What you see below is an equidistant letter sequence (ELS) of Sonnet 76 (attributed to William Shakespeare) I uncovered using a relatively easy to perform transposition shift (or skip, if you prefer) of one. I will explain this process in some detail shortly; but for now know the procedure is not a new one, that it was used by government agents during the Elizabethan era to conceal messages intended for a very few as a tool of espionage, and, I believe, as a method of hiding concealed messages between those who wished private correspondence when the content was such that one’s arrest or even execution for treason was one consequence of being discovered.
This website is designed to encourage discussion of ciphers as they relate to what is called “The Authorship Question”. Simply put, the question asks whether or not the man we call Shakespeare wrote his canon. Some believe he did not, others believe the canon was the combined product of a group (not including Shakespeare), and others attribute the greater part of the writings to another. At this point in time, there are four men who are at the forefront of the controversy: William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. This controversy, notwithstanding, I wish to concentrate on ciphers as another form of supporting evidence (I hesitate to say “proof”), and wish all readers to join in the discussion. Pro, con, undecided .
Fig. 1: Ferris © 2008
The Truth Will Out
(Veritas temporis filia)
What is frequently if not consistently called “The Authorship Question” is just that: a question. It is time to recognize that this “question” will always be thus: simply a question. It is unlikely that research, any time soon, will uncover a smoking gun that proves, in the scientific sense or in the experimental sense, that Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, or any of a number of other candidates, may have written what is commonly referred to as the works of Shakespeare. It is unlikely, though probable, someday time travel may be discovered, allowing a host of historical mysteries to be solved. In this event, a hand-held camcorder, an inexpensive tape recorder, and several unbiased witnesses (this alone borders on science fiction) may “prove” once and for all with documentary and celluloid evidence that one person or another is the true author of the Shakespeare canon. Perhaps someday DNA techniques will evolve such that they are virtually infallible, and that Edward de Vere’s remains will be discovered at Hedingham Castle, or Hackney, or beneath the floors of Westminster Abbey, that will assert and prove once and for all that this discovered body is that of Edward de Vere. Perhaps, then, his mother’s body will be exhumed, the matriarchal DNA path linked to de Vere, adding another piece of evidence of his true identity, if doubt still remains at this distant time. In the latter very unlikely scenario, we still could not be sure that de Vere was Shakespeare. Even if he was found to be buried with the originals of his entire opus clutched in both hands, and placed squarely upon his chest, we still could not have certainty. Even if on his body we found a document written in de Vere’s own hand, saying under penalty of death, he is Shakespeare, we still would not have final evidence. Even if we found any number of documents from the writers of the time, asserting that they swear that Edward de Vere, the 17th. Earl of Oxford was Shakespeare, we still would not have certainty. And why not? “What more do you want?” you may ask.
The response to this question can take many permutations. The Authorship Question is not unlike a legal case, where there are no witnesses to a given crime, and DNA evidence could have been planted to incriminate someone. Or the police could have manipulated the crime scene to implicate who they strongly feel is the perpetrator. And in de Vere’s case, the Elizabethan period was a virtual petri dish, a culture, that grew and produced continually more sophisticated ways of lying. By this I mean, the Elizabethan equivalent of modern intelligence gathering was stunningly adept at encryption. A parallax view of encryption at the level of spy work, is to encode a true message by disguising it so that only an intended person or persons can detect the encryption. This is to say that state secrets are not in the public domain, that lies are involved to protect secrets. The Authorship Question is similar. We do not know who or what (in the case of documentation) is telling the truth (in the intelligence gathering analogy, then, even if we decipher or decrypt a message, we still do not know with certainty, the truth of the message). In short, we may arrive at certain “truths” about some aspects in our quest to find “The” answer, but this truth or truths remain without a capital “T”. We may or may not ever be able to arrive at “The Truth,” with both “t s” capitalized.
By way of introduction, there are a few assumptions and requests I must make: (1) that as the Reader, I assume you have some familiarity with the Authorship Question (or Controversy, if you wish). If not, or if you need a refresher, or in the case of many, you would like to read in some depth the issues involved in the Shakespeare controversy, an Internet search is a good place to start. Charles Ogburn’s, The Mysterious William Shakespeare: the Myth and the Reality, is a well-chosen selection of material regarding both Edward de Vere, the 17th. Earl of Oxford as well as other candidates for the Shakespeare authorship. The respective web pages of the Shakespeare Oxford Society (American), the DeVere Society (British), as well as The Shakespeare Fellowship will direct you to their wonderful libraries, rich in points of view; (2) that a brief review of ciphers and codes (Steganography) may help, though I will provide definitions and examples when needed; (3) that if you have the arithmetical skill to count to 25 or 30, you will be more than qualified to grasp the intricacies of the monotonous counting of letters, over and over again, so as “to catch the conscience” of Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
(Greek: steganos = covered, hidden; graphia = writing)
A review of the literature pertaining to the life of Edward de Vere, the 17th. Earl of Oxford, reveals credible and probable reasons for his use of a pseudonym. Two of the foremost and perhaps strongest and necessary reasons for de Vere to conceal his name and works lie in life and death matters. De Vere was the first peer of the realm, an intimate of Queen Elizabeth for the greater part of his life. His intimate knowledge of the personalities and behavior of those at court, (most importantly the Queen), his trust with state secrets (if he were alive now, we would say he was on a “need to know” security basis), placed him in a position of considerable power. He grew up in the household of William Cecil , Lord Burghley, a man arguably the most powerful person in England at the time (with the possible exception of Sir Francis Walsingham). So powerful, it is probable he knew of the manipulation of the the cipher by the spymaster Walsingham which led to the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth knew nothing of this deception, so secret and hidden were the workings of the State in accomplishing its political ends. De Vere was on the jury assembled for the trial of Mary, and, at one time, was employed by Walsingham as a spy.
Thus, not only was there a need for de Vere to conceal his name, there was also a simultaneous need to hide the true identities of those characters in his plays whose political careers depended on the secrecy of State intelligence and responses to intelligence gathered. Recall that Hamlet says that players (actors) were the “abstract and brief chronicles of the times.” Therefore, the satirization of key high ranking court officials carried serious consequences. De Vere, if he was openly known as the author of the Shakespeare canon, could be found guilty of treason and beheaded. His plays would have been heavily examined for information about personalities as well as the machinations of state affairs. In fact, commoners, including Ben Jonson, were imprisoned for less. But he had powerful protectors: Queen Elizabeth, Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, to name but a few. It was a reciprocal relationship, an understood kind of blackmail: you keep your mouth shut and I’ll keep mine shut. But the weight of historical record says de Vere was able to conceal his identity from all but a privileged few. Even when charges were brought against nobles implicated in a plot against the Queen, charges supported by de Vere, these same nobles who were on a personal and social basis with him, counter-charged him with treason, necromancy, blasphemy, sexual excess, and pederasty: but not the charge of being Shakespeare. De Vere had many nobles and other powerful personages who disliked if not despised him; however, the charge of being Shakespeare was never a charge leveled against him.
Additionally, it was considered shameful for such a high ranking peer of the realm to associate with actors, and to write plays. Although a noble could own and support an acting company (de Vere’s father did before him), actors were considered too vulgar. Once again, de Vere’s family could be shamed well into the future if his true identity were made public. Remember, commoners such as John Lily, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson were celebrated for their playwrighting; but de Vere had to remain in the background. Poetry was different. De Vere published several poems, and was lauded for them. After all, poetry did not require being on close terms with the vulgar, riotous class of actors. Writing poetry conferred literary status and prestige.