Shakespeare’s Lost Sonnets: A Restoration of the Runes
by Roy Neil Graves, Professor of English
The University of Tennessee at Martin

 How Will Wrote the Runes
Copyright © Roy Neil Graves 2003, All Rights Reserved     

Return to Index Page: Shakespeare’s Lost Sonnets

 
       


     Published in London in 1609
in the small-format Quarto text (Q), Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets have provoked endless discussion, especially because of their biographical coyness and oddly perverse details.
      In 1979, encouraged by the riddlic, gamelike quality of the Sonnets to suspect that the cycle might bury some suppressed design of the sort that Renaissance artists are known to have enjoyed, I discovered through a trial-and-error process that the 154 Sonnets hide a previously unknown cycle of 154 “lost sonnets,” which I call the Runes.
      A rune is a riddlic poem, and the Q lines pun on the term.
      Shakespeare’s Runes are gamelike, unrhymed 14-line texts that the poet wrote for some unspecified coterie of readers.
      These 154 hidden poems “recycle” the same lines as the Sonnets—though in different, systematic combinations based on sequence, parallelism, and an ingenious system of numbers that itself reflects the numeric features of the sonnet form itself.

      To understand how Will wrote the Runes—and how, nearly 400 years later, we can recover and enjoy them—we must first comprehend this lost numbers scheme, a system that allowed the poet to compose a random-looking cycle in which each line gets used twice, once in the visible Sonnets, once in the covert Runes.
     First one envisions Q as the numbers-box Megasonnet shown just below. Each numeral in the box stands for one visible sonnet in Q (the 154 Sonnets have numeric titles), while each vertical column forms a set of 14 sonnets. If you understand this system, you’ll see that the whole system comprises eleven 14-line sets. I use Roman numerals to designate the sets.
     Since a jam-packed sonnet—that is, one with 11 syllables per line and with “feminine” line endings—has 154 syllables, Q is built like a Giant Sonnet in which each visible number is one “syllable” in its total utterance.

Shakespeare’s Lost Megasonnet:
The Organization Plan of the 1609 Quarto Texts
Copyright 1984 © Roy Neil Graves, All rights reserved.
I.
II.
III.
IV.
V.
VI.
VII.
VIII.
IX.
X.
XI.

1
15
29
43
57
71
85
99
113
127
141
2
16
30
44
58
72
86
100
114
128
142
3
17
31
45
59
73
87
101
115
129
143
4
18
32
46
60
74
88
102
116
130
144
5
19
33
47
61
75
89
103
117
131
145
6
20
34
48
62
76
90
104
118
132
146
7
21
35
49
63
77
91
105
119
133
147
8
22
36
50
64
78
92
106
120
134
148
9
23
37
51
65
79
93
107
121
135
149
10
24
38
52
66
80
94
108
122
136
150
11
25
39
53
67
81
95
109
123
137
151
12
26
40
54
68
82
96
110
124
138
152
13
27
41
55
69
83
97
111
125
139
153
14
28
42
56
70
84
98
112
126
140
154


    While the Arabic numerals above designate the visible Sonnets, they can also represent the Runes, since each set houses 14 of each. The visible echo of the Sonnet form in this construct is part of its aesthetic appeal—of its mathematical beauty.

   
To see the Runes emerge from this overall Megasonnet scheme, one first divides Q into 11 sets of 14 visible sonnets each, respecting the division of materials that is implicit the diagram above. 
    Set I, when arranged as shown below, illustrates how the Runes emerge systematically from the Sonnets in each of the 11 sets: Here you need to imagine these 14 numbers scripted on an oversized folio spread (approx. 22 in. wide x 17 in. high, roughly the size of the King James Bible of 1611) in a cramped hand. This reconstructed example uses the printed texts from Q to illustrate the spread arrangement, which itself mimicks the sonnet form with its 4-4-4-2 (quatrain, couplet) arrangement.
    This is a hypothetical Ur-text of the eleven set components in Q as they once must have existed before 1609, some and perhaps all of these sets circulating among Will’s “private friends,” as we know from external evidence that editors of the Sonnets always mention.


     During the 1980s, a big help in my efforts to reconstruct the buried design patterns in Q was the book Shakespeare’s Handwriting, by Sir Edward M. Thompson, in which is shown a facsimile reproduction of the only extant textual sample expertly attributed to Shakespeare—three pages of an unfinished play about Sir Thomas More. The hand is cramped, almost a minuscule, so that 14 sonnet texts would have fit comfortably on a spread in the pattern deduced above.
      The randomly picked 14-line sample of iambic pentameter verse below illustrates the size of a sonnet text as Will might have penned it, roughly 5 inches wide x 3 inches high. With this image in mind, you can easily imagine the arrangement above, penned in a handscripted form on a conventionally sized folio leaf—four times as big as modern typing paper, a paper size readily available in London during Will’s day:

      The illustration below shows a reduced-sized facsimile of Set I, scripted in Will’s nearly minuscule hand. To recreate the spread, I’ve taken random 14-line blocks of text from the More ms., cut in an indention where the couplet lines occur, and added by hand the enlarged initial capitals, the sonnet numbers 1-14, and the Roman numeral I., designating the set.This arrangement works using actual-sized script from More on a folio spread measuring approximately 22 inches (wide) x 17 inches (high).

     With the image of this set layout in mind, any modern reader/player can understand how Will could have written two poem cycles concurrently: 154 Sonnets and 154 Runes:
      Writing the Sonnets, he wrote down. Writing the Runes, he wrote across.
     Accordingly, what we have to do to reconstruct the 14 lost runes in each set is to “read across”on the set leaf—linking first lines with first, second with second, and so on through 14. In Set I, Rune 1 is the restored first-line grouping, Rune 2 is the second-line grouping, and soon through the fourteenth lines.
      Though often hard to puzzle out, the Runes make sense and can be edited (as the Sonnets always are for us) and paraphrased. Figuring out the Runes becomes a reader/player’s pleasant job. One matches wits with the Bard (and always loses). 

      We have to conclude that Shakespeare wrote the Runes with some group of private readers in mind, imagining that that coterie would be privy to their presence while public readers of the Sonncets would not.      
     
Many of the Runes, however, envision their reconstitution and speculate about the circumstances in which it will occur.
      I invite you, after this player’s orientation, to look further at the various components of this site, which is extensive. An easy place to start is the link just below. RNG 14 May 2003

 

             
An Easy Sample Text: Rune 1
Return to Index Page: Shakespeare’s Lost Sonnets