File this under the category of "fun stuff." I don't know if it has any significance, but it's kind of neat.
As regular readers know, I think it's likely that the works of Shakespeare were written by the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. There are many reasons to suspect that "the Stratford man" lacked the education, life experience, and courtly sophistication to pen these works. Frankly, I would think that Love's Labour's Lost alone would cast almost fatal doubt on the Stratfordian thesis, since the play is obviously a satire written by a court insider for the amusement of an aristocratic audience. Just about the only Stratfordian explanation for it would be that Will, newly arrived from a provincial farming town, promptly fell in with aristocratic patrons who regaled him with gossip and news so he could write from an insider's perspective. It's not impossible, but it strikes me as most unlikely.
People who suspect that the works were written by someone other than Will have always been prone to look for coded messages in the text. The most notorious example is Delia Bacon, who tried to prove that the real author was Francis Bacon (no relation) by discovering countless hidden communications. Sadly, most of these supposed messages proved as elusive as the canals of Mars when other people looked for them. Delia's case was not strengthened when she suffered a mental breakdown later in life, allowing her critics to say (rather unfairly) that she had been crazy all along.
Today, most people avoid the whole subject of codes and cyphers in Shakespeare, probably fearful of following in Delia's footsteps all the way to the sanitarium. But occasionally a valiant attempt is still made, and often it involves the introduction to Shakespeare's Sonnets, which - because of its peculiar layout and enigmatic language - looks an awful lot like it ought to be a cryptogram of some kind.
As you can see, the whole thing is rather odd. It consists of three triangular blocks of text, of 6, 2, and 4 lines. Periods separate words. The sentence structure is confused; it's unclear whether the "adventurer ... setting forth" is "Mr. W.H.," setting forth on some private adventure, or the reader, setting forth on the adventure of reading the book. The term "only begetter" is unusual, and may mean the person who wrote the sonnets, or who inspired them, or who obtained a copy for publication.
Since the Sonnets themselves are famously recondite, suggesting a deeper story hidden between the lines, it is only natural to think that this introductory page is similarly multi-layered. The Elizabethans were addicted to codes and word games, and often used them to convey messages that could not pass muster with the censors; Elizabethan England was, after all, a police state with a network of spies and informers, a secret tribunal (the Star Chamber), an official torturer (Topcliffe), and a paranoid monarch whose closest confidant was the nation's top spymaster (Queen Elizabeth and Lord Burghley). It was also a country facing a succession crisis and leaning perilously toward civil war. Under the circumstances it would have been astonishing if the educated public had not found ways of sending or publishing concealed messages.
But is there a message hidden here? Many attempts at finding one have been made, and most are not very convincing. One of them, however, strikes me as simple and elegant enough to possibly - just possibly - have some merit.
I read about it in the Summer 2006 edition of Shakespeare Matters, the journal of the Shakespeare Fellowship, which is online in PDF form here. The article is "Some Principles of Sonnet Dedication Solutions," by David Moffat, and it starts on page 18. After examining some unsatisfactory solutions to the supposed crypotogram, Moffat tentatively offers his own.
He notes, as have many others, that the periods between words serve as "delimiters," telling us what counts as a full word and what doesn't. Thus, "Mr. W. H." counts as three words, or three delimited items. The hyphens, as in "ever-living," are printed to resemble periods and serve the same purpose.
Now if we count the lines, we note that they come in clusters of 6, 2, and 4. One simple system of cryptography uses the layout to provide the key to the code. In this case, the key provided by the clusters and the periods might be that we are intended to read every sixth word of the first cluster, every second word of the second cluster, and every fourth word of the third cluster.
If we do this, Moffat observes, we obtain the following:
These all by ever poet adventurer.
Not very impressive, you say? But wait. Three details require mentioning.
First, the name of Edward de Vere could be represented as E. Vere, or sometimes E. Ver (Ver being the older form of the family name), and, in poetry, "Ever." The word ever is also an anagram of Vere.
Second, de Vere was certainly an adventurer. He traveled widely throughout Europe, met with many of the outstanding intellectual and political figures of his day, excelled at jousting, served his country in wartime, and was one of the most colorful figures at Elizabeth's court. He was also a highly regarded poet in his own right.
Finally, the name Edward de Vere consists of three blocks of letters: 6, 2, and 4. This may be a coincidence, but it's an interesting one.
With only a few changes in punctuation, then, the message - if there is one - can read:
These all by E. Ver, poet, adventurer.
Proof of anything? Not really. Even Moffat doesn't say so.
But it does make you think ...