If we just leave it floating out there as possibly being one person, and possibly being another person, and possibly being several people, and possibly not being a person at all (maybe aliens wrote the plays), then we haven't fixed it.Biblioarchy makes a similar point, saying
Some Oxfordians and many Stratfordians believe that more than one hand was at play on many of the texts. Also that they appear to be palimpsests of sorts, revised and rewritten over the years by 'The Author', Shakespeare, whomEver he was, and perhaps, a cadre of University Wits in the Fisher's Folly Days Mid 1580's. This would of course, completely demolish the Stratfordian time-line, setting it back a decade, and disqualify the Stratford man.Well, the idea of ‘reference fixing’ is not mine. Kripke introduced it in Naming and Necessity, and Gareth Evans discusses it in The Varieties of Reference. Kripke’s point – there is an excellent summary of it in the SEP article on Reference - is that while we can determine the reference of a proper name by some uniquely satisfied description – for example, we can fix the reference of ‘Aristotle’ as ‘the last great philosopher of antiquity’, the semantics of the name cannot be identical with the semantics of the description. For ‘the last great philosopher of antiquity’ might well apply to Plato in a possible world where Aristotle died in infancy.
But these comments do suggest a deeper problem with the whole idea of fixing reference by description, given that primary sources do not give us a single description of a putative historical character, but rather a series of descriptions. What if there wasn’t a single author of the Shakespeare plays? What if one person wrote Hamlet, another person wrote the Tempest? Indeed, I believe Oxfordians have to insist that the authors are different, given a fairly certain dating for the latter play of after 1604, when De Vere died*. What if there wasn’t even a single author of any of the plays? All mathematicians know about Nicholas Bourbaki, who is not a person at all – the name is a pseudonym under which a collective of French mathematicians wrote a series of books about advanced set theory and algebra.
My own subject is Duns Scotus. Who was he? A hundred years ago, we might have fixed the reference of his name by the description ‘the author of De Modis Significandi’. But that would have been wrong, as Grabmann demonstrated in 1922 that this work was by Thomas of Erfurt, a fourteenth century logician belong in to the Parisian ‘modist’ school. The authenticity of the Questions on the Prior Analytics, once attributed to him, is also doubtful. And though his books on the Categories, and on the Sophisticis Elenchis, and of course the monumental Ordinatio are almost certainly authentic, it is clear that we have a series of different descriptions – ‘the author of the Ordinatio’, the author of the Lectura, and so on – rather than a single description.
Scotus' biographical details are even more problematic. We have a handful of details about his life. Records show that someone of that name was ordained at St Andrew's Priory, Northampton on 17th March 1291, from which we infer a probable date of birth of about 1265, given the minimum age of 25 for ordination. So we have the description “person named ‘John Duns Scotus’, ordained in 1265 etc’. We believe he was in Oxford in 1300, based on a single passage in the Ordinatio that I discuss here. His name is on a list of those who opposed King Philip’s attempt to depose Pope Boniface around 1303. We have a few other bits of information. But whether these different descriptions are all satisfied by the same person is little more than conjecture and probable inference. We don’t know for absolutely certain whether there was a single author of his individual works. His Questions on the Perihermenias comes down to us in two separate versions, one of which (Opus I) contains a fragment of what may be another work. It is not certain how much of this was edited or rewritten by his disciple Antonius Andreas. So even a single work has a series of descriptions corresponding to the differing codices or primary sources which have come down to us.
*Shakespeare made extensive use of narratives describing the wreck and redemption of the ship the "Sea-Venture" in Bermuda in 1609, and the events which ensued when the crew made it safely ashore.