The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0042 Monday, 12 January 1998.
From: Lee Gibson <
Date: Friday, 9 Jan 1998 09:19:07 -0600 (CST)
Subject: The Times: Britain: Codebreaker Names Bard's 'Fair Youth'
I forward this from another list I receive.
The Times: Britain:
"Codebreaker Names Bard's 'Fair Youth'"
December 31 1997
Shakespearean mystery may be solved, reports Nigel Hawkes
A retired physicist believes he has solved a puzzle that has baffled
Shakespearean scholars for generations.
The identity of Mr W.H., the "onlie begetter" of Shakespeare's sonnets,
is hidden in the enigmatic dedication in the first printed edition of
the poems, says John Rollett. The dedication, awkwardly phrased and
obscure in meaning, is a cipher containing the name Henry Wriothesley.
Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, was known to have been a patron of
Shakespeare, who dedicated two narrative poems to him. The fact that his
name can be found concealed in the letters of the dedication leaves "not
much room for doubt" in Dr Rollett's mind that Wriothesley was also the
inspiration for the sonnets.
They were published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe, described by the
Dictionary of National Bibliography as "disreputable and half-educated".
He obtained them from an unknown source - not Shakespeare - and is
assumed to have written the dedication, since it ends with the initials
T.T. The sonnets were written much earlier, in about 1594, when the poet
was 30 and Wriothesley was 21.
Many scholars have been struck by the awkwardness of Thorpe's
dedication, since he is known to have been capable of more elegant
prose. It occupies the second leaf of the quarto edition, beginning "To
the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr W.H. all happinesse ..."
In 1964 Leslie Hotson, a Shakespeare scholar, claimed to have identified
the name William Hatliffe hidden in the dedication, but this idea is not
now accepted. Inspired by Hotson's efforts, Dr Rollett wondered if the
dedication really did contain the secret.
It contains many peculiarities, he says, from the way it is arranged to
the curious spelling of "onlie", and the close conjunction of "wisheth"
and "well-wishing", where near-repetition could easily have been avoided
by using a phrase such as "well-disposed".
This made him wonder if it was a cipher. When he counted the letters, he
found there were 144, a suspiciously round number that has many
factors. This suggested the idea of laying out the letters as blocks -
12 lines of 12 letters each to form a square, for example, or eight
letters by 18.
Arranged in a rectangle of nine rows, each of 16 letters, the name Henry
appears, running diagonally downwards. And when the letters are arranged
as a block of eight by 18, the name Wriothesley can be teased out -
although it is broken up into three sections, "Wr", "ioth", and "esley".
Such a cipher is based on a technique first used by Spartan generals,
who wound a strip of paper around a staff, than wrote the message end to
end. The message cannot be read until the paper is wound around an
identical staff by the recipient.
Codes were widely used in Elizabethan times, and John Dee, a scholar and
astrologer of the day, describes a cipher based on writing out a text in
the form of a block, as Dr Rollett has done. Thorpe could well have been
aware of this type of cipher.
Dr Rollett's decoding will appear in the next issue of Elizabethan
Review, a literary and historical journal published in the US. Whether
it will be accepted by scholars depends on how plausible it is that the
names Henry and sections of Wriothesley would appear by chance. He
calculates this in an appendix to his paper. While many three or
four-letter words can be generated by arranging the letters in different
blocks, five-letter words are very rare.
He calculates the odds against the word Henry appearing by chance at
1,192 to one, and the section "esley" of Wriothesley at 1,056 to one.
Taking into account the same block also includes "ioth" and "Wr" raises
the odds to about one in 270,000, says Dr Rollett. Multiplying the odds
against finding Henry with those against finding the three fragments of
Wriothesley gives overall odds of one in 320 million.
So far, Dr Rollett has been disappointed by the reaction of
Shakespearean scholars. "One replied that the identity of the young man
was no longer central to work on the sonnets," he says. "Another said it
didn't matter who he was. But his identity has puzzled a large number of
people for 150 years or so."
There is one final problem: Henry Wriothesley was HW, not WH. Dr Rollett
is undeterred - he says that Thorpe simply transposed the initials as an
extra puzzle, as Elizabethans often did.
Copyright 1997 The Times Newspapers Limited.
Department of English
Southern Methodist University