Home / Articles / Semiotics and the Shakespeare Authorship Debate: The Author and His Icon Make a Difference in Understanding the Works

Semiotics and the Shakespeare Authorship Debate: The Author and His Icon Make a Difference in Understanding the Works

By Dr. Merilee Karr, MD

Article reprinted by permission from the Winter 2001 (36:4) issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

Bobblehead_Shakespeare_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 (Here is an 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 intellectual framework for authorship research, which may be why Stratfordians become irritable when confronted with authorship questions. Oxfordians are all doing semiotics, so we should familiarize ourselves with a few rules and definitions.

To understand semiotics it is necessary to keep two things in mind: the definition of a sign, and a model of communication. There are several definitions of a sign, but the one given by Ferdinand de Saussure is the most compact. Saussure’s sign has two sides, like a coin or a story (see Figure 4).

The glue between signified and signifier may be natural, for signs such as pawprints in the snow or fevers; or conventional, for signs such as proper names and last year’s fashion. The ancients, especially the Stoics and Epicureans, were most interested in natural signs while conventional signs fascinate moderns. Perhaps this is because until modern times, most of what passed before the eyes was natural; now most of what passes before the eyes is advertising.

We also need a model of communication. A familiar cast of characters, the author, text and reader, reappears in a model published in 1949 by electrical engineer Claude Shannon, the founder of information theory (see Figure 5, After Shannon and Weaver, 1949).

The Information Source, or Author, creates a Message, or Text, and sends it to a Transmitter, which encodes the Message and transmits the encoded Signal over a Channel. Channels add Random Noise. The coded Signal arrives at the Receiver, which chooses among a number of possible Codes. The Receiver sends the correctly or incorrectly Decoded Message to the Destination, or Reader.

Umberto Eco

Equipped with a definition of the sign and a model of communication, we can now turn to literature. Our best guide for this project is Umberto Eco, who in his long and prolific career has pioneered the new trail of literary semiotics, integrating it with other schools of thought and with the classical and medieval heritage of sign theory. As the author of three novels, one of which, The Name of the Rose, was made into a movie, he has more experience than most critics with the performing side of the footlights. He writes insightfully and entertainingly about hearing readers and critics interpret his work, knowing that as the author he is not entitled to overrule readers in their interpretations (Postscript 1-12, 34, 47-53).

Eco’s life work deliberately places him between those who say there is no truth (the reader-centered deconstructionists) and those who think they own the truth (the text-centered New Critics). There are obvious political analogies to those who think they own the truth and those who think there is no truth, not always neatly left and right. Most people, educated or not, stand in that middle space without thinking much about it. Eco attempts to map that middle space, to make that stance a definite choice, not just a failure to choose. Technically he is looking for a method of classifying some reader interpretations of a text as incorrect, without going so far as to limit the text to only certain pre-ordained correct interpretations.

Interpretation and Use

Eco distinguishes between criticism that uses a text and criticism that interprets a text (The Limits of Interpretation, chapter 3 “Intentio Lectoris” 57-62). Interpreting a text means taking information from inside and outside the text to decode the meaning of objects inside the text. Using a text means taking information from inside and outside the text to decode the meaning of objects outside the text.

Eco’s example is Maria Bonaparte’s critical work on three stories by Edgar Allen Poe, which interprets the text by comparing the stories and finding the same pattern of eternal love, death and grief between a man and a woman. She also uses the text when she infers aspects of Poe’s private life-certainly outside the text-from the stories. Another way to use a text is for historical research on people or events referred to by the text.

Almost all Oxfordian research uses the text. The plays and sonnets are used to confirm the author’s biography, his politics and religion, his relationships with other individuals and the biographies, politics, religion and relationships of other historical figures. Indeed, J. Thomas Looney could not have identified Edward de Vere without using the recurring themes in his writings. All of this work needs to be done, but it is the study of history, not literature.

When an Oxfordian watches Hamlet there is a shiver of doubled vision. We see Hamlet, and we see de Vere behind him, and Anne behind Ophelia, Burleigh behind Polonius and father behind father. Watching Hamlet is a deeper experience than it was before we knew about Oxford; but that is because we are following Oxford’s story as well as Hamlet’s, not because we are following Hamlet’s any better.

The only Oxfordian research I know of that interprets the text is a pair of articles on Twelfth Night: C. Richard Desper’s 1995 article on allusions to Edmund Campion which changes the meaning of the Sir Topas scene from farcical to ghoulish; and Charles Boyle’s essay on the relationship of Feste and Olivia.

Historical research into the world outside the text offers nothing to all those who merely love the great plays. It also leaves unanswered that high school student’s question: “What difference does it make?”

Author Icons

The reason authorship makes a difference is that the reader creates an icon of the author, outside the text, by using the text to reflect an image of the author. The reader uses all the known works produced by an author to build up their own version of this icon. With the first work of a living author, the reader starts up a new icon. Each successive work by that author supplies the reader with more details, until by the end of that author’s career the reader may feel they know them pretty well, though they only know the icon they have made of the author. The reader also pastes onto the icon what they receive from the world outside the text, such as reviews, interviews, biographical facts and portraits (see Figure 6).

Building a fully fleshed-out icon is a fair amount of work, and no reader does it alone. Authorial icons are social conventions. The need for icons and their upkeep employs critics and talk show hosts. (We do this with actors, too, and directors; probably all auteurs are shadowed by their icons.)

We do not read Rabbit, Run or even Rabbit, Run by John Updike. We read Rabbit, Run by John Updike’s icon, and that makes a difference–not all the difference, but a difference. We do not watch a sheriff in a movie, we watch John Wayne’s icon playing a sheriff, and all those other sheriffs that go into his icon add something to our interpretation of his performance. The icon tells us what to expect. When I.A. Richards detached poems from their authorial icons by giving them to his students without the names of their authors, the students’ interpretations of these works varied widely from students who knew who wrote what (Eagleton, Literary Theory 15).

Once the reader has created an icon by reflection from the text, they use the icon to reflect back on and interpret the text. The reader uses the authorial icon as a guide to help interpret the text. Recalling Shannon’s model of communication (Figure 5), the reader uses the authorial icon as a code book to decode the work.

Now the icon is not like the decoder rings found in cereal boxes when some of us were young. The authorial icon does not feed the reader a one-to-one correspondence between text and meaning. The icon is more like a Book of Possible Codes for the work, because every interesting work has many true and coherent meanings.

The icon also tells the reader what codes not to use. The reader expects that a book by Susan Sontag will not be a silly sexist fluff piece and that a Bruce Lee movie will not be deep. Readers enforce the correspondence between icon and text. Woe betide the hapless writer who departs from their usual genre to break new ground, because readers can’t decode it. Readers become confused and even angry at such authorial misbehavior. Writers have a standard tactic, the pen name or heteronym, for evading the tyranny of the authorial icon. Carolyn Heilbrun, the scholar, writes murder mysteries as Amanda Cross. The Portuguese poet Pessoa had dozens of names under which he wrote different kinds of material. The names were all understood to be his pen names (Zenith, Introduction). Each name signalled his readers to plug in a different icon before interpreting the work.

Jorgé Luis Borges played with replacing the authorship of various works in a short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” noting how doing so changed the interpretation of the works. One wonders if Borges knew about Shakespeare authorship. At the very end of the story, Borges suggests that reading the fifteenth-century devotional work “The Imitation of Christ” as if it were written by the nineteenth-century French novelist Louis Ferdinand Celine would be an “adventure.” Thirty years later Umberto Eco took up this suggestion as an exercise. Using Augustine’s concept of the coherence of the whole text, he found he could rule out Celine as the author because the authorial icon of Celine–that is, what we expect from a text written by Celine–matches the “Imitation” in only a few sentences (The Limits of Interpretation, chapter 3 “Intentio Lectoris” 59-60).

Notice that I am not sitting at my desk pronouncing that readers should or must use authorial icons. I sometimes wish they wouldn’t. I have empirically observed that they do. Here are two examples:

Listen to Susan Sontag, in the Sunday Oregonian, complaining about a review of her new novel: “People see it’s by me and they think it must be a novel of ideas” (Heltzel, F1).

Or here is Umberto Eco, making a fine point in the history of Egyptology: “. . . fifteenth century readers saw it as coming from a different author. The text had not changed, but the voice supposed to utter it was endowed with a different charisma. This changed the way in which the text was received and the way in which it was consequently interpreted” (“From Marco Polo” 60).

Author icons and “Shakespeare”

The authorial icon of the Stratford Shakespeare is an elaborate structure, despite the lack of a writerly biography. An author’s biography, of course, can be a major source of icon material. The biography of Edward de Vere has promising writerly lines: conflicted love life, impoverishment, disempowerment, involvement with language and literature; but so far his authorial icon is little more than a crude armature with a few scraps of clay on it. An icon tells us what it means for a text to emanate from a certain author. We know what it means for a play to be by Shakespeare. We don’t know what it means for a play to be by Edward de Vere. Oxfordians are creating a new icon.

There is an existing icon of Edward de Vere, created by Stratfordians down through the centuries. It begins with the tennis court quarrel with Sir Philip Sidney and goes downhill from there. The entry in Boyce’s Dictionary of Shakespeare says “Oxford was renowned as a violent and irresponsible nobleman. . . . He may have killed a servant when he was seventeen . . . and his brawling was notorious (Boyce 479). The closeted A. L. Rowse said that Edward de Vere was “a roaring homo … a most frightful lightweight. … He never wrote a single play” (PBS Frontline’s The Shakespeare Mystery). Even if these descriptions were accurate, the Stratfordian claim that a life of violence, substance abuse and/or sexual ambiguity disqualifies a person from artistic greatness would astonish and amuse scholars of Lord Byron, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde or a host of other great writers and artists. Artistic talent complicates lives.

Smearing the reputation, the icon, of Edward de Vere is a rear guard strategy. And it’s a pretty good strategy. Ezra Pound’s work was removed from curricula when he came out in support of the Nazis. (He is being put on a few reading lists again, by junior professors who find his wartime offenses abstract, because they were not even born when he committed them.) The Directors Guild of America recently removed the name of D. W. Griffith from their annual award, because, although he was a founder of their field, his original films were brutally racist and led to lynchings and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Oxfordian research focuses on finding the “smoking gun” that will convince the world that Oxford was Shake-speare. But by the time it is found, it may not matter–who would want to read the work of such a disgusting person? There is nothing new in society selecting what it wants to read based on the origins of its author. It used to be that women and minority writers couldn’t get read. Now racists and Nazi sympathizers can’t get read.

Stratfordians have been salting de Vere’s reputation for a long time. No doubt this is poetic justice for what de Vere did to
Richard III.

Open Works and Closed Works

So we have two authorial icons to choose from. Does it matter which one comes out on top?

To finally face the question of what difference it makes if we trade the old Shakespeare for a new one, we need to look at Eco’s distinction between an open work and a closed work. (This is one of his major contributions, made in The Role of the Reader and The Open Work.)

A closed work predetermines its readers’ interpretations. It does this by limiting the reader’s choice of code to the same code used to encode the message. Traffic signs are the obvious example. Textbooks and cookbooks are also closed works. They only make sense decoded one way.

Another way that some closed works, such as romance novels and thrillers, predetermine their readers’ interpretation is to make choices for the reader at turning points in the story. The reader does not have to work as hard. Plot and character are all as definite as rocks in works like this. Nothing is left ambiguous. There are certain lazy pleasures in a closed work, being pulled along a predetermined path, using familiar codes, seeing familiar types and feeling familiar emotions. There is a large market for closed works, probably many times larger than the market for open works.

The open work leaves a lot more up to the reader. The reader has to decide what code or codes to use, by asking: What kind of a story is this? More than one code will work simultaneously, but not all codes. Ambiguity is decodability by multiple codes. The reader of an open work can produce more than one possible coherent message, and an infinite number of incoherent ones. An open work can even refer to its own coding process and question its own code, or, in a metasemiotic twist, force a reader to create new codes.

The reader has to work a lot harder to interpret an open work, but they arrive at the finish line, panting, with a pearl of great price. The reader owns their interpretation. No two readers will come through an open work by exactly the same route. This level of involvement in a work of literature can change a reader’s life.

The works of Shakespeare are among the most open works ever written. Much of their richness for performance and reading is due to this openness. The common wisdom about Shakespeare’s audience is that the plays are designed to be understood and enjoyed–that is, decoded–by everyone in Elizabethan society from groundlings to lords, who all have different codebooks. Actors do their best work when they discover a character for themselves, which they must do in an open work. Every generation so far finds its own particularly resonant interpretation of the great plays.

How do author icons affect open and closed works differently? Closed works don’t require much of an icon, little more than “This is the kind of book this author usually writes, you’re safe buying it.” We don’t know, or need to know, much about Erle Stanley Gardner, Jacqueline Susann or Ian Fleming. Plenty of interviews with popular authors are published, but these are publicity, not inquiry.

Author icons for open works are a different story. The goal of a writer with an open work on the typewriter is to drive the reader a little bit crazy. James Joyce said he spent his whole life writing his work, his readers could bloody well spend their whole lives reading it. So readers will go to some length to learn more about authors of open works, hoping to find interpretive clues. We know a lot, and we want to know more, about John Updike, Lillian Hellman, Tom Stoppard, and Lorraine Hansberry. I have actually read a long, serious article about John Updike’s psoriasis and how it affects his work. And, of course, we want to know as much as we can about William Shakespeare.

Putting it all together

Now, finally, we can tie the threads of our inquiry together. What is the impact of an author icon on an open work? What is the impact of the author icon of William Shakespeare on the interpretation of the Shakespeare plays?

The Shakespeare icon has been a wonderful experiment in the null icon. Since the life of William Shakespeare has almost nothing in common with the plays, the icon does not restrict the reader (or actor or director) from interpreting the text itself. The hungry reader who turns to the biography to help interpret the text finds nothing and is thrown back on the text and their own resources. The effect of the null icon has been to make the plays super-open works. This is a good thing.

One director here in Portland who takes the authorship controversy seriously is concerned that if research confirms a real author, the centrality of the texts will be lost, and Shakespeare play production will degenerate into a guessing game of Elizabethan Who’s Who. This is a responsible concern that the plays will become closed works.

In two respects the Stratfordian icon has closed the works deleting certain codes from the Book of Possible Codes. The icon, socially and geographically located far from the centers of power, is cheerfully apolitical. This has hidden the themes of politics and power that pervade the plays, especially the comedies.

This icon is also an upbeat icon. The Shakespeare biography is a triumphal story of unmitigated success and happy middle-class retirement. This closes off to directors the darker aspects of some of the plays, in favor of shallow sitcom-like presentations.

Will Edward de Vere’s authorial icon be better for the plays and their readers than William’s? We will all find out. The Oxfordians are winning. It may take 10 years or 10 generations, but it is inevitable. Will an icon formed from de Vere’s life offer us any new codes, any new approaches to interpretation, that the Stratford icon did not?

In many ways it will. One example will have to suffice. Lawyers have long recognized the professional precision of Shakespeare’s legal terminology. There is a large body of literature on the law in Shakespeare that only lawyers read, because they use a different authorial icon. Only lawyers can decode the legal language in the plays, and they naturally apply it to their icon of the author. To laypersons who do not possess the codes, legal language is undecodeable. The standard Shakespeare icon has nothing to do with the practice of law, so critics and directors do not even look for legal interpretations of the texts.

Recently legal scholars have argued that many of the plays were actively written to influence the outcome of contemporary legal controversies, almost as if they were amicus curiae briefs in the form of plays. This sets a powerful example of an activist writer and lawyer in his society. Oxford’s legal stands as expressed in the plays are strikingly democratic for someone labelled an aristocrat. In The Merchant of Venice he advocates the supremacy of equity law over common law, that is, the rights of individuals over property rights (Andrews xii, 77). In Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and The Winter’s Tale he argues for the rights of women in slander cases (Kornstein chapters 10-11). But Shakespeare’s legal activism is missing from the Book of Possible Codes. The popular Shakespeare icon is not set in a society that wants or needs to change.

The Stratfordian icon has closed off interpretation of the legal meaning of the plays. An Oxfordian icon could open up a whole new field of law and literature, with Oxford as an activist lawyer-writer. As a physician writer, I do science in my plays. I am fascinated to find Shakespeare doing law in his.

Oxford had an interesting life, to say the least. He was not just an aristocrat. He had power, he lost it; he had money, and lost it. He was a sort of socioeconomic Tiresias. He had love, threw it away, got it back, lost it again, etc. He threw himself into war, music, science, sports, politics and a couple of religions, all reflected in the plays. It is hard to think of anything in his time that he didn’t do. That breadth of experience provides an almost inexhaustible Book of Possible Codes. These new ways to understand his works have not occurred to readers and actors lacking the stimulus of the actual author’s biography.

On the other hand, what codes will the Oxford author icon close off? The only way to find out is to perform the experiment. My director friend is probably correct that Shakespeare study will go through a phase of icon-building, focussing overmuch on the historical personalities and scandals used in the plays. But known autobiographical content has hardly limited treatments of, for example, Eugene O’Neill.

The answer

Now we can answer that high school student who sent us on this inquiry. It is not the new author himself who makes a difference, but how we readers, actors and directors use the image of whomever we think wrote a work to help us interpret it. Maybe we would understand all literature better if, as Borges suggests, we shuffled the authors around every 400 years or so.

The association of William Shakespeare with Edward de Vere’s plays has blocked our interpretation of them in some ways. But most often it has challenged us to turn back to the texts themselves, to search out what their author buried there. This absent authorship is part of what has made them magical, and it is a great lesson in the relationship of authors to their works. But as William Shakespeare rides off into the setting sun, the true author promises to open new horizons in the landscape of the plays.

This is a brave new world. Let’s go see what wonders are in’t.


Image by cliffwillett via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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