As anyone familiar with the Shakespeare authorship question knows, there are actually two questions to be resolved: Did the Stratford man write the plays and poems? If not, who did? The questions can be answered simply by looking at the life trajectories–the overall who and what–of proposed authors.
First note that there is little or no credible direct evidence answering the first question, in either the affirmative or the negative, and the second question is meaningful only if the first is answered in the negative.
There is, however, much credible direct evidence concerning the life and occupation of the Stratford man. All of this evidence can be accepted as bonafide: he was a successful businessman dealing in commodities such as grain and stone, in real-estate, in money-lending, and in theater stock. We have no reason to believe that this characterization is false, and there is no objective reason why we should not consider it complete, in the sense of depicting who he was and what he did. No special pleading is required to come to this conclusion.
The six dozen court and church records concerning the Stratford man make him one of the best-attested commoners of the Elizabethan era, and certainly the most thoroughly researched. If these records are viewed as data points in a statistical sampling of his life, it is highly unlikely that evidence of another career would be missing from the record. There are blank periods in his life record, but all of the existing records are consistent. It is unwarranted to imagine another life trajectory in the gaps.
Thus, we can assume that we know who and what the Stratford man was and was not: he was a business man, not a builder or artist or courtier or essayist or sailor, and not the author of the Shakespeare Canon.
So the answer to the first question is “No”, which justifies us in asking the second question: “Who wrote the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare?”
Since there is no credible direct evidence for any author, we are forced to rely on another source: the internal evidence of the works themselves.
It is obvious that a writer puts “himself” into what he writes–his knowledge, attitudes, experiences, biases, and so on. Attentive readers can explore and note the content of a text, and guess the character of the author.
J. Thomas Looney can be credited with compiling the first systematic character profile of “Shakespeare”, which he then tried to match up with a person having a suitable biography. Others had already done a similar thing over the years, but less systematically.
Of course all of the Shakespeare biographers have done this, and must do it, since there is no external evidence linking the plays and poems directly to a person with the documented knowledge, experience, and so on. It is the correct approach.
Where the biographers err is in assuming the author to be Stratford, then trying to fit the internal evidence into his life. To do so, they must squeeze the author’s acquisition of knowledge and experience into the gaps among the direct evidence of Stratford’s activities. This requires a great deal of special pleading. It requires imposing an additional life trajectory onto a documented trajectory of a remarkably different character.
The rational way, the honest way, the way implied by the known life of the Stratford man, is to look elsewhere for the author. This is the approach that Looney took systematically, and that dozens of others took less formally.
Looney settled upon the Earl of Oxford because the life trajectory implied by the character profile fits perfectly the documented trajectory of Oxford’s life, resulting in a coherent and cohesive biography of a singularly talented man.
To answer the second question: Oxford is our best candidate for the person behind the name “Shakespeare”.