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A year ago I spoke to a high school English class about the Shakespeare authorship question. The students offered the typical landscape of reactions: broad plains of skepticism, peaks of interest, valleys of apathy. The most challenging response came from a young man in the front row who listened intently and raised his hand: "Yes, but we have the plays. Don't we?"
Well, yes, we have the plays.
He went on, "So what difference does it make whether one man wrote them, or another? We still have the plays."
I gave him my usual answer, that since I started studying the life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, now when I see and read the plays I get the jokes. He wasn't satisfied with my answer. Neither was I. And his question kept coming back to me: What difference does it make?
As I tried to answer his question for myself, I realized that it was asked, and must be answered, in the context of this particular moment in literary history. The academic and popular reactions to Oxfordian claims are not random. They emerge from current literary understanding.
Out of frustration with this student's nagging question, I began studying theories of knowledge, meaning and interpretation. Such dry study was just the thing for the wet Northwest winter. And now I have an answer for that young man. I know what difference it makes that one man rather than another wrote the plays. The answer I found surprises me.
Oxfordians are usually blind to such issues. We have stumbled onto the stage in Act Three of a play, and we have no idea why all these people are looking at us so strangely. Oxfordians need to know the critical landscape we have stumbled onto, because it is the layout of the battlefield.
But to appreciate where we are now in this authorship drama, we must first consider all that has come before--and there is a long history out there--as generations of scholars have analyzed the eternal triangle of author, text, and reader, running the gamut from the author-centered "intentionalist fallacy" theory to more recent theories such as the "New Criticism" and the "New Historicism."
And, not surprisingly, different theories have invariably tended to center on one of the three elements of the triangle (author, text, reader) as being primary in how a work is read and understood (see the accompanying sidebar article on pages 8-9 for a more in depth look at this history of literary interpretation).
However, in the end I found that the most satisfying and useful answer to the "Why it matters" question is supplied by a fairly recent, new stream in critical theory that has been contributing new logical and analytical tools for the study of literature. This new stream is called Semiotics.
Semiotics' roots extend back to the philosophers of classical antiquity, such as Plato and Aristotle, and through the great medieval thinkers William of Occam and St. Augustine; but it coalesced as a discipline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist, and Charles Sanders Pierce (pronounced "purse"), the American mathematician. Of all the modern developments in critical theory, it is semiotics that is the most pertinent to authorship studies. Since authorship is an elaborate logic problem, the semiotic toolkit can be very useful.
Semiotics is the science of signs--that is, the science of communication in all its forms. Though it began in classical antiquity, it still requires an introduction for most educated people today. Seme is the Greek root meaning "sign". Semiotics applies to a wide range of phenomena, from the communication between machines, or electrical engineering; to the interpretation of natural signs, such as weather, disease and the genome; to linguistics, non-verbal communication, anthropology, literature and advertising. Since the object of study is the sign itself, concepts from any of these fields may apply to the others.
The empirical approach of semiotics differs fundamentally from philosophy and the traditional study of literature. Philosophers and literary critics sit at their desks and declare what they think is true while semioticians, like other scientists, go out and observe, build models and test hypotheses. For example, Umberto Eco surveyed a class of students reading a short story to test his hypothesis about the structure of the plot (Role of the Reader 261-2).
The conflict over the Shakespeare authorship question is a natural experiment in semiotics, an opportunity to test hypotheses about the function of authorship in literature. Shakespeare authorship issues--all authorship issues--are addressed by semiotics. The tradition of literature and literary history has no …