
That question has puzzled literary figures - including Mark Twain and Walt Whitman - for more than 100 years, and theories have abounded naming Francis Bacon, Philip Marlowe, even Queen Elizabeth I, as the personality behind the pen.
In his new book, "The Game of Shakespeare," Gililov, who is secretary of the Academy of Sciences' Shakespeare committee, sets out in intricate detective-novel detail why he believes the fifth Earl of Rutland and his wife actually wrote Shakespeare's work.
The book, now in its second edition, has landed on the nonfiction bestseller lists in Russia, and Gililov hopes it will soon be translated and published in English.
"My book and my articles challenge British and American scholars to a debate," he says defiantly. "Now the question has been posed, it has to be answered."
As far as mainstream academics are concerned, there is no question.
Theories that someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon wrote "Hamlet," the sonnets, and everything else in the Shakespearean canon "are less respectable than ever," says Richard Wilson, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of Lancaster in England.
Speculation abounds nonetheless. Just this year, American literary critic Joseph Sobran wrote "Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time" (Free Press), which makes a forceful case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
Analysis and watermarks
Gililov, who lives on a modest pension and wrote his book on an ancient typewriter, bases his theory on careful textual analysis, detective work on ancient manuscripts, and some striking pieces of circumstantial evidence.
He discovered, by examining watermarks, that the only three extant copies of a book containing one of Shakespeare's poems were published at the same time, despite being dated differently on their frontispieces.
Revealing that mysterious discrepancy earned him a fellowship at the Folger Library in Washington, the mecca for Shakespeare scholars, and propelled him into the world of mirrors that he believes concealed Shakespeare's real identity.
On his journey, he has uncovered some strange coincidences: For example, the Earl of Rutland attended Padua University, and among his classmates were two students named ... Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. The Rutland family's archives at Beauvoir Castle reveal that the fifth Earl's steward paid Shakespeare 44 shillings in 1612, the year of Rutland's death, after which the man from Stratford disappeared.
And while we do not know who paid for Shakespeare's memorial in a church in Stratford, it was built by the same two brothers who made Rutland's tomb, to a very similar design.
Gililov believes that Rutland and his wife hid behind the actor-manager William Shakespeare, arranging a historic hoax by paying him to pretend to be the author of their poetry. "This is the most grandiose piece of all of Shakespeare's theater," he says. "This is a play for the ages that we are still acting in today."
Gililov stands in a long and distinguished tradition of Russian fascination with Shakespeare that persists to this day. Three different productions of "Hamlet" are being staged in Moscow this season, and a literary review is currently running a competition to find new translations of Shakespeare's sonnets.
Competitors do not lack for examples to follow: Most of the great Russian poets - most recently Boris Pasternak - turned their hands to translating Shakespeare, and even Empress Catherine the Great produced a Russian version of "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
The Bard's Soviet parables
Popularized here by the Romantics in the early 19th century, Shakespeare's plays lived on through the Soviet era as parables. "During Stalin's time it was impossible to stage plays about the tragedies unfolding in front of peoples' eyes, so they went back to the classics and gave them hidden meanings," Gililov recalls.
Gililov also fits right into a Russian tradition of conspiracy theorizing in a country sadly accustomed to not being told the truth about anything by its leaders. In Russia, reality lies behind the official account, and this atmosphere feeds the search for somebody else behind Shakespeare's name.
Indeed, the Rutland theory has a Russian pedigree. One of the first to propose it was an migr professor named Porokhovshchikov, and one of its early adherents was Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet commissar for culture. When the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova visited England, she refused to visit Shakespeare's memorial in Stratford, on the grounds that he had had nothing to do with "Shakespeare."
Lunacharsky's political downfall, however, brought his ideas about almost everything - including Shakespeare - into disrepute, and the question became taboo. Soviet ideologists were delighted to promote the image of an untutored genius emerging from the people to become one of history's most brilliant figures.
Now, in the new atmosphere of freedom in post-Soviet Russia, Gililov is spoiling for a fight. "Some of the things in my book are fully accepted, and some are only partly proved. I am opening the discussion," he says.
Although he certainly won't find much acceptance among Western Shakespeare scholars, some academics grant that William Shakespeare was probably not solely responsible for the plays bearing his name.
"Most people now work on the assumption that all late 16th-century plays were collaborations - more like what we would call a theater workshop today," says Jonathan Sawday, an expert in Renaissance literature and culture at the University of Southampton in England. "You should think of Shakespeare as the character who put the whole process into motion."
But attributing all of Shakespeare's writings to someone else is reading too much into ambiguous evidence, says Professor Wilson, quoting Antony in "Antony and Cleopatra": "Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish."