For decades, people who suspect that the works of Shakespeare were written by someone other than "the Stratford man" have looked for a decisive piece of evidence to seal the case. In the 19th century, when Francis Bacon was the most popular candidate among "anti-Stratfordians," there was something of a craze for ciphers. Enthusiasts became convinced that Bacon must have used cryptograms to conceal messages claiming credit for the works. Their assiduous - one might say fanatical - efforts yielded numerous purported hidden messages, but subsequent critics showed that these messages were obtained only by playing fast and loose with the rules of cryptography. As books such as The Bible Code have shown, it is not hard to find hidden messages in a long text if one is willing to make up the rules as one goes along.
Owing to the Baconian debacle, cryptography is largely taboo among today's anti-Stratfordians. Yet there is no good reason for this. The fact that some Baconians of a hundred years ago got carried away with cryptograms does not mean that all efforts to find a hidden message pertaining to Shakespeare are in vain. After all, the Elizabethan-Jacobean era was a heyday of cryptography. Many people practiced it, partly for amusement (wordplay was exceedingly popular), but mainly because, in an autocratic state run by a paranoid monarchy with a network of spies, it was not safe to openly express controversial thoughts. One fellow who had the impertinence to publish a pamphlet imploring Queen Elizabeth not to marry a foreigner was rewarded by having his right hand lopped off, so that he would not be tempted - or able - to write again. Playwright Thomas Kyd was arrested and tortured after papers of an atheistic nature were found in his home. Kyd blamed the papers on his sometime roommate Christopher Marlowe, who himself was scheduled to go before the dreaded Star Chamber when he was conveniently murdered. And then there was Ben Jonson, who was jailed more than once for expressing himself too frankly in his plays.
In such an atmosphere, secret messages were often a necessity; and it is known that such messages were exchanged among the conspirators in the plot to overthrow Elizabeth and put Mary Stuart on the throne. Elizabeth's government even maintained a cadre of crypotologists to decipher intercepted communications among foreign Jesuits, domestic recusants, and other enemies of the embattled Protestant regime.
In short, ciphers were widely used in that era, and were a natural way of restricting information to a narrow circle. But can any such messages be found in texts pertaining to Shakespeare? I know of at least two possibilities. One of them, involving the publisher's introduction to Shakespeare's Sonnets, was discussed on this blog a while ago. The other involves the Shakespeare monument in Stratford.
The monument has a curious history. An early sketch and engraved illustration of the monument depict the figure of a lean, grim-looking fellow leaning on what appears to be a sack of wool. In the monument as it stands today, the wool sack has become a cushion, and the figure is blank-faced and portly, with a quill pen in hand. Either the initial sketch was remarkably inaccurate, or sometime during the various repairs and restorations performed on the monument, the sculpted figure was considerably remodeled.
In any event, what interests us here is the inscription on the monument. For what follows, I rely almost entirely on a 2009 paper by David L. Roper, who subjected the inscription to cryptographic analysis, with provocative results.
The first two lines of the inscription are in Latin; they compare Shakespeare, somewhat inaptly, to Nestor, Socrates, and Vergil. Homer, Sophocles, and Ovid would have made more sense, but we'll let that pass. The second line of the Latin inscription is indented, the only line of text on the monument to be set off. It consists of 34 letters.
Below this, and separate from it, is a six-line epitaph in English. It mentions no works attributed to Shakespeare. It neglects to mention his first name or any members of his family. It spells his name "Shakspeare," without the medial e between the k and the s, even though the name was spelled Shakespeare or Shake-speare on virtually all of the writer's publications. (The most common spelling of the Stratford man's name was Shakspere, and this may have been how he spelled it himself, though his signatures are so poor that it is impossible to be certain.)
There are other peculiarities in the inscription. It tells us to "read if thou canst" what is written there - a rather odd injunction, since the illiterate would not be able to read even those words. It has inconsistent spellings of whom and whome. It abbreviates that as yt and this as ys (the y was an English character called a thorn, pronounced "th," and still seen in Ye Olde Country Inn and the like). It uses the word sieh, unknown in English then or since; either the German word sieh has been inexplicably used in place of the English word see (as Roper thinks) or it sieh is a kind of "typo" for sith, meaning since (as I think).
Well, spelling in that era was not standardized, which could explain whom/whome. And it takes less room to carve yt than that, or ys than this; the engraver might have been trying to conserve space. And sieh? Maybe he was just not very literate - though if so, he was in the wrong occupation.
On the other hand, maybe there's more here than meets the eye. Maybe that's why the epitaph begins: "Stay, passenger, why goest thou by so fast? Read if thou canst ..." This could be interpreted as: "Don't merely glance at these words; spend some time on them and find, if you can, their hidden meaning."
David Roper did spend time on them, using a common cryptographic technique called Equidistant Letter Sequencing, which was known and used in the Jacobean era. The method, which he describes in detail in his paper, requires arranging the text in the right number of columns. When the correct number is chosen, a message will be read vertically in some (though not all) of the columns. Of necessity, some columns will contain gibberish, but others will spell out words that form a coherent statement.
The key to the cryptogram is the number of columns. This can be obtained by trial and error, as Roper describes. But there is another option - namely, the number itself can be suggested by something on the page. Look again at the Latin inscription. As mentioned earlier, the second line - the only indented line, and the line that appears immediately above the English epitaph - contains 34 letters. What happens if we create a series of columns (technically a variation on the Cardan grille) that is 34 letters wide?
David L. Roper's 34-column grid of the monument's inscription (source: Roper's online paper).
We get a fair amount of gibberish, as expected with this method. But we also get the following message, reading downward, one cluster at a time:
SO TEST HIM I VOW HE IS E VERE DE
Well, that's interesting. It would be more elegant if it read ... HE IS E DE VERE, but Roper argues that since there isn't room to place De Vere on the grid in a single column, a transposition was necessary. And it might be pointed out that even E. Vere would be enough to signify a certain nobleman of the period.
Note that in order to get this message, we must read the u in monument as a v. However, this is not as arbitrary as it sounds. For one thing, the word is actually inscribed MONVMENT, as the above photo shows. For another, u and v were used somewhat interchangeably at the time (as the inscription of the word monument itself demonstrates; see also envious, quick, nature, and thou).
Roper identifies another cluster, although this one requires taking the word SHAKSPEARE (written horizontally) as part of the message. This may or may not be playing fair. He defends his reading on the ground that the word would be too long to render vertically, and because two other words in the cluster overlap with it. At least one blogger disagrees and finds this part of the decryption suspect. In any case, the cluster reads:
AS HE SHAKSPEARE ME IB
Putting this all together with appropriate punctuation, we have:
SO TEST HIM: I VOW HE IS E. DE VERE AS HE SHAKSPEARE; ME, I.B.
An alternative reading is suggested by the above-mentioned blogger:
HIM SO TEST: HE I VOW IS E. DE VERE AS HE SHAKESPEARE; ME, I.B.*
The sequence of words depends on whether you read each column in order from left to right, or whether you start with the uppermost column, then proceed to the next-uppermost column, and so on (working within each cluster). Either way, the gist is the same.
Incidentally, "Me, John Doe," though it may sound clumsy to modern ears, was a standard way of signing a legal document in that age. For instance, Mr. Shakspere's will was signed, "By me William Shakpsere." (This is the last of the six signatures in the image above. The first three words appear to have been written by the lawyer who wrote the will, while the name Shakspere is scrawled in noticeably different - and much inferior - handwriting, presumably by the testator himself.)
I.B., Roper believes, was Ben Jonson. He was known to sign his name with the initials B.I., with an I substituted for a J in the Roman style. However, Roper does not explain why the initials are reversed. Since two-letter words are easily formed by chance, since I.B. does not match B.I., and since the second he is not really necessary to the sense, I'm inclined to think the full message is:
SO TEST HIM: I VOW HE IS E. DE VERE AS SHAKSPEARE.
Roper tells us that a Professor Burgstahler of the University of Kansas prepared a complete range of grills, running the gamut from 5 columns to 55 columns, and none of them other than the 34-column grid yielded a coherent message. Of course, in most grids some short words will be formed by chance, but only in the 34-column grid do they add up to a message, and that message mentions "Vere."
Who is Vere? Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is the leading candidate among anti-Stratfordians today - not because of this possible cryptogram, which was unknown until recently, but for many other reasons, most involving detailed parallels between his life and the events of the plays.
Roper observes that the oddities of the inscription are explained by the cryptogram. He writes:
WHOM in line 2 is spelt WHOME in line 3. The added 'E' provides the 'E' in 'TEST.'
THIS in line 3 is abbreviated to YS in line 4. The abbreviation provides the 'S' for 'TEST.'
THAT is abbreviated to YT in line 5. This abbreviation allows the correct positioning of 'T,' 'H,' 'W,' 'I.' ...
The German word 'SIEH' has been introduced to provide 'I' and 'E' for 'ME' 'I.B."
WRITT is given an extra 'T.' This allows the second 'E' in 'VERE' and the initial 'B' to be positioned correctly.
As I said, I'm inclined to discount much of the last cluster, but the bizarre use of sieh, which makes "ME IB" possible, does make me wonder if Jonson signed his name after all.
Of course, all this could be nothing more than a coincidence. Much of the text, read vertically, is meaningless, and it is possible that the seemingly meaningful parts are accidental. On the other hand, the strangeness of the inscription with its many irregularities and omissions, the indentation of the 34-letter line directly above it, and the appearance of Vere in the only grid out of 50 that yields a coherent statement, all combine to make a pretty good case for cryptographic wordplay.
If that case is valid, then we might say that it was Mr. Shakspere of Stratford who was the real cipher.
*As mentioned, the other analyst (who posts anonymously, as far as I can tell) does not endorse the last cluster as part of the message, but I've added it to parallel Roper's reading.