Return to Index Page: Shakespeare’s Lost Sonnets

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

Backgrounds, Precedents, &
Contemporaneous Parallels
Copyright © Roy Neil Graves 2004, All Rights Reserved    


          A relatively sketchy catalog here of some antecedent runic practices and of other analogues to the Q Runes through the Renaissance may help somewhat to demystify and even to normalize them—almost. My deduction is that Will had behind him, in both the Germanic and the Romance language traditions, certain longstanding, codified patterns of runic art, on which, after initiation by some unknown process into the Mysteries, he might have drawn, and that these precedents encompassed a wide range of conventionalized coterie practices that in various components resemble the overt word games, palindromes, riddles, anagrams, symbolic and iconographic systems, astrological schemes, heraldic codes, hermetic inheritances, and numerological preoccupations that were common up to 1600 and that in some cases have persisted beyond Will’s age, even into our own.

          However specialized they were, and by whatever system of trade secrets Will inherited them, these conventionalized, “antique/antic” patterns in literature whispered quietly, like subterranean echoes, of the loud propensities that medieval and Renaissance art betrayed for numerological architectonics and other kinds of suppressed design. Even when the coterie games were played, as it were, on open courts or fields and in full view, their knotty and esoteric aspects must certainly have kept the observing audience relatively private, small, and selectively literate. The extent to which anyone before has ever “played” Will’s own Runegame is something we may never fully understand—though surely at least some in his coterie must have tinkered with exhuming the wealth of gamy stuff he so tediously buried.

          While the Anglo-Saxon heritage in England might seem at first glance to afford the easiest examples of the runic practice that Will inherited, my own guess is that the native tradition must have been more or less subsumed after the Norman Conquest in 1066 by continental (and Latinate) practices and precedents, as the two artistic traditions, Germanic and Romance, melded and as European art, especially that of the Italian Renaissance, became dominant. Still, there seems to be no doubt that the English Runegame has deep origins in its own earliest antiquity.

          It’s interesting to speculate about the courses that conventionalized private writing took not only before Shakespeare but after him as well.The drifts of English literary history lead one to guess that the burgeoning excrescences of extravagant types of Renaissance wit gradually withered under the bright suns of late 17th and 18th-century neoclassicism and rationalism. Discarded patterns never really die, however, and residual remnants of the runic impulse persist even to the present. Some forms that express this impulse are not really covert: e.g., crossword puzzles, word games, “eye poems,” and syllabic verses (based on syllable counting) whose formalistic bases are imperceptible to the ear but are carefully authorized and artful elements for the player’s eye to detect on the textual page.


          I’ve said that I found Shakespeare’s Runes because I went looking for them in 1979 after having deduced during 1977-79 the basic “rules” and patterns of antecedent runic activity and effectively theorized into being a lost conventional genre that still awaits adequate discussion. My work before 1979 had involved trial-and-error manipulation of various sample texts in Old and Middle English, representing the native tradition both before and after 1066. My conclusion had been, as I’ve just suggested, that a conventionalized, literate Runegame, apparently widespread and conducted within oathbound coterie contexts, had once existed, and that writers working within its framework had routinely depended upon five manuscript features to encode entertaining, puzzle-like materials inside their texts for private readerships: sequence, parallelism, emphasis, numbers, and ambiguously fruitful acrostic codelines. Initiates in the runic mysteries, in turn, who recognized or expected the presence of buried materials could use these same elements in the decoding process—an entertaining, time-consuming pastime.

          Other inevitable characteristics of the Runes were a playful, ambiguous tone; riddlic ambiguity in the punning “messages” conveyed; and cooperative participation by reader/players, who themselves (along with the vagaries and potentialities of the language code) helped “create” meanings in the runic texts—much as players of a board game generate something fully new in any playthrough they make, though the creator of the game has framed the activity and in great measure set the perimeters that contain the participant’s experience with it, always of a certain predictable nature.

          Part of any player’s uncertainty in the Runes arose from his inability to be sure that he was finding what the Runemaster had authorized—and from the difficulty he had in knowing when he was “through” or, conversely, if he were forcing meaning where none had been authorized. Even knowing whether any game at all was at work was an initial problem, so a part of the Maker’s job was to provide adequate clues and forthcoming wit to show the coterie that indeed something authorized lay hidden in the text.

          One can see, of course, that the Runes share many elements with non-runic literature, given that what an author conveys in a work and what a reader receives from it or perceives in it are never perfectly congruent—and given that any reader creates a unique experience as he or she reads a text. Certainly my students regard reading poetry as a kind of coterie activity, with the word-wielder always couching things figuratively and indirectly, when they’d much prefer that poets “say what they mean.” And all language activity, of course, is a kind of decoding—with the outsider exerting effort to get inside the writer’s circle by deciphering what the letterstrings “hide.” A rune, however, pushes such characteristics to extremes, and the maddening multiplicity of what comes through in it is part of its appeal.

          Coterie gameplaying by its nature is an elusive subject for a researcher, self-limiting in the way that any Masonic secrets are. And a full history of coy wit in early literature is certainly beyond my scope. But an extended summary of various exemplars may help to show how Shakespeare’s elaborately duplicitous Q project reflects widespread coterie tendencies. My own findings about runic embedding in early literature are as yet unexamined by other scholars, by peers in the field, so I’ll try to supplement them here with other facts and hypotheses.

          From the very first and to this day, literacy itself has created coteries, especially so in the early period when the masses were automatically exempted from the arcane appeal that written artifacts exerted—an in-group attraction still felt by those, for example, who indulge avidly in crossword puzzles or related word games. The pre-English rune-stones are tantalizing mementos of the era in Britain when religion, mystery, magic, and writing were interlinked activities, a time when “rune” meant both “alphabetic character” and “mystery.” By whatever name, the poet-bard in medieval Europe was a kind of word-wielding magician, and in this context artful duplicity with language must have seemed normal. Literacy and art, like expertise in any craft, have traditionally created coterie mindsets based on exclusivity. In the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, too, “mystery” described “a trade guild or company” (OED). The perpetuation of the runes as cultivated mysteries artfully buried in literary texts thus seems likely to have occurred as a routine pastime within the context of the literate medieval coteries in the scriptoria, with leisured patrons the likely first audiences outside the monasteries for the challenging runic games. The male brotherhoods of scriptoria, knightly courts, and medieval guilds or mysteries were all private orders conducive to the instigation and perpetuation of coterie activities.

          Historians including Barbara Tuchman (e.g., 234) show us how word games provided an important source of entertainment in medieval households. These games seem to occupy a zone somewhere between what we now regard as literature—the poems and stories intoned by the scop or troubadour—and games such as cards or chess that are in effect like miniaturized and stylized feudal battles. The tone of the runes that I have studied indeed often seem to emulate such games by pitting the writer against the reader/player, champion against challenger. In such a context, extravagant boasting and fliting—rhetorical denigration of the listener—is common. In this, and in its “gameboard” aspect, the runes share characteristics with chess, checkers, card games, and the word games such as anagrams, acrostics, riddles, puzzles, and palindromes. Some “rounds” that I have studied seem, further, to emphasize the pattern of circularity that the name suggests, with the last line of a runic text pointing back to its starting point to create a kind of endless circularity; reverse readings (as in The Pearl Rune) allow the reader in such contexts a reverse circular option. The origins for the English rune-poet’s interest in this kind of “roundness” may lie in the “reversibility” of futhark inscriptions (used bidirectionally); evidence of an interest in such circular, endless patterns can be seen, for example, on the front panel of the ninth-century Franks Casket, a small Anglo-Saxon coffer decorated with futhark characters so that they encircle a pictorial panel and actually “reverse” across the bottom, causing confusion about where the inscription actually starts and stops (see Gaur 128).

          My assumption is that English runic practices descend both from the Romantic traditions (particularly the Latin tradition that early monks and scribes inherited directly) and the Germanic, in the form of the futhark inscriptions and lettergames.

          A very general influence on runegame patterns for viewing letterstrings as phonic codes may have been the early scribal practice of writing without spacings between words, and without much if any punctuation, so as to create letterstrings rather than wordstrings for the eye to deal with (see, e.g., Gaur 168). This practice, especially given the habit of flexible spellings, made it easier than modern practices do for a writer to encode or a reader to find multiple meanings in lines of alphabetic symbols. The palimpsestic practice of re-using hides by scraping off one text and writing another on the same surface may also have influenced the mindset of early runemakers in a general way by establishing the archetype of successively overlaid writings on a single sheet.

          A summary of some more particular kinds of antecedents shows how conventional, in fact, Shakespeare’s Runes actually were. Below, I’ve subdivided this discussion into eight categories, each printed here against a separate background color to help you negotiate this link and find beginning points of the individual discussions:

1. Coterie Features in the Bible and Related Topics
2. The Hermetic Tradition
3. Latin Precedents and Parallels
4. Precedents in Old English
5. A Precedent in Middle English: The Pearl Rune
6. Other Late Medieval Precedents
7. Renaissance Precedents and Analogues
8. Contemporary Coterie Practices in English

         1. Coterie Features in the Bible; the Shakespeare name cipher in Psalm 46; the ancient fish symbol as an arcane acrostic. Treating “the entire book of Genesis as a long cryptographic string” (Satinover 30), scholars including mathematical statisticians within the last two decades have detected hundreds of word-pairs systematically embedded as numerologically arranged acrostic letterstrings in the Hebrew text, pairs that appear to encode “prophetic” information by generating allusive terminology the researchers believe would not have been accessible to the author(s) at the time the texts originated. These vertical, horizontal, and diagonal letterstrings comprise contiguous and/or equidistant series of letters on pages that show the text arranged in “letter-box” forms (like crossword puzzle grids) with an equal number of letters per line and no spaces between words. For example, researchers found “Zedekiah” (the name of Judah’s last king, ca. 6th century B.C.E.) in close association with “Mantanya” (Zedekiah’s name before he became king). Other embedded word-pairs even seemed to point to prominent Jewish figures who thrived into the Common Era, some as late as the 19th century. The researchers thus conclude that they may have found “a second, hidden level of embedded meaning” behind “the surface meaning of the Hebrew” (Satinover 29). In its most provocative form, such research has yielded Michael Drosnin’s controversial book The Bible Code (1997), which claims to find textual clusters of these numerologically encoded acrostics in the Hebrew texts that “predict” precise details about such future events as the Wright Brothers’ invention of the airplane, the Gulf War, the assassinations of John Kennedy and Yitzhak Rabin, and Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995.

          While the methods of acrostic analysis and cryptographic decoding that Drosnin explains loosely parallel some of the deciphering modes rune-players use, I make no claims for prophetic capabilities in Q (or in the Bible either). Given the tendency to find what we go looking for in such codes and given the diverse ways acrostic letterboxes can seem to convey meaning, I personally choose to be skeptical that such retrospective “readings” of texts show any genuine prophetic capabilities in them, just as I remain skeptical of any “single” occurrence of what appears to be particular information buried in punning fashion in the Q letterstrings. My own decision not to accept Biblical texts as genuinely magical, prophetic, or “supernatural” leads me to think that they may embed authorizations, phonic or alphabetic letterstrings equivalents to Hebrew “words,” but that the word elements themselves are highly subject to hindsight readings. Too, some topical embeddings might have resulted from scribal manipulation of letter elements long after the original date of composition of the original Biblical materials. And language itself cooperates playfully to generate what appear to be meaningful coincidences. In some measure, as the researchers admit, one finds what one looks for; and interpretation of “predictions” depends on hindsight readings. The researchers fail to find parallels in certain control exercises (analyses, e.g., of War and Peace), suggesting that some kind of consciously authorized embedding is at work in the Torah (Satinover).

          The bifurcated Shakespeare name cipher in the King James Version of Psalm 46 is a contemporary Renaissance instance strikingly parallel to these paired ciphers in Genesis, since “shake” occurs as the 46th element from the beginning of the text, and “spear” occurs in the 46th word position from the end (Interpreter’s Bible). (One omits “Selah,” closing the Psalm, for the pattern to work.) In the Geneva Bible (1560), the text that Shakespeare himself would have known and used and one that influenced the wording of the KJB heavily (see Butterworth 231), the two name-components occur by my count in the 47th and 44th word positions, respectively, so they were already extant textual components and thus would have been rather easy to maneuver into numerologically parallel slots by any KJB translator who wanted to effect that shift.

          Once the nameplay “Shakespeare” becomes active in a reader/player’s mind, the possibility of a coterie “date play”—on Shakespeare’s age, 46, in 1610, the last year before the KJV’s 1611 publication—emerges. Too, a player detects further elements in the nameplay, as in verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth” (my emphasis). Further humor emerges, whether authorized or the result of contextual happenstance and inherited diction from earlier textual variants: e.g., “Therefore Will, an oat, we fear,” “…Will-knot we fear” (2); “S. Hall may cage lad, this eye, tease God (the sight is good)” (4); “She, S. Hall, Ann, aught, be m’ Ovid, he uttered his voice” (5); “She, Hath.-maid, eye ’neath earth” (8); “Ham. acheth, whores, to kiss you” (9); “Boned, see Judith, the Spear-in’ son dear” (9); and “Bestial Ann, know that I am God, I, Will….” (10). Readers intent on finding sacrilege can read the opening verse as “God, aye sour (sore) or f--king, dost rune” or “God’s whore, f--king dust, runeth.” Those looking for Southy wit may hear “T’ Harry S., whore will not waver, dowdy, ‘eared,’ bare (…Hebrew, m’ Ovid, Ann did haughty mount, Ann S.…)” (2).

          In itself, then, the rather easily effected authorization of the numerological nameplay triggers a domino effect: the coterie player hunts for further wit, which, once sought, is likely to emerge in the minds of those willing to seek out playful—i.e., runic—decodings of the letterstring text.

          Along with the very number of the text, the innocent-looking epigraphic inscription of Psalm 46 “To the chief musician” may have helped suggest that psalm as a fit locale for the Shakespeare nameplay to the encoder—some member of the translation committee who was “in” on Will’s coterie game. In coterie argot, the epigraph translates “preeminent lyric poet,” thereby associating “Shake-spear” with the sweet singers Hermes (see just below) and Orpheus, “underworld” figures.

          Shakespeare’s own extensive use of the Psalms—in almost every play (Rowse 42, citing R. Noble’s Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge)—may have also factored into the particular placement of the KJV “tribute” to him.

          The coterie aspects of the Bible, of course, remain familiar to this day to those of us who grew up hearing fundamentalist preachers try to decode the arcane symbols and numerology of the book of Revelation (in particular). The television evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong once called the serpent in Genesis a “whispering, enchanting creature of glorious aspect”—not a bad description of the “whispering” Runes. Surely the Whore of Babylon is one of numerous “bad women” antecedents for Will’s Dark Lady.

          The Runes encode hundreds of possible allusions to Biblical topics. (See the index.)

          The fish as an early Christian symbol. As Bible Professor Milton P. Brown (Retired, Rhodes College) explains in a letter to The [Memphis] Commercial Appeal (6 December 2003: B6), even the ancient fish symbol used by early Christians for “covert self-identification” was likely to have been a coy acrostic: As Prof. Brown says, “The word in Greek for fish was ichthys, which provided an acrostic arrangement of five initial letters of Greek words meaning ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.... In Greek the I (iota) was the initial letter of Iesous (Jesus), the ch (one letter, chi) the initial for Christos (Christ), the th (one letter, theta) initial for Theou (of God), they y (or u=upsilon) for uios (Son), and the s (sigma) for the word Soter (Saviour).” Thus the fish symbol, standing for its alphabetic string, encoded “a kind of creedal affirmation.”

          I’m conscious that this discussion groups diverse kinds of connections between the Bible (and Christian use of text) and the Q Runes; the possible historical precedent of scribal acrostics encoded in early scriptural texts is the most important parallel—but the Psalm 46 incident and the ichthys acrostic share the same basic impulses.


          2. The Hermetic Tradition as Influence or Analogue.
“Hermetic” writings, the Hermetica, comprise a body of early texts attributed to Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom—a name translated as Hermes Trismegistus (“Throth the thrice great”) and thus associated with Hermes, the Greek god of eloquence (and so on) and reputed inventor of the lyre. Treating “magic, astrology, and alchemy,” these books were “particularly influential… in France and England in the 17th century” (Chernow and Vallasi) after their translation by the Italian scholar Marcilio Ficino into Latin in 1471. The Sonnets may have been directly influenced by the emphasis of this tradition on “magical” language and occultism, especially as these patterns were transmitted in such Italian Renaissance works as Giordano Bruno’s Heroic Enthusiasms, which was also known and imitated by other writers in Shakespeare’s London (see Jones).

          Hermetic influences (as traditionally recognized) were mainly on literary content and attitudes; they were not narrowly formal, and they pointed toward seriousness rather than wit. But the shared pattern of cabalistic in-groupiness makes hermeticism relevant, as precedent and analogue, to Shakespeare’s coterie practices. The Italian humanist Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) effected the union of the Hermetica and the Cabala, a body of arcane Jewish lore that appeared in the Middle Ages, and thereafter the two lines of mystical thought often merged (see Hudibras 1.i.523-524, and John Wilder’s line notes). The hermetic interest in alchemy parallels Shakespeare’s own; Q often discusses “alembics” or stills used for transmutation (see, e.g., Sonnet 119, and Booth 398ff.). Indeed, the whole Q process is itself a kind of alchemical transformation of Sonnets into Runes, and vice versa.

          Closely associated are the Rosicrucian cultists, first mentioned openly ca. 1614-15; this group’s “secret learning deals with occult symbols—notably the rose and the cross” (Chernow and Vallasi). Shakespeare’s interest in both symbols in Q is perhaps incidental, perhaps not: The “cross” and “acrostics” are closely interwoven, and “Wriothesley” (see Rose-ly) is associated with “Rose,” always a pun on “rows” in Q. (Q’s “But’s” all allow puns on “bud,” too.) Such a pun as the one in 53.10-13 might have a “Rosy-Cross” brotherhood in mind: e.g., “Special be lofty oath, our azure-bounded oath appeared, eye totem of elves, sweet Roses’ dough-knot, sown in the eyes of all posterity.”

          The important point is that the cabalistic spirit of the Hermetic tradition parallels coterie attitudes underlying the happenings of Q, even though hermeticism and its offshoots are ostensibly more “serious” and “philosophical.” Whether such seriousness covers leg-pulling activity is, for this outsider, impossible to assess, but the question is worth considering.
Possible plays on “Hermes” occur subtextually in the Runes. (See the index.)

          3. Precedents and Parallels in Latin. Like Chaucer, Shakespeare drew most heavily from Ovid of all the classical Latin writers; in particular he used the first book or so of the Metamorphoses (Chute 16, Rowse 38), whose 15 books comprise a “rhetorical tour de force…illustrating a great variety of poetic, linguistic, and stylistic tricks” (Wilkie and Hurt 1105). We can now see how the large, magical “transformation” that Will effects in Q—metamorphosing one set of texts into another—parallels the expressed theme of that poem, which opens, “My intention is to tell of bodies changed / To different forms…” (1143, trans. Rolfe Humphries).

          Ovid’s assertion in his Art of Love that “art lies in concealing art” (Ars est celare artem) may just refer to subtle craftsmanship, not to coterie tricksterism. Perhaps he had both in mind. In any case, this aesthetic principle helped sway Renaissance artists toward sprezzatura or “suppressed design” (see below) as an ideal; certainly Will’s achievement in Q meets Ovid’s requirement, where the amusing, licentious, worldly tone of Q is also adequately Ovidian. Indeed, contemporaries recognized Will’s close association with Ovid. In 1598, for example, Francis Meres wrote in his verse collection Palladis Tamia, “[T]he sweete wittie soule of Ouid liues in mellifluous & hony-tongued Shakespeare, witnes…his sugred Sonnets…” (Harrison 12). By 1601 a low character in a student-written play performed at Cambridge linked Shakespeare jokingly with “that writer Ovid and that writer Metamorphosis” (Chute 225).

          Indications that runic patterns—that is, systematic, genuinely covert coterie practices rather than merely restrained artfulness—may have thrived in Latin verse generally, if not in Ovid’s writings particularly, come from several sources. Notebooks ca. 1906-09 of the famed linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, for example—published eventually in French under the title Les mots sous les mots, and in English as Words over Words (Yale UP, 1979)—tediously investigate buried anagrams or “hypograms” (roughly, piecemeal phonic “theme words”) in Greek and Latin verse from early times through 1810-1820 (in the case of late Latin inscriptions) and in fact right up until 1909! “Like a permanent manufacturer’s secret,” conventionally subtextual “theme words” seemed to de Saussure to name the public subjects of literary works, though literary history is totally silent about the practice. In more than 140 notebooks, de Saussure explored such buried artfulness in Saturnian verse, Homer, Virgil, Lucretius, Seneca, Horace, Ovid, “other Latin authors,” Carmina epigraphica, Angelo Politanus, and Vedic (early Sanskrit) texts—coining and defining such terms as “hypogram,” “paratext,” “syllabogram,” and “mannequin” to try to identify what he was finding (Starobinski, esp. vii, xi, 41, 101, 107ff.). De Saussure’s editor remains skeptical, suggesting that the theme words may generate themselves in some twilight realm halfway between the conscious will of the writer(s) and the nature of language itself—while de Saussure had tried to force an absolute dichotomy between “chance” and “conscious deliberation” to explain their presence (122-23). Though at least one confidant urged publication of the findings and pointed out parallels in French literature (127-28), it seems that de Saussure refrained from doing so because he couldn’t conclude absolutely that the patterns he found were consciously authorized.

          Perhaps the present discovery of another fully elaborated instance of hidden coterie composition calls for reexamination of de Saussure’s body of evidence. As a functional non-Latinist, I have no good basis for judging whether de Saussure’s exercises in early texts were self-delusional or not.

          More certain is the truth that Latin verse consistently played subtextual games with its readers. We know, for example, that in the 4th century C. E. at the court of Constantine, one Publius Optatianus Porfyrius wrote “an ingenious acrostic poem, dedicated to a high-ranking senator, that contained in its midst the letters of the name of the current lover of that high gentleman's wife” (Brown). And we know that the tradition of anagrammatic composition persisted in the Romance tradition into English practice. As O. B. Hardison commented in 1979, while he was director of The Folger Shakespeare library, “Much medieval verse had acrostic and other [similarly arcane] patterns. As I recall, a good deal of Irish classicizing verse of the sixth to eighth centuries illustrates this tendency. I ran across some of it in the Patrologia Latina several years ago. It’s mostly in Latin, with frequent use of Greek, and it’s entirely written by monks…. David Dumville had an article in the Journal of Theological Studies some years back identifying an acrostic in the Book of Cerne” (Hardison).

          The Grands Rhétoriqueurs (see below), active in France in the decades ca. 1500, are known to have produced “Latin poems that have a second meaning if read as if they were French” (McFarlane 37).

          One contemporary instance of literate gameplaying in late Latin occurs in a 1603 tribute to Henry Wriothesley (Shakespeare’s patron, Southampton) that wrests the Latin anagram “THESEUS NIL REUS HIC RUO” from the form “HENRICUS URIOTHESLEUS,” with appended verses illuminating otherwise obscure topicality by explaining how “because of a false charge brave Theseus (Southampton) had come to grief though not a criminal” (Akrigg 138). Another kind of coy Latinate wordplay that Shakespeare would have known is the chronogram, “an inscription, sentence, or phrase in which certain numeral letters usu. made specially conspicuous express a particular date or epoch on being added together (as in the motto of a medal struck by Gustavus Adolphus in 1632—ChrIstVs DVX; ergo trIVMphVs—the capitals of which, added as numerals, make 1632)” (Webster’s 3rd).

          Discussing traditional “Tricks in Writing” that he disapproved of, the neoclassicist Joseph Addison attributes a diversity of playful genres, overt and subtle, to Ancient writers, both Roman and Greek. These genres include “Poems in Picture,” poems that intentionally banish a given letter from the alphabetic canon, rebuses, echo poems, limited-word exercises, acrostics, anagrams, chronograms, puns, and so on (Spectator Nos. 58-61). Aristotle’s (approbative) commentary on puns in his Rhetoric (3.11.7) employs the now unfamiliar term paragram —“a kind of play upon words, consisting in the alteration of one letter or group of letters of a word” (OED). The game elements Addison mentions were in their day “open” practices. Caesar wittily used a rebus-like “Figure of an Elephant upon the Reverse of the publick Mony” because “the Word Caesar signif[ies] an Elephant in the Punick Language” and because it would have been technically illegal for him (then a master of the mint and “private Man”) to have stamped his own figure on Commonwealth coins (Spectator No. 59; see Bond I:244ff.).

          Addison theorizes that certain word and composition games “vanished in the refined Ages of the World” only to “discover themselves again in the Times of Monkish Ignorance,” and for this he blames medieval monks “who wanted Genius for higher Performances” but spent “many Hours in the Composition of such Tricks in Writing as required much Time and little Capacity” (No. 60). The commonplace that Latin was the chief language of Europe’s (and England’s) literate population—notably clerical—during the long Middle Ages leads us to conclude that most of the gamy writing in the West, much of it no doubt lost or forgotten, must have been exercised in the language of the Romans (see Bond I:253-54).

          Addison’s reductio ad absurdum example of the “false wit” he personally deplored in verse is a late Latin example, the eight-word line “Tot, tibi, sunt, Virgo, dotes, quot, sidera, Coelo”—”Thou hast as many Virtues, O Virgin, as there are Stars in Heaven”—that closes “the Epigrammatum selectorum libri v (Antwerp 1616) of the Jesuit poet Bernard van Bauhuysen (or Bauhusius).” “[A]ccording to its author [the line] could be arranged in 1,022 ways without impairing the sense or metre” (Bond I:254).

          George Puttenham, a literary critic and contemporary of Shakespeare’s whom the young poet may well have read, writes in The Arte of English Poesie (1589) about earlier poets who composed in Latin. Puttenham believes, perhaps mistakenly, that “Latines of the ciuiller ages” such as Ovid cultivated rhyme and not much else in the way of formal invention, and that later Latin poets “had leasure as it seemes to deuise many other knackes in their versifying that the auncient and ciuill Poets had not vsed before.” Puttenham’s examples include “Hugobald the Monke who made a large poeme to the honour of Carolus Caluus, euery word beginning with C,” and another poet who composed “a verse of such wordes as by their nature and manner of construction and situation might be turned backward word by word” to make another “perfit verse, but of quite contrary sence.” His example of the latter is a full couplet that can be inverted word-by-word. Puttenham—vague about dates and venues—says “they called [this technique] Verse Lyron” (Puttenham 14-15). Whether the close parallel with “Le rune” here is coincidental or not is an interesting question to me.

          Ben Jonson’s famous backhanded compliment mentioning Shakespeare’s “small Latin and less Greek” overstates the case, since Will “had, by modern standards, a very adequate command of Latin”—as well as French and Italian (Abrams 1227). In Will’s day, of course, Latin practices would still have influenced vernacular writers both directly and indirectly, since Latin persisted as a functional academic and clerical idiom.

          4. Precedents in Old English. The Anglo-Saxon or Old English period (ca. 450-1100) ended not very long after 1066 with the infusion of Norman French—which is, of course, a Latin-based or Romance language—into English, from birth a Germanic tongue. The linguistic and literary patterns and conventions that Will inherited 500 years later had, during the Middle English period (ca. 1100-1500), blended the two traditions into Early Modern English. Although Anglo-Saxon used the Latin or Roman alphabet (plus a few other characters), various inscriptions in England and western Europe employed another, already archaic alphabet designated “runic” or “futhark”—the latter an acrostic name (like “ABCs”) comprising its first seven letters, FUTHA[or O]RK. A “rune,” then, in the OE period, was most basically a single character in the futhark alphabet. Like the ABCs but more so, the runes were vestigially pictographic: Each letter had a name—like Deor or Thorn—that seemed to animate it with mythic identity. Angular and easy-to-carve, the runes were “never a literary script” but were connected with “cult and secret forms of writing” and used “mainly on memorial stones, or on objects such as weapons, rings, and clasps” (Gaur 128). “In the 7th century Irish and Roman missionaries went to considerable pains to suppress this script—no doubt because of its association with heathen practices—and replace it by the Roman alphabet” (128).

          Surprisingly, there’s no agreement that the runes are a “primordial Germanic script”; among many theories of origin, the “majority view” is that futhark “arose from a North Italian, Etruscan-based alphabet probably sometime in the lst century BC” (128). The common impression that the Runes must have originated in Northern Europe no doubt grows from the etymology of the “name (Old Saxon run—secret; Old Irish run—secret; Middle High German rune—secret, whispering)” and also from the relative prevalence of runestones in Northern (rather than Southern) Europe, from the assimilation of incidental runic characters into OE riddles and poems, and from the eventual development of the verb forms runian (OE), later “to roun/rown/round,” meaning “to whisper.” The word “rune,” having effectively died out except in combination forms (e.g., runestone 1151, rune stave OE) well before the Renaissance, was reintroduced into English (OED 1690) to name the alphabetic characters of what is now called futhark.

          The coy runic “signatures” embedded by the OE hagiographer Cynewulf in four poems seem to prove that coterie composition existed in some measure among Anglo-Saxon writers, and his use of futhark characters suggests some latter-day alliance with time-honored literary mysteries. The fact that Cynewulf’s inside game was found only in the 19th century—in four works that had been known about and studied since the Renaissance—reminds us that things new under the sun can sometimes be found in old texts, and that our discovery of earlier English literature is ongoing. Two mid-19th century scholars simultaneously disinterred most of Cynewulf’s known canon, and a third added to it some decades later. Jakob Grimm, in his edition of Elene (1840), reported quite matter-of-factly his discovery of the identity of Cynewulf:

At line 1258 eight runes are inserted and woven into the poem which conceal for us the name of the poet and which put together clearly give CYNEVULF. That among the Anglo- Saxons letters were used for such playful purposes as early as the seventh and eighth centuries is evident in Aldhelm’s Latin poems. (qtd. Calder 13)

With more excitement and in more personal terms, J. M. Kemble explains the process by which in the same year he found the embedded CYNEWULF in not one but three poems—Elene, Christ, and Juliana —and deduced that the runic sequences were “signatures” (see Calder 13-14). And “in 1888 Arthur Napier managed to see ‘the familiar runes of a Cynewulf acrostic’” in yet a fourth ms. text, The Fates of the Apostles, extant only in a “mutilated and illegible” text that had made earlier deciphering difficult (Calder 15, quoting a 1957 article on the discovery).

          Since medieval literature was routinely anonymous, the personal impulse to “sign” the work secretly as Maker must have been strong. (Shakespeare in effect does the same in Q—with his “Will” poems, and in hundreds of more covert gestures.)

          Despite our sober stereotypes—which may grow largely from the preeminence of Beowulf, a serious epic—and despite their heavy emphasis on religious subjects, Anglo-Saxon writers did compose playful and even delicately arcane works. Prominent in The Exeter Book or Codex Exoniensis, where three of the Cynewulfian texts occur, are a large body of anonymous riddles of intriguing complexity. Indeed, the Anglo-Saxons “liked riddles, and poems which went in circles,” and they combined in their art “a certain deviousness” with the cultivation of “an air of plain bareness.” Such “love of ambiguity, innuendo and word-play… remains a distinguishing characteristic of the English language to this day” (McCrum and others 62).

          The literate early coteries after the advent of Christianity in England and throughout the scribal period surely would have centered themselves in the clerical houses and scriptoria—the writing and book producing “factories” of the day—though courtly patrons and other privileged aristocrats must have enjoyed their works, too. The theory that the monks whiled away their time with private writing games for their own and other monks’ amusement is in fact a debated commonplace. (Pearl editor Charles Moorman wrote me in 1977, responding to the Pearl Rune and related material, that it “strikes me as esoteric” and that personally he had “just never been convinced that authors [or…scribes?] left messages in cypher.”)

          The recognized capacity of medieval art to embrace sacred and secular matter coevally and without apology would have allowed a broad intermixture of gameplaying with genuinely felt (or at least not necessarily spurious) devotion in literary works. In many cases—as in most of the Riddler’s pieces in The Exeter Book—the overt materials are themselves secular, even frank. Riddle 73, for example, embeds (in reverse order) futhark characters that form the consonant frame for PISS, a suitable “answer” to the riddle about a man “going on the way swiftly” and a woman “sitting alone” (Williamson). The “Rhyming Poem,” a late and elaborate OE work, shows “playfully erudite poetic obscurantism, both formal and linguistic—that is, poetry of intense and intentional difficulty, in both the composing and the deciphering.” The work is a kind of hybrid, with mainly Latin precedents, employing the “experimental poetics of the Irish and Carolingian Latinists, the so-called hisperic style, and the supremely mannered, ‘hermeneutic’ style of the tenth-century Anglo-Latin poets.” The poem shows signs that the writer “relished all the alphabet poems, acrostics and double acrostics, pattern poems (or carmina figurata), …obsessive alliteration, new rhythmic meters, rhyming, and multilanguage wordplay.” From “Old Norse Skaldic poetry” the author may have also known precedents of “strict forms and puzzling diction.” And in earlier Irish poetry, had he been familiar with it, the author would have enjoyed “intricate patterns of rhyme and alliteration, and…obscurity.” All in all, this difficult OE poem “is really quite typical of the formal rigor and obscurantism that characterize the neighboring poetic traditions.” It has “playfully erudite obscurantism,” is written in a “language-obsessed, elusive, riddling, and punning style,” and in effect “bursts with meaning—many meanings” (Earls, 188-89, 195). Such details refute “many Anglo-Saxonists” who “resist the idea of genuine punning in Old English poems” (193).

          My own findings before 1979 expand what has previously been known or postulated about the covert complexity of Anglo-Saxon literary artifacts by showing that, in the case of the Riddles of The Exeter Book, some of them (at least) embed their own ambiguously concurrent “answers,” scenarios rather than single-term solutions, and thus show elaborate suppressed design and other cryptic features that elevate them from naive snippets to the status of works exhibiting tediously detailed craftiness (see The Runic Beowulf). Briefly, I have found that in certain cases one can decipher a riddle’s hidden “answers” by taking the authorized lines of the text and stretching them onto a letterbox grid, flush left. Reading “down,” one extrapolates an acrostic linestring code to be deciphered. And then one goes at it—a tedious, frustrating, and finally open-ended process with ambiguous outcomes that are authorially framed and guided.

          Deciphering the runic codelines in the Riddles, one treats the letterstrings exactly as one does in the process of detecting the punning “hidden meanings”—as I have illustrated above—in the letterstrings generated by Will’s wordings in the Q lines. As parts of subtextual or runic codes, alphabetic symbols take on broader potentialities than conventionally spelled wordstrings allow. Runic codes, in other words, comprise letterstrings rather than wordstrings. Punctuation (which of course operates to signal syntax) thus takes a back seat; in medieval use, in fact, punctuation is hardly operative—is random at best. (Even the separation of letter-groups into word units was a progressive scribal refinement in universal practice: Scribes penning very early mss. did not space between words.) In Shakespeare’s day, punctuation was of course still far less rule-bound and prescriptive than it has since become, and spellings were flexible; thus a trickster writer could still maintain a concurrent mental focus on overlaid wordstrings and letterstrings more easily then than he or she might today.

          The precedent in the Riddles, as I have said, and the pattern they provided was one key that helped me unriddle the Quarto. A segment of an academic paper I presented in Tempe at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Society conference in February 1996 offers one example of the cornucopic materials encoded in a very small segment of the Exeter Book Riddles:


Riddle 68 (Krapp and Dobbie, p. 231; Thorpe, VII, 483; see K&D No. 36, p. 198; Thorpe XXXVII, p. 418)

I C     p A   W I H T     G E S E A H            O N     W E G      F E R A N
H E O     WÆS     WRÆT L I C E               W U N D RU M       G E G I E R W E D

The riddle translates, “I saw the creature / going on the way.
                               It was curiously, / wondrously equipped.”

The five scenarios below emerge from the acrostic code and provide “answers”:

     1) An ice-bound ship, decorated with ice like a Christmas tree—with irony in the fact that it is stuck, not moving on its way. 2) A rat, eying cheese greedily. 3) An obese glutton. 4) A knife-wielding wife trying to castrate her husband. 5) One or more squinty-eyed riddle solvers, people like us:

I. I H C E O p A W Æ W S I H W T R Æ G T E L S I E C A E H O W N U N W D E R G U M F EG R E A G N I E R W E D
     Is-ea    pa   wæs.    Ic   wat rewet æl-isig [seoc]. Æghwanon weder ym.      Fierr   ea    ge-nierwede.

     The Ice-Bound ship: Then was the sea ice. I observed a vessel covered with ice.
                                        From all sides, weather surrounded. Ahead, the sea closed in.

II. I H C E O p A W Æ W S I H W T R Æ G T E L S I E C A E H O W N U N W D E R G U M F EG R E A G N I E R W E D
     Ic seah pa  wawa  si hiwed [siht(re)], ræt æl ciesæ hogian [ghogienne?] wider ym feorh, eage nierwede.

     The Rat: I saw then misery be fashioned, a rat
                    eternally intent on all cheese, slit-eyed.

     Ic seah pah æwis-æter(e),    æt      til    cies,  æg-hwa nun wider ym.  Fær [Fearh] eage nierwede.

     The Glutton: I saw the notorious eater thriving. He ate until he was choosy.
                     None was wider around. The fare narrowed the eye.

IV. I H C E O p A W Æ W S I H W T R Æ G T E L S I E C A E H O W N U N W D E R G U M F EG R E A G N I E R W E D
     Ic seah pe æw(e) si hiwed riht, æl ciew æg-hwanon wod ear ym. Fyran [Fyrian,…Fær eagan…] ierre-wedd.

     The Irate Wife: I saw the lawful wife be married right. Every kind of strife raged
                              from all sides, the earth over. (Her) angry pledge, to castrate (him).

V. I H C E O p A W Æ W S I H W T R Æ G T E L S I E C A E H O W N U N W D E R G U M F EG R E A G N I E R W E D
     Ic seah pa wea, suht, rædel-seoc, æg-hwa, nun witter. Ymb-fer [far? cf. ymb-faran, ymb-feran] eage, nierwede.

      The Riddle-Solver(s): Then I saw woe, sickness, each one riddle-sick, none wise.
                                            The eye goes (went?) round and round, squinted.

      The anagrammatic reading in solution II that produces “cheese” from the string SIECAE is strongly suggested by its context. Though anagrams may seem more “far-fetched” than sequential phonic strings, they appear to be active in the Riddler’s set of tricks—as they are in Cynewulf’s. (Contextually, no gamy reading is really too playful. Though one can hardly insist on strict syntax, a player must try hard to respect it.)


     An alternate arrangement of the implicit codebox in Riddle 68—comprising four half-lines, rather than two full lines—looks like this:

I  C       p A     W I H T    G E S E A H
O N     W E G      F E RA N
H E O    WÆ S      W RÆ T L I C E
WUN D R U M      G E G I E R W E D

          Phonically clustered to help the eye unsnarl it, the inherent acrostic codeline is as follows:


          The opening vertical acrostic string IOHWC seems to tell us that we are on track here because it suggests OE geoc (yoke) and also a Latinate pun on “joke.” The “wondrous creature” that “moves along the track” of a scripted line here, indeed, is on one level the poet’s own riddlic witticism.

          Below are two readings of this codeline. Each reading occurs first in OE, and then as an expanded translation, with comments.

     [O] eow cine geonap, wita eower. Giwie same gif eow giet run tell [tilie], is ierre-cwead.
                                 …widuwe-ar [i.e., a messenger bereft, like a widow with a dead husband]

Forever a folded sheet of parchment, your councilor, opens its yawning mouth to speak to all of you. I ask whether even now the rune, in this manner, might be speaking to you […is still working you over]. Is it still a raging shit?

          Here one seems to hear the Riddler’s voice, coming across as if by medieval FAX.

          The kenning ierre-cwad, ire-dung, suggests “verbal diarrhea” from some distressed, free-flowing source, either the Riddler or us—likely, both. My “translation,” I think, is not licentious.

          A second decoding effort unearths newfound shards of the Riddler’s scholarly polyglot wit, however one sorts out its inherent syntactic potentialities:

2) IOHWC                                                               NEU      ONp         WDA EW
    Geoc(e) [“Yoke,” “Rescue”; cf. “joke,” L. jocus] nu onywep [aegnep] Wita [,] eow [,…eower…]

      …RGÆUW   S      MI   FHEWGTRRE      AÆ      GGNTIELE S      I      RECWAEEHD
           raew        is         me fugitare [L.],           a gentilis [L. adj.],         a (?) requieta [L. adj.]
     …E r o s [L., punning on errare, to err]         …cf. gentil [OF], genitalis [L]
     cf. “error” [OF, L]
          cf. Jesus, giu [OF, cf. L]               cf. Eric…                          …Eric, vade [L.].

At this point the Sage unveils (claims as his own) a joke (…yoke that links you to me, a burden;… rescue or help): [This alphabetic] row is for me to keep running away (from you) […is always speeding away from me (to you)], forever as intimately linked with you as family, forever rested up [i.e., showing no sign of strain from the “chase,” with a pun on the sense “dead forever”].

          Who is running from whom, and who or what stays perpetually rested—the facts seem vague in this iohwc neu. The syntactic ambivalence of “you/your” (code EWR) allows various “swing” readings. The ending code-clusters suggest “Eric the Gentile—born, gone,” or some such. Concurrent puns on “Jew,” “Jesus,” “Eros,” and “error” compound the joke, as do plays on “gentility” and “genital[s].” In one alternative, the Wita calls himself a Jew—suggesting Eros and Jesus as alternate possibilities!—and seems to talk of “running from the Jew,” putting himself among the “unrequiet[ed],” those perpetually seeking rest. Puns on “quiet” and “quit” (cf. L., OF) lie in the codeline terminus CWAEEHD, and the play “eerie quiet” is not out of range. A “code” pun (ME, cf. L. codex, “book”) may also inhere.

          In any case, the codeline phonics insistently adumbrate the Latinate forms fugitare, gentilis (an adjective that has to do with kinship), requieta, and vade, plugged into the OE string. Though “joke” is anachronistic, my belief is that here we see a witty OE scholar moving toward expanding the English lexicon with inkhorn nonce words (esp. from Latin and OF), much as Shakespeare and other creative geniuses did later.

          The letterstrings EWR and IOHWC, heightened in the codestring, seem likely to be yet another nameplay—a two-part anagram, EWR/IOHWC, “Eric.” Together these strings may also pun “Eower [Your] Joke,” with the pun on “yoke” (linkage, burden). The “yoking” of all the possible names here expands the Riddler’s “yoke.” The name “Eric” appears to recur in the codeline as RREAÆGG, and also near the end of the codestring in IREC WAEEHD (cf. “Eric, vade [L. go]…”). Among many readings, the end of the code might mean “Eric the Gentile, aye [forever] requited.”

          It seems possible that the codeboxes incorporate puns not only “Eric” but also on the place name “Chelsea.” In both the two- and the four-line forms, the visually linked endings ECIL… [l. 3, reversed] and …SEAH [l. 1] may play on that place name (OE Ceal-chyd ). (My explorations of Riddle 38 reinforce this possibility to point hypothetically toward one Eric of Chelsea as the Riddler—or one of the Riddlers—whose works the Exeter Book preserves.

          Riddle 68 must stand for a number of other OE riddles I’ve explored and at least partly decoded.


           Another nexus of suppressed, previously undetected coterie wit lurks, I believe, in the emphatic scribal characters heading the Beowulf manuscript. The one-line opening


has traditionally been ignored as the scribe’s purely decorative calligraphic flourish. My own, original suggestion is that the line, concurrent with its meaning in the continuing phrase, communicates as a coterie pun on the order of “Hwæt Weard! “ (“Behold the Lord!”) and “Hwæt Wyrd!” (“Lo, the Mystery!” “Observe Fate!”)

          Additionally, the opening textual segment may encode the authorized signature of Æthridge (Ethelridge, Hedric), naming the lost Beowulf poet—much the way the name Cynewulf is encoded elsewhere: The opening lines, I believe, pun Hwæt wyrhta Ædhrycg, witega… (Behold, the writer, Æth’ridge, seer…). (See my monographs “The Runic Beowulf,” [1979] and “Bardic Wit in the Bold-Faced Beginnings of Beowulf: HWÆT WE GARDE…” [1997]).

       5. A Precedent in Middle English: The Pearl Rune.
The hidden foyer that led me circuitously into the Great Lost Chamber of the Quarto was, almost by happenstance, the medieval poem Pearl (ca. 1360-95 [Gordon]), mentioned earlier. “The Pearl Rune,” the 21-line runic poem that I discovered inside the larger ms. of Pearl and restored to what I believe is its authorized form, was for me the key template that helped outline the general patterns of medieval runic practice which Shakespeare eventually inherited as centuries-old conventions. This poem, circulated here for the first time in hard print, is the only instance from the late Middle Ages that I have firsthand knowledge of—uniquely original knowledge, as it happens—and so I use it here as a primary example of runic practice from this period. (The practices already mentioned that occurred in Latin verse and other verse in the early scriptoria can be presumed to have persisted concurrently through the scribal period and until the advent of printing.)

          The instance below also allows a chance to support and clarify my working hypothesis that one Hugh-John Massey of the Royal Hall may be the great lost poet of Chaucer’s era—perhaps a historical truth perpetuated by oral tradition inside the runic coteries, right up until Shakespeare’s own day. I have no absolute sense that Q demonstrates knowledge of Hugh-John and/or John or Hugh Massey, but some patterns of puns (see the index) do suggest that possibility, and so I offer the theory for further study.

          The runic text as it occurs below comprises in reverse order the 21 emphatic ms. lines in Pearl. It reads, first, as a kind of discrete lyric poem, with features of a dramatic dialogue; when understood, it becomes on one level the “lost pearl” of the poem’s allegory, a carefully crafted “gem”—with layered accretions adding to its luster—that the dreamer/speaker has “buried” in the process of serving God’s higher purpose. Though the reverse sequence seems to me to make more sense that the straightforward string of emphatic lines in the ms., I think it likely that the author intended the string to be playfully “reversible,” line-by-line.

          The modestly edited version below punctuates scribal lines and heightens what I think may be an inherent numerological structure, with a 13-line center section housing the conversation between the dreamer/poet—who denigrates himself as “the jeweler, little to praise”—and his designated auditor, the Queen of Heaven. (In the full text of Pearl she is identified with the “lost pearl” of the main narrative. Various conventional interpretations include the idea that the poem is a lament for a dead daughter who, in the Dreamer/speaker’s vision, becomes a bride of Christ, serving his greater glory.) One notable pattern is the tendency to accumulate and catalog kennings that rename the Maiden listener—”matchless maid,” “His mild,” “Grace enough,” “that damsel,” and so on. Such epithetic decoration, conventional since the age of Homer, occurs in the early OE lyric “Cædmon’s Hymn.” In Q, Shakespeare adapts the pattern by proliferating abusive names for Ann and (to a lesser degree) for other players in his personal drama.

          As we can now see, the “pearl” that has been “buried” and sacrificed to a higher good is, in one important sense, the elaborately crafted poem itself, which we are now observing and hearing; thus all the epithets take on double meaning everywhere they occur by describing what is “made”:

The Pearl Rune

Delyt me drof in y3e & ere,                  [l. 1153]
Ry3t as pe maynful mone con rys.          [l. 1093]
As John hym wryte3 3et more I sy3e,      [l. 1033]
If I pis mote pe schal vn hyde.                   [l. 973]

“Motele3 may, so meke & mylde,                  [l. 961]
Neuer-pe-lese cler I yow by-calle,                  [l. 913]
‘Thys Jerusalem Lonbe hade neuer pechche’.” [l. 841]
“Maskelles,” quod pat myry quene,                [l. 781]
“Ihsuc con calle to hym hys mylde.                   [l. 721]
Grace in-nogh pe mon may haue                      [l. 661]
Of more & lasse in Gode3 ryche.                    [l. 601]
The date of pe daye pe Lorde con knaw        [l. 541]
That cortayse is to fre of dede.”                    [l. 481]
“Blysful,” quod I, “may pys be trwe.”            [l. 421]
Thenne demed I to pat damyselle,                [l. 361]
“I halde pat iueler lyttel to prayse.                [l. 301]
O perle,” quod I, “in perle3 py3t.”               [l. 241]

More pen me lyste, my drede aros.              [l. 181]
The dubbement dere of dou & dale3—         [l. 121]
Fro spot my spyryt per sprang in space,          [l. 61]
Perle plesaute to prynces paye.                        [l. 1]

          An interpretive paraphrase, which necessarily sacrifices interesting ambiguities, shows the hidden poem’s coherence and rhetorical force. The restatement below attempts to retain the sense of the original, along with its connotative flavor, tone, and imagery—and wherever possible, to keep the four-stressed, caesura-marked alliterative line. While “you” in line 4 may be the Maiden auditor who converses in the center part of the poem, the poet also seems to address any reader—including modern auditors who need to have the poet’s “spot,” his hiding place, revealed to us.

     Delight overcame me, eye and ear,
     As powerfully as a rising moon;
     I saw even more than John writes down—
 4  Whether I can disclose this spot to you.

     “Spotless Maiden, so meek and mild,
     Clearly I call to you nevertheless.”
     “This Lamb of Jerusalem had never a flaw—
 8  Was Matchless,” said that Joyful Queen.
     “Jesus can call to himself all his meek.
     There is grace enough for man to partake,
     Great and small, in the Kingdom of God.
12 The Lord can foresee exactly the day
     Such heavenly grace works too lavishly.”
     “Blest One,” I answered, “may all this be true.”
     Then to that Damsel I declared,
16 “I consider the jeweler little to praise,
     O Pearl,” I said, “in pearls adorned.”

     More than I wished, my fears revived.
     The dear adornment of downs and dales,
20 From that spot my spirit sprang up in due time,
     A pleasing pearl, fit for a Prince.

      Glosses: 3) John i.e., [in Revelation]; 4) spot = mote = walled city, debate, flaw(ed work); 11) Great and small = more & lasse, maybe a pun on “Moor and lass”; 14) be trwe may pun on bete rawe, i.e., “amend [the] row [i.e., the verse line]”; 18) my fears revived = my drede aros, maybe the ambig. figurative pun “mid red arrows” (sunrise?); 20) From that spot = Fro spot, maybe the pun “from stain (i.e., sin), from disputation.”

          Of course, other readings and constructions of these somewhat ambiguously related lines are possible. For example, the “drede” that “arose” (l. 18) may be ironically the “dear adornment” of earthly life (l. 19)—for fear is at once “costly,” “difficult,” and “precious” for being an aspect of earthly existence (see OED).

          Astoundingly, the Pearl Rune seems to be alphabetically “reversible,” in the sense that a letter-by-letter code admits a phonic reading. In this part of the game, the scribe’s shorthand (including superscripts, customary short forms—e.g., for “Jesus” and “Jerusalem”—and the ampersand) help the author find the “right” letters to accomplish alphabetic reversibility. A reader/player becomes a gamester who cooperates with the cipher-maker or Runemaster in trying to find sense in the sequence, so what is below must be regarded as an attempted “playthrough” that incorporates some conjectural details (reading of codestrings as representing certain names and place names) which tend toward the hypothesis that the author of Pearl was one “Massey.”

          In doing so my work ties in with and is partly responsive to various conjectures about “Hugh or John Massey” as the great “missing author” of Chaucer’s era. (See below.)

          The reverse alphabetic code below, in piecemeal units, shows my attempts at medieval decipherings and modern interpretations. Some gamy peripheral side-readings occur along the way:

ERE & E3Y I FOR DEM           TYLED
Euer & ay I for deme [Dame,The Virgin] tiled.
Euer & ay In. [ = Jn. = John] for deme tiled.
Ere & y3e   in       fordeme                      tiled.

Forever and ever I, John (?), pursued intellectual labors, reason, wisdom—and worked in the Virgin’s service. (The ear and eye [of author and reader/player] toiled in condemnation.)


Sir, no synne homme luf in gome [gome] pis atire3
Siren [L.] o3te (?) nome [gnome] lufian…

Sire, the man who cloaks this in a game does not exalt sin. (Let man not praise the sinful aspects, or the errors, in the game—or man—that attires this.) (The charmer ought to praise the gnome-like protector of treasure, or the gnomic maxim, that cloaks this.)

3ys, I euer homme tech. 3et I rune who [hu, hwo] Jesus saued.
3e, sire, homme tech.
     I, Sir,                         … I rune “Hosea…”

Yes, [Lord,] I am always instructing man; even now I who[m] Jesus saved whisper (…even now I whisper how [that] Jesus saved).

Y3e vn-loks [vn-lachches] re tom sir’ I fede lym—& eke Massey [?] am.
                             …pe toumbe…
?Johnny lease [i.e., “Lying John”]… fede [“decay”] …mosse [“bog”] I am.
?Johnny lyke3 pe toumbe… fade [“wither”] leman [lemon]-Dick…

Th’ eye unlocks the [burial place housing these] leisure times, long after I fed limb and existed as Massey—or …existed as a slough to sink into. [? I am “False John,,” “Dick the lover,…,” etc. The line seems clearly to play on names: Yhn, Tom, Deke, and perhaps Mosy. Earlier the encoded strings Nom and Nyame signaled that a part of the puzzle is to be to find the poet’s buried name.]

3elde to me [?Massey], elle3 I be wo, 3e are elle3 sely, pryuen.
“Yellow Tom” alakay [i.e., soldier] be, warrior—ilke [i.e., the same]. Sely th’ rune!

Give me your leisure, or else I will be grieved. Otherwise (that is, if you do not “yield to me”) you will be blessed and prosperous. (The rune is impoverished, repeating words like “warrior” in different forms to describe a cowardly man, and repeating “rune,” and also resorting to all these bad nameplays.)

Eke keep rune, daye be—in al my lesure—esy pe. Knew quo I rime ta3t…
                                                           null [OF]                  Jesu… Enoch…
                                   …Dobbin…                                            innogh

The rune can embed an addition (like a reinforcement of troops); the day can be full of leisure for me, and easy for thee. Those whom I taught how to versify have known…

…quo sely is a medle Massey, my3te hele, ake innogh vus, hi3e euer.
      “Silly Sammy”                    “Sammy”                     JHSU [reversed] EUER

…to whom a “Massey Medley” (cf. “melee,” implying struggle) seems sacred—both vigorous health and ache enough for us, forever to be exalted.

I am (g)nome pat go ne esy or gay, Sire 3e Duke.

I am a name (a spirit guarding a treasure, a maxim) that does not go easy or gay, Milord. [Here DOG reverses to “God.” Possibly Massey (?) plays on “Duke of Ghent/Gaunt,” though the term was not commonly used in Lancaster’s lifetime. The joke “Ye Dog” seems aimed at a primary courtly auditor, in on this civilized game. The reiteration of “Name” emphasizes all the nameplays in the code.]

Nie3 Salden                                                 ar hommes, fo, & knaw      hed       rol.
Nys selden ar…

Men approaching Salden [? Or, Seldom dumb] are the enemy, so they expect to see heads roll. (A possible allusion here to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.)

  pey   a dere    fo3t,  aye de pe  did      forfete         siese.
   pe y3e…               …a death…                       Is aisy…

They fought to the death [The eye struggled vainly but was overcome], and death—as usual—did seize the forfeit. (Or, They fought a death, and forfeited a death. Is easy….)

   3et     rokke   to3t    Writ be, syp I am I[ohn?] quo luf sillables.
     I at ROC [a place name?] tau3te…

Even now (as you can witness), my writings (like Holy Writ) are a Solid Rock—like an invulnerable fortress—since I am John (with a pun on the Scripture’s “I am That I Am” and an implicit comparison of the John of Revelation and other Biblical Johns) who might “love syllables.”

     I made   aye pat   I  demed   innate,

I always created what I judged to be natural, inherent in my materials and part of my inner nature,

Es3er, put littel relef [a pun on “scraps”], y3e [pun: aye] to pe delyt3. Ye pale. R.I.P.

…and included easier bits and pieces; the eye also delights you. I see that you turn pale. Requiescat in Pace. Rest in peace.

Ne I quelle repos ouer aye dare, deme to solemne.
Nigh… R.I.P., aye, sore y3e…

(Sarcastically:) Of course I would not dare to come near you and kill your repose forever—much too serious a fate to contemplate.

per hommes 3e lad & yow at forehed teme
hommes y3e-lyd… ?O, Duke…

There you and the men (whom) you led put your heads together (“team at the foreheads”)

Be but dep escape [cuppe], Seignior, rys rest [erp] to your y3e.

This rest to your eye [This earth you see…] is only a (temporary) escape from death [only the bitter cup of death], My Lord.

ps hym to P[earl] is oure fayr.[The reading holds if code “P” = p = “th.”]
P. S. Um(b) top is Oure Fayr.
Passim (OED 1830, from L., “Scatteredly”): Topasye (cf. Pearl, l. 1012)
Piss ye, MetaPisser, Fey Ape.

This hymn to Pearl represents our faith. Note in closing—here at the bottom—that Our Faith is On High (“Around the Top”). Is this a gem (a Topaz) or a doomed wild animal? (Go on and piss, you Big Pisser, you Doomed Monkey.)

Sech   ner   pat     it      yourself schal R.I.P. [Requiescat in Pace].
Siese neuer…

May you never cease, so that it [this “hymn to our faith”] will eventually bring you eternal rest.

          A reasonably focused capsule version of the “hidden message” encoded in the alphabetic reverse of “The Pearl Rune”—one that cuts out some of the static of alternative readings but also pursues alternative possibilities that occur concurrently in the code, yields the following statement from the Pearl Poet to his Lordly auditor, and also to any one of us as a current reader. One senses a recurring “battle” motif: For the Runemaster is in control, and any reader (including, ironically, his “Lord”) is cast in an adversarial role:

            Always I, John (?), have pursued intellectual labors and the Doom of Christians. (Both my ears and eyes and yours are condemned to toil.) Sire, the man who cloaks this in a game does not exalt sin. Men should not praise the sinful aspects in the game—or man—that attires this. Yes, My Lord, I am always instructing man; even now I whom Jesus saved whisper the message of salvation. Th’ eye unlocks the burial place housing these leisure times of mine, long after I fed my body and existed as Massey [?]. Though I will be grieved if you do not give me your leisure, you must resist me to be blessed and prosperous.
           My rune can embed an addition—like a reinforcement of troops; the day can be full of leisure for me, and can also seem pleasant for thee. Those whom I taught how to versify have known to whom a challenging “Massey Medley” seems sacred—both vigorous health and ache enough for us, forever to be exalted. I am a name that does not go easy or gay, My Lord. Men approaching Salden, your stronghold, are the enemy, so one can expect to see heads roll. They have fought to the death, and death—as usual—seized the forfeit. Even now you witness that my writings (like Holy Writ) are a Solid Rock—an invulnerable fortress—for I am John who loves syllables, just as the Biblical Johns loved the Word. I have always created what I judged to be natural and inherent in my materials, and a part of my inner nature, but I have also included easier bits and pieces; your own eye adds delight.
           I see that you turn pale. Rest in peace. Would I dare come near you and kill your repose forever? Surely that’s much too serious a fate to contemplate! I see that you and your loyal men have put your heads together, to confront the present challenge. Remember that this rest to your eye—the leisure of this game—is only a temporary escape from death, My Lord. This hymn represents our faith. I remind you in closing that Our Faith in On High. May you never cease your work. May my message, even here, eventually help bring you to eternal rest.

         Other acrostic codelines and “gameboard” elements emerge in the gemlike text of “The Pearl Rune” when, following a clue laid in a textual pun about “smooth sides,” a player stretches the lines onto a letterboard grid measuring 21 x 33 characters, using an arrangement with justified margins and medial hiatuses in the lines that vary in width from one to a number of characters (see the monograph).

The Hugh-John Massey Hypothesis and the Quarto

          During 1977-79, variant puns I was unearthing on the name “Massey” in Pearl including those suggested in the decoding above led me to try—in privately published monographs but not in journal articles—to consolidate disparate bits of information and extant scholarly theories with my own observations and deductions so as to generate this hypothesis: One “Hugh-John Massey of the Royal Hall,” the Pearl/Gawain author, is the lost “Huchown” who was once much discussed (e.g., in the Cambridge histories) as the romance writer to whom many unattributed works clustering around 1400 might be credited; he is also “Maister Massy” whom Thomas Hoccleve—a student of Chaucer’s—mentions and praises in a poem ca. 1411-14 as a poet “fructuous…of intelligence,” prudent and benevolent, and mysteriously arcane. Hoccleve says, “For rhetoric hath hid from me the key / Of his treasure, nat deigneth his nobility / To deal with none so ignorant as me” (see my monographs “John Massey Un-hyd” and “Hugh-John Massey of the Royal Hall,” and cf. Greenwood, Nolan and Farley-Hills, and Peterson). The fact that the place name “Salden” (cf. the decoding above) occurs in connection with a “William Massey” in 1426 (see Wilson) helps explain why I “kept” it once it emerged from the code—though Wilson mentions the place name in the context of an argument that runs counter to the Hugh-John theory.

          The names “Hugh” and “John” Massey have both been proposed, then—along with William. Gardner, apparently following others without reinvestigation or clarification, discusses John of Massey as the Pearl/Gawain poet, and his “brother…the muralist Hugo of Massey.” “Huchown of Aule Rial”—i.e., “Hugh-John of the Royal Hall” is a shadowy figure praised in Andrew of Wyntoun’s Original Chronicle (ca. 1420?) as “curyousse in his stille, / Fayr of facunde and subtile, / And ay to pleyssance hade delyte, / Mad in metyr meit his dyte….”

          One original addition of mine to the Massey argument is to note provocative references in the Chaucer Life-Records to Johanni Meise—along with John de Massyngham, Johanne Meysinger, and Hughonis Bast. I’ve also argued that Chaucer’s tribute to the “strange knight” named Gawayne [i.e., John] in “The Squire’s Tale” (ll. 89-109) might be a tribute to Massey, with these italicized words punning on “massey” and on “hugh”: “He with a manly voys seith his message, / After the forme used in his langage, Withouten vice of silable or of lettre [i.e., with ‘letter-perfect’ composition, but with a pun on unheard’]” (lines 99-101). Other puns in the Chaucer passage include “You eyed a man live, O yes, see it, H.I. [cf. Hugh-Ion] is Massey, jester, the ass, our Massey denies language witty, hooting vice of syllable or of letter.” The early part of the pun on the name may encode “Hugh I., the man live…” and “Hugh I. (…eye), th’ M eye inly, oyssei, this Massey jester, this whore mused….”—where M…oyssei and Message may play on “Massey.” Some phallic play on “He with (Hugh ‘eyed’…) a manly 5 [inches], O, yes…” may also be active.

          These admittedly inconclusive materials about the great “missing author” of Chaucer’s era seem at least to merit further exploration, though the question is at best tangential here—introduced to establish the context of discovery in which I first went searching for runic gaminess in Q.

          As to the relevance of this lost arcane poet to Q, I remain unsure about whether Q’s subtextual puns—such as the one above in the epigraph to this section, the ones indexed, and those explored below as examples—are convincing enough collectively to support the conclusion that Will worked with consciousness of the name (in any of its forms) and of Huchown of the Royal Hall (or John Massey) as an antecedent Runemaster (cf. index). The theory deserves exploration, especially because the gap between Will and Huchown would have only been about 200 years and because a famous conundrum in the Sonnets occurs in the perplexing pun “A man in hew all Hews in his controlling” (Sonnet 20.7, the “Master/Mistress” text). Though subject to many analyses, this string may pun “Amen, John, Hugh, all Hugh is John” and “A man, John Hugh, all Hughs in his controlling (…Hall using his cunt, rolling).” Close by is the pun “women’s souls eye Massey, the handy form, aye (…anew)” (Sonnet 20.8-9).

          Q’s routine form Heauen (as above, or, e.g., in Sonnet 29.12) also may encode Hugh-John—as “Heau-en.” Similarly, Q’s routine Muse (e.g., Rune 29.10) may encode “Massey.” And “…in my seeing…” (see, e.g., Rune 121.2) offers a purer pun on “John Massey eying (…in jellies wise, erring oftimes).” I have admittedly approached Q with the assumption that this figure may be the medieval Godfather of the Runes and perhaps am merely finding what I’m looking for.

          Other examples of possibly relevant nameplays may help readers form judgments on this matter:

     1. “How can my Muse want subject to invent, O, Hugh, thy worth, witty man, near as Massey in jet” (Rune 29.10-12), with plays on Hugh (how, hyw, hw) and “Massey, John” (mayIs in) in 11. “O, Hugh, thy worth witty may interest, Massey, John” is a variant (29.11). Construed as below, lines 8-11 are plausibly a covert apostrophe to Hugh John Massey: “As a decrepit father takes delight, / Hugh—seen, my Massey wan—’Tis you, becked to invent. / O, Hugh, thy worth with manners, Massey, John, je/t I….”
      2. Component forms of Hugh John Massey occur as Heaue, ine, w [=IN], and may s in Rune 42.5—a line about “heauens sun” that is “stained” with what may be a mea culpa error.
      3. “Massey, Massey, all see in this (…Hall scents; …lacing this)” (79.2, code may seeme ƒalce in this,).
      4. “Aye fey their antique pen, wood [crazy] Hugh expressed incertainties in O’s rown [rune], the Massey leaves azured (…as you read),” with variants (105A.8-9).
      5. “Wry John Massey eye in gales (galls, gules) wise, erring ofttimes t’ irony” (121.2-3). Concurrent puns include “In Massey aye (I) enjoy loss (…John Massey, aye enjoy loss…), wiser in ghosty ms.’d irony.”
      6. The pun “The Morning Son of Hugh-John Mas., our homme, myself” (131.6-7).
A possible play on “sage Huchown” can be decoded (or perhaps fabricated) from the acrostic preface to Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (see below).

       6. Other Late Medieval Precedents.
Various other instances before the Renaissance show possible links with runic practice.

          A. The Second Shepherd’s Play (ca. 1425). A narrow example of period word-magic, combined with wit, occurs in the anonymous Second Shepherds’ Play as the mischievous Mak “prays” in Latin the blasphemous prayer, “Thy hands I commend to Pontius Pilate” and then draws “a circill, as round as a moon” to proscribe and transfix the other shepherds while he steals a sheep of theirs (ll. 265-295; cf. Abrams I:315ff.). Such spell-casting is a pattern linked with the magic ring or “round,” residual in many games to this day and (I think) archetypally in the background of the “endless” runes. The incident antedates “diabolical” practices among coteries of Shakespeare’s day and also anticipates a similar but more melodramatic scene in Dr. Faustus (see below).

          B. Christine de Pizan (1364-c. 1430). Somewhat before the Rhétoriqueurs, this “first professional writer in Europe” (Wilkie and Hurt 1701)—and Chaucer’s younger contemporary— imitated Deschamps when she composed “strange” poems in French including a “ballade rétrograde” that “can be read equally well either forward or backward.” Biographer Willard reflects a typical modern bias against mixing game with poem—a post-Enlightenment either/or mindset that is not of the period—when she says, “These must, of course, be considered poetic games and not be taken seriously as poetry” (56).

          C. Coterie aspects in music. Late medieval music proliferates examples of tediously covert wit and arcane craftsmanship. Program notes at a concert I once attended explained that works by late 14th century composers in Southern France, near Avignon, hid puzzles and anagrams and alluded to secret societies—called, I believe, “smokers.” According to Sachs, a music historian, the stereotype in “cheap music ‘history’” is that “the later Middle Ages…strangled the soul of music in contrapuntal tricks and artifices.” (Sachs sees the bias as a nearly absolute post-Romantic scorn of “structure” in favor of expressive emotion.) “Contrapuntal tricks and artifices” were common in Franco-Netherlandish music of the period, which was often “calculated and constructed” to include palindromic (or “crab”) and “mirror” canons of intricate variety, and secret directions for performance that read like puzzles and riddles; these “last fulfillment[s] of the architectural, constructivistic mind that ruled the later Middle Ages” gave “works of art a secret meaning behind the outer, perceptible appearance and…reserve[d] the key to the free-masonry of those initiated.” Composers carried out “intricate attempts at unity in variation, at variation in unity,” all “in an obvious disdain of sensuous perceptibility” (Sachs 96-98).

          Early musical counterpoint even offers an analogy for developing two concurrent sequences of materials such as those—the Sonnets and Runes—that Shakespeare constructs as running overlays in Q: “[Medieval] musicians considered a contrapuntal composition to be the simultaneous progress [my emphasis] of individual melodic lines. Even as late a man as Glareanus (1547) defined the Church modes of such individual lines, but never of a polyphonic composition as a whole” (96).


          As I have said, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose gives a vivid (if melodramatized) glimpse into a medieval scriptorium full of closely guarded literary secrets at the time of the Great Schism, 1387-1417, roughly the era of Chaucer and the Pearl poet. The concern at the top of the hierarchy in Eco’s fictive monastery for preempting the infectious influence of Aristotle’s “lost” treatise on Comedy—a companion to his influential Poetics (which is, of course, about tragedy)—surely reflects in some manner the real-world pulls that monks must have felt toward secular entertainment and away from piety. How to keep the secularity of the runes—where the language code itself, construed freely and punningly, persistently proffered the enticement of intrusive bawdry—from undermining the seminal sacred impulses in writings such as Pearl must have been an archetypal dilemma for devout writers in the runic coteries.

          Somewhere in my early studies of the runes—I can’t now reconstruct the context—I recall finding a codeline suggesting that “only God can read the Runes.” For language, as wielded by the Runemasters, seems indeed to have a magical, mysterious power to generate a baffling multiplicity of meanings and to play God by creating its own dynamic and infinitely fruitful microcosms.

       7. Renaissance Precedents and Analogues. So many parallels with Shakespeare’s runic practice exist in Renaissance art that any summary must be as list-like as possible, lest this unit expand itself into volumes. Below I mention the practices of some writers and artists outside the English circle close to Shakespeare. Much went on in plain sight, though some instances—which, of course, we have vaguer knowledge of—show exclusiveness and coterie features. The workshop arrangement by which paintings were produced through the Renaissance, a medieval inheritance designating roles of Master and apprentice, tended in itself to encourage in-group secrecy and even jealous cultishness as artists sought to guard their trade secrets. In any case, rarified practices always tend to shut out popular audiences and create in-group effects. Most practices listed here are page-based—not oral/aural—and presume not only literacy but visual interaction with the encoded materials. (One sees an acrostic, e.g., but generally does not hear it in a play without special verbal underscoring or visual aids such as placards.)

          A. Numbers. In Renaissance art and thought—with Biblical and medieval precedents—numbers routinely had mystical and substantive significance. Dante (1265-1321), Petrarch (1304-1374), and Boccaccio (1313-1375), especially, set the precedent for using numerological architectonics to build cyclic works. Dante’s Divine Comedy, e.g., shows the pattern 33 + 33 + 33 + 1 = 100 and is elaborately “governed, texturally and architecturally, by the numbers 3, 9, and 10” (Wilkie and Hurt 1382). Boccaccio’s Decameron, as its title hints, formally embodies two equations: 7 (women) + 3 (men) = 10 (tellers), and 10 (tellers) x 10 (days) = 100 (stories). Numerological theory—e.g., in astrology—was commonplace, and thousands of instances might be adduced where artists before 1600 toyed with numbers. The sonnet form itself, popularized by Petrarch, is a closed number system, really a numbers box, sensitive to patterns of 2, 4, 6, and 8. Petrarch’s Rhymes house 366 poems, with 99 of them in Part II; Petrarch’s Sonnet V embeds a form of “Laura” as an acrostic anagram (Armi 6-7).

           “Numbers” to Shakespeare actually denoted “metrical periods or feet; hence, lines, verses” (OED 1588). A Renaissance poet by definition dealt in numbers. Will’s titles are numerical, and each composition in Q is a “number.” Professionally, as he puns, Will was both an “adder” and a “summer” who tallied verses in the process of generating poems.

          B. The “Grands Rhétoriqueurs” (late 15th century, France). A close analogue to Shakespeare’s runic inventiveness exists collectively in the patterned verse games of the Grands Rhétoriqueurs, a school of French lyricists now critically denigrated as mere tricksters and little read, perhaps mainly because they seem too hard. Even their religious poems show preoccupations with “considerations of rhyme and metrical dexterity” and “a fondness for acrostic and pattern verses” (McFarlane 84-85). “The exercise [in a given poem] may be…complicated by acrostic, word-play with numerals (xi doit montrer xii et gent…), texts that ‘make sense’ also if read backwards. There are Latin poems that have a second meaning if read as if they were French, rondeaux capable of being read in twelve fashions…” (37).

          Morris Bishop describes the work of the Rhétoriqueurs this way:

They took the difficult forms of the Middle Ages, ballade, rondeau, etc., and made them more difficult, with the invention of fantastic refinements. They wrote poems with one syllable to a line, and others which had one meaning if read in the ordinary way, and an opposite meaning if one read the first halves of each line and then returned to read the second halves. They pushed the rhyme forward from the line’s beginning and back from its end until rhyme almost met in the middle. Their work is to medieval poetry what flamboyant architecture is to high Gothic. Their craftsmanship is still fascinating as ingenious verbal whimsy…. (84-85)

          C. The Columbus Cipher. Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) signed his name using a cipher whose symbology has not been conclusively read. Biographer Samuel Eliot Morrison discusses the Italian-born explorer’s four-line acrostic signature:


The last line is a Greco-Latin rendering of “Christopher.” Morrison tentatively decodes the form as “Servant am I of the Most High Saviour, Christ Son of Mary” (National Geographic).

          D. The Visual Arts. I recall reading about the fairly recent discovery that Michelangelo (1475-1564) craftily hid the shape of a human brain in a cloud form he painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling—presumably to symbolize human reason as the Creator’s gift. Instances of sly embeddings of “hidden messages,” “signatures,” artists’ self-images, and various tricks and arcane symbols in European art before 1600 are not at all rare, and contemporary discoveries of lost details that have been right before our eyes all along will surely be on-going. Renaissance art, in other words, was often playful, both in conventional ways taken for granted and in privately inventive ways known only to artists or within their coteries. Painters who coyly included images of themselves in their artworks reflect a mindset much like that of the prankish, egocentric Rune-writers who were playing games with their once and future audiences.

          Barolsky discusses other aspects of Michelangelo’s playfulness, noting that he parodied “not only the conventions of the Petrarchan tradition but also his own Petrarchism” (59) and that in his art he “was constantly dealing with or commenting on” the “conventions” of art itself (65). Both aspects are also true of Shakespeare in Q, where the project itself, and doing it, becomes one of the main subjects in the cycle and its separate components.

           One of Michelangelo’s sketches, a study that “convert[s] the architectural profile [of the base of a column] into a human one by indicating the eye of a human face” (61, cf. 63) parallels Shakespeare’s conversion of his own medium—letterforms and typeforms, lines and spaces—into playful pictographs, including the “empty couplet” parentheticals closing Sonnet 126.

          E. Sprezzatura. Baldassare Castiglione’s famous book The Courtier (1528, translated 1561), widely influential in the Renaissance, established ideals of gentlemanly behavior that stressed sprezzatura or “suppressed design”—doing hard things (often varied and concurrently) and making them look easy, hiding complexity of effort behind an underworked-looking facade. Implicit in this notion is a combination of artful craftiness with good-natured deception and mildly dishonest manipulation of any observing audience—in short, with oneupmanship. (Will’s persona often worries that the surface of the Q texts is being overly marred by obvious “errors” that betray the strenuous effort going on in his bifurcated concurrencies; his “solution” is sometimes to lament his flawed craftsmanship publicly, while subtextually “blaming” somebody else—most often Thorpe, his printer.)

           F. Music. Renaissance and post-Renaissance music continued medieval conventions that included covert games, arcane exclusiveness, and inaudible textual intricacies. German composers practiced Augenmusick, using witty visual tricks that employed, e.g., whole notes wittily to represent “eyes.” J. S. Bach (1685-1750) sometimes wrote “bass progressions whose letter-notes form a signature or tribute” (Starobinski). As late as 1770, Mozart heard the Sistine Chapel choir “singing a Miserere by Allegri, a ‘secret’ piece whose written text was not allowed outside the chapel.” (Mozart perversely memorized it on the spot, wrote it down, went back once “to check his manuscript against another performance,” and corrected the “few minor errors” he’d made) (Jacobson).

           Shakespeare routinely puts music in his plays, is a skillful librettist, seems to allude to contemporary musicians in Q’s subtext (see Dowland, etc., in the index), uses musical terms in Q, and shows an interest in instruments of all sorts. Self-consciously, his poems are his music, and various overt and subtextual terms (song, chantey, ground, key, ode, note) and blatant conceits (e.g., in Sonnet 128) emphasize that reality. As a composer he probably absorbed much from the formalistic, numbers-based, and playfully exclusive ethos that permeated musical practices in his day, practices inherited through the system of Mysteries by which the arts and crafts persisted. Such practices, anyway, were consistent with attitudes that also governed literary production and that shaped its formal principles.

        8. Contemporary Coterie Practices in English. Though evidence is skimpy, by virtue of the subject itself, literary coteries and subtextual activities seem to have thrived during Will’s own area in variously documented forms.

          A. The School of Night.  Literary coteries were noted phenomena in Shakespeare’s day, as before and after—however ambiguous the conclusions one can draw from contemporary evidence. The “school of night”—alluded to obscurely in Chapman’s poem The Shadow of Night (1594), in Love’s Labor’s Lost (4.3.255), and maybe in Rune 91.2 (as “compeers by night”; cf. the index)—comprised a “coterie of intellectuals [including Raleigh, Marlowe, and Chapman] who were accused of discussing obscure and forbidden topics” during the 1590s; their rumored profane activities including spelling “God” backwards (Harrison 396).

          Raleigh’s purported affiliation with the School, incidentally, makes one wonder if somehow the famous rune-like “message” CROATOAN—all that remained after the Lost Colony disappeared on Roanoke Island, Virginia—might have been some kind of attempt at coterie communication. The word, however, is a variant spelling of a local place name, so perhaps only the lack of a syntactic context makes this tree-inscribed message cryptic.

          B. Marlowe’s Mumbo-jumbo. Turning “G-O-D” into “D-O-G” seems today a laughably innocuous form of word-magic but would have been more serious in an age that affirmed the presence of witches and prosecuted people for heresy. (One traditional test for witches was having them say the Lord’s Prayer backward.) Marchette Chute observes, “It would have been difficult to find anyone in the audiences at the Globe who did not believe in the powers of darkness” (273). Thus the Latinate incantations uttered by Christopher Marlowe’s hell-bent protagonist in Dr. Faustus (ca. 1592-93) show an instance of black magic and “concealèd arts” (1.1.103) colored, surely, by the titillating fact that in 1591 Marlowe’s former roommate Thomas Kyd, another playwright, had accused Marlowe of atheism—and treason, too. Thus Faustus must have seemed Marlowe’s alter ego when the character remarked that “necromantic books are heavenly: / Lines, circles, signs, letters, and characters—/ Aye, these are those that Faustus most desires” (1.1.50-52). Later, drawing a magic circle on the ground, Faustus comments, “Within this circle is Jehovah’s name / Forward and backward anagrammatized” (1.3.8-9). Mephistophilis refers to this inversion as “racking” the name.

          C. Love’s Labor’s Lost (perhaps 1594-95). Perhaps Shakespeare’s most “overt” coterie composition, this play pushes humor even beyond what a typical contemporary public audience “who knew all the latest jokes with words” (Chute 103) would have picked up on. Editor Harrison comments on the play’s “inexplicable lines, allusions, topicalities, jokes, and personalities so obscure and unintelligible that they bewilder even the most erudite of commentators” and—broaching again a very modern dichotomy and critical bias—notes that these elements have tended to make critics “leave the play to those who are more interested in literary puzzles than in poetry” (394, my emphasis). The play may have first been performed at “some great private house” (Harrison 395, quoting A. T. Quiller Couch and J. Dover Wilson), likely with Southampton a central courtly figure in its first audience. Such characters’ names as Berowne, Rosaline (cf. “Rows-align” “Risley nigh,” “‘Wriothesley!’ neigh”), and Dumaine (cf. “Deux main,” suggesting double-handedness) would have been heard, I think, as in-group allusions to runes, acrostic “rows,” “Wriothesley,” and “duplicitous writing.” The play’s origins seem likely to be linked with early, 1590s versions or sections of what eventually became the Q text—both angled in great measure toward a group of “private friends.”

          D. Willobie His Avisa (1594). This notorious and controversial book of verse offers a well-documented but still puzzling instance of contemporary coterie composition—and evidence for the popularity of the genre in Shakespeare’s London. Attributed to an Oxford student named Henry Willoughby, the work comprises “dialogues in which the chaste Avisa, in mediocre verse, rejects her would-be seducers.” The preface hints at an arcane subtexture when it states that “though the matter be handled poetically, yet there is some thing under these fained names and showes that hath bene done truely.” Elizabethan readers “must have found hidden meanings behind the poem’s bland repetitive moralizings, for Willobie His Avisa went through five editions in fifteen years, even though the authorities tried to suppress it in 1599” (Akrigg 216). The book’s “unriddling…has a particular interest for Shakespeareans” because of a passage that mentions “H. W.” (cf. Henry Wriothesley, i.e., Southampton) and “his familiar friend W. S.” in the context of theatrical references—and also because its prefatory verses contain the earliest allusion to The Rape of Lucrece. The “Avisa riddle” has led different interpreters to equate the book’s female moralist with Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and to detect in its pages “an attack launched against Southampton by Raleigh’s friends” (Akrigg 217). Possibly the poem may “represent[s] the next round after Love’s Labor’s Lost in a continuing literary battle” (Akrigg 216-19).

          When Shakespeare puns “The brand [my mistress] quenched in Asshole Willoughby” (Rune 149.14), he may have in mind the Avisa author—or possibly Ambrose Willoughby, “one of the Queen’s gentlemen who…[early in 1598] evicted [Southampton] from the Presence Chamber and led to Southampton’s temporary exclusion from the Queen’s court” (Akrigg 68).

          E. Numbers in Spenser’s Epithalamion. Instances of Edmund Spenser’s elaborate coterie gameplaying and numerological preoccupations in Epithalamion (1595) show long-lost coterie practices at work in Renaissance literature that we’ve only recently found (cf. Hieatt) and begun to try to fathom (see, e.g., Graves’ “Two Newfound Poems”). A. Kent Hieatt’s conclusions are now fully accepted and have been assimilated into current views of Spenser’s formalism (see, e.g., Abrams I:771). The patterns in Epithalamion, as Hieatt discovered, use numeric details from the calendar in structural ways.

           My own conclusion is that such numerologic preoccupations may govern certain other poems as well, including not only Prothalamion but also The Ruines of Time and Ruines of Rome, whose titles pun on “runes.” Another of Spenser’s titles, The Shepheardes Calender, may be a long unheard coterie clue, I think, about his arcane numerological interests; my guess is that the Ruines titles operate similarly as in-group puns. Since his meeting with Raleigh in Ireland in 1590 was a decisive incident in Spenser’s literary career (Abrams I:529), one wonders whether the two were mutually involved in literate mysteries. Spenser (1552-1599) was dominant in the English literary scene, a figure Shakespeare could not have ignored. Spenser’s practices, of course, are fully congruent with the conventional Renaissance expectation that great art show formalistic undergirding and sprezzatura.

          F. The Southamptons’ Coded Communication. In 1599, when Southy was in Ireland, his wife sent him a “code” letter that combined a puzzling reference to “Sir John Falstaff” with another to a “miller’s thumb.” To decode the message requires that “miller’s thumb” be read as “a small fish with a big head known also as a ‘cob’” and, in turn, that “cob” be heard as a reference to Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham. Critic Leslie Hotson finally “broke the Countess’s code”—in 1949 (Akrigg 248). (As I mention elsewhere, one Francis Davison laboriously anagrammatized the name HENRICUS URIOTHESLEUS into a Latin verse as part of a published tribute to Southampton in 1603 [Akrigg 138].)

          G. Twelfth Night (1601). This play is known to have been performed in 1602 in the Middle Temple (Harrison 846)—one of the four Inns of Court in London, exclusive guilds for training young lawyers before admission to the bar (Chernow and Vallasi). Twelfth Night 2.5, which hinges ambiguously and playfully on an “M.O.A.I.” riddle included in a lady’s letter, offers insight into Shakespeare’s interest in letter-based puns and their pictographic potentialities and individual “personalities.” The scene thus shares features with the famous “wooden ‘O’” metaphor for a “round” theatre (Henry V prologue) and with Kent’s disparagement of the “whoreson Zed,” that “unnecessary letter” (Lear 2.2.69-70).

          Wit emerges in Twelfth Night 2.5 as Malvolio reads in a versified letter the quatrain “I may command where I adore, / But silence… / With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore. / M, O, A, I, doth sway my life.” A servant calls this “A fustian [common, bombastic] riddle!” and the two—with Sir Toby Belch—proceed to try to decode it, with no definitive success. “What should that alphabetical position [arrangement] portend?” Malvolio asks. Even before opening the letter, Malvolio makes crude remarks whose humor is letter-based: “By my life, this is my lady’s hand. These be her very C’s, her U’s, and her T’s; and thus makes she her great P’s…” Here “cut” is pudendal bawdry—unconscious on the character’s part—that links with a suggestive play on “pee.” Ingenuously punning on the “O, A, I” in the riddle, Sir Toby joins in the discussion with “O, aye…,” and the three characters then proceed to explore various possible decodings of the letterstring riddle, broaching a subtle analogy between an “O” and a hangman’s noose (2.5.116, see note, Greenblatt et al 1792), and so on. Shakespeare’s coterie peers would probably have heard in this innocent-seeming instance echoes of certain patterns of runic (and partly pictographic) letter-wit that they were used to dealing with in the (page-based) Runes.

          Modern critics have already suspected coterie wit in the letterstring “M.O.A.I.” An unnamed peer reader, for instance, in rationalizing his rejection of a paper on Shakespeare’s Runes that I’d submitted for journal publication in the 1980s, remarked, “That there was in Elizabethan times a good deal of writing for coteries is certain. On this point, Prof. Graves’s argument is sound. I have for years held the opinion that Twelfth Night was written by Shakespeare with a coterie in mind: the students of the Middle Temple. The still-mysterious ‘M.O.A.I.’ is, I think, an ‘inn-joke’.”

          H. Herbert’s Rhyme Scheme Game. In his ostensibly serious lyric “The Collar,” a minor classic, the devotional poet George Herbert (1593-1633) plays an entertaining coterie game undetected until Miami-Dade Community College student Cary Ader began to unriddle it in 1992 as he analyzed the poem’s complex rhyme scheme, using conventional abc symbols to label the lines. Ader found that the intrinsic alphabetic gloss on the rhyme scheme generates a lost “NO, NO,” encoded with appropriate relevance at the very end of the poem where God is tongue-wagging the poet/persona for his childish, undisciplined rant. Norbert Artzt, Ader’s professor, passed Ader’s discovery on to me, and the result is published, collaborative evidence of a previously unknown paradigm by which English poets—and surely not just Herbert in this one instance—could embed implicit syntactic wit in their rhyme schemes, using the abc letter code for marking serial sequences (see Graves, “Herbert’s ‘The Collar’,” Explicator).

          In fact, as I’ve shown in further explorations of the pattern, the whole rhyme-scheme lettercode implicit in “The Collar” can be read as peripherally authorized edgewit. One reading is “A busy body (Aye busy, bawdy…), I deceive, (I deceived ye…) give (gave) hid, edged (aged) jig; cudgel be minimal (…be my mill), be none, O!” Further, because one rhyme-pair in the poem is ambiguously connected, Herbert actually bifurcates the rhyme scheme, with one letterstring ending “No, No,” (code NO NO) and the other, “Amen, Amen” (code MN, MN). Other Herbert poems illustrate similar patterns, previously undetected. All traditional English poems with complex rhyme schemes, I propose, are now potentially suspect of having been read ingenuously (see Explicator). Herbert’s A/B bifurcation parallels that in Q’s Set VIII, where a gamy bifurcation also challenges a player with two valid options. Too, Herbert uses “letters” in the same way that musicians like Bach used A-G, the notes in the scale, to encode audibly undetectable strings that spelled out meaningful messages. Herbert expands his alphabetic range to 14 or 15 characters by adding new rhymes, repeated in variations that are sometimes so widely spaced that the auditor’s ear is unlikely to detect them. Thus, the manipulation of the non-notated letters is doubly hidden in the published poem: A player must first add the notation, using the eye to search out the rhymes.

          Again, the ideal of formal sprezzatura governs such works, the existence of which has remained hidden over centuries, a lost type of literate coterie wit.

          I. Ben Jonson’s Acrostic Verses. An ostensibly face-forward form of literate gameplaying employed by the Renaissance poet/dramatist Ben Jonson (1572-1637) occurs in acrostic verses that preface his Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610). The initial letters of the 12-line Argument that opens the latter spells out THEALCHEMIST—unheard by the audience unless the string was somehow underscored for effect. I believe that we may have underestimated these conventional acrostic verses. My guess is that those among the “Tribe of Ben” (a school, if not a coterie) might have enjoyed looking for arcane puns in the acrostic codeline, which compresses such overlaid plays as “T’ hell, game hissed,” “They’ll see hymn, eye saint,” “Tail-gem hissed,” "Theology misty (ms.’d),” “Th eel see, misty,” “The eel, quay misty,” “Th’ eel came, iced,” “The eel-game hissed,” “Teal sea misty,” and so on. (My experience with OE runes is that “eel” is a recurrent conceit for the slippery codelines; here “the eel-game” indeed “hisses.”) The codestring CHE suggests not only “key” (needed to unlock the riddle) but also Gk. Chi and thus “Christ.” Because “St.” represents “Saint,” one detects “Thee, All, Christ, My Saint” and “T’ heal, Christ [came?], my Saint ” (cf. “Tell grace misty”)—or contrarily, “T’ hell, Christ, He missed!” MIST suggests “Mystery” and “Master,” implying a continuation that makes one suspect that the whole written acrostic verse text may be an extended phonic codeline to decipher. Thus, whether any overall meaning is authorized or not, the runeplayer is pulled into an arduous deciphering project instigated by the author. Given the way language itself cooperates to generate non-authorized puns, Shakespeare’s coterie members playing the game would even be likely to hear “To Hall came aye Shakespeare [=ST=∫t],” “T’ hell…,” and “They’ll see him, eye Shakespeare.”

          By covert and previously unnoted means, Jonson’s gamelike preface thus seems to effect “alchemical” transformations that must have delighted in-group reader/players. Various game elements are possible. Perhaps an overall acrostic grid is at work to generate one long codeline. Or, if one omits the initial letters bound into the acrostic, the remaining first-word components will yield the following codestring that allows (and thus seems to encode) readings such as these:

    he    is  ase   Cheater      eaving    oz’ners           ouse       ach        uch     n   elling    ill
1) He says, “Cheater,      Heaven Ghost nears.      O, you see ache, you see Handling Ill .”
2) He—Isaiah—see, heed, e’er Eve, in gauze, nears (in cousin errs). Isaac you see, annealing ill.
3) I see, sequitur, Heaven Ghost, nurse, houses huge, (…Isaac you see… ) and Ealing ill.
4) Isis etched, e’er Eve in gauze, near (in “ear”) sausage [phallic] you see, ‘handling’ Jill.
5) Hisses heed, a rune goes in ear, saw [cf. “repeat old ‘saws’”] you Sage Huchown, lingual hell.

          “Handling Ill”—pretty much what we’re undergoing as runeplayers—varies the title of Robert Mannyng of Brunne’s book of metrical homilies Handlyng Synn (1303).

          The “Sage Huchown” (code seach uchn[e]) here seems in context reasonably convincing.

          The reverse acrostic codeline, TS I MEHCLAEHT, suggests, e.g., “Dizzy maze laid (lead),” “’Tis I, Massey, late,” “’Tis J. Massey, late [i.e., now dead],” “Tee! seamy clit,” “’Tis I, Missal 8,” “Tee! some heckled,” and “T’s I mislaid.” And if the preface is construed as two columns of six lines each, a zigzag “code” emerges in the acrostic: THHEE MAIL SCT, suggesting “The Male Sect.” “Sect” was “sometimes applied spec. to parties that are regarded as heretical” (OED, late ME) and more generally meant “a school of opinion in politics, science, etc.” (1605). (Cf. also “The male Scot,” “The male’s caught [God].”)

           The prefatory acrostic verses of Volpone can be similarly explored. One obvious reading is “Vol[ume] punny.” (“Pun” [OED 1662] has obscure origins.) The second- and third-column vertical lettercode in the acrostic letterbox (in a modern English version of the text) is ofirt ealƒe ehw c pesse…, suggesting “…overt all is…” and “…offered (overt) eels, you see piss….” More serious (but still playful) study of the text, of course, would require that we consult an authorized text, if one is known to exist. (My space here is limited, my life short.)

          However far one wishes to go in ferreting out Jonson’s game, it seems possible that the most “classical” of Shakespeare’s contemporaries may have practiced what would later be called “false wit” for an in-group readership much narrower than his public audience. With the newly emerging insights about coterie composition that finding the Runes gives us, we may begin to understand the degree of Jonson’s in-jokes about such learned “swindlers” as Subtle and also may be able to open up some of the whys and wherefores of the “bonding” that occurred within the “Tribe of Ben.”

          J. Shakespeare’s Shield and Family Coat of Arms. One known, conventional instance of arcane inscription occurred when Shakespeare himself made a contribution to the celebration of the King’s accession day, March 24, 1613, by collaborating with Richard Burbage to design a paper shield for one Francis Manners, Earl of Rutland. Evidence suggests that Shakespeare was paid to make up the motto, and Burbage—a gifted designer—to paint the illustration. Such shields, called impresa, were carried by the knights in the tournament and afterward were displayed in Whitehall; conventionally each knight’s shield featured “a picture and a motto that united to hint at his identity or his state of mind, and the guessing of these little courtly riddles was part of the fun of going to a tournament.” No record exists of the teasing slogan the poet came up with (Chute 305-06). More generally speaking, all the emblematic practices of heraldry show us cousins—several times removed—of the runes, and so the well-known story of the Shakespeare family’s protracted struggle to secure a coat of arms is distantly germane: The iconography of a silver-tipped gold spear or of a falcon supporting a spear (see Chute 184ff.) indulges in visual punning on the poet’s patronymic that parallels the pattern in the ∫t name cipher that I have deduced in Will’s routine runic practices. Whether Will or his father instigated the effort to obtain a family crest, the parallels with heraldry remain.

          K. The “Shake-spear” Play in Psalm 46 (King James Bible, 1611). “Shake” occurs 46 words into the psalm, and “spear” 46 words from the bottom, and—as I’ve already tried to show—other possible plays within the KJB text complement the key nameplay. If encoded in No. 46 in 1610, the year before the KJB appeared, “46” is a complex play on Will’s age, and the instance is a name-and-date play, a runic convention.

          L. Freeman’s Runne and a Great Cast (1614). Thomas Freeman’s sonnet “To Master W. Shakespeare” (1614) is Epigram 92 from a work suspiciously titled Runne and a Great Cast. Chambers identifies Freeman as “of Magdalen, Oxford.” My own analysis, partly shown below and published here for the first time, suggests that the poem exemplifies gamelike embedding; Isuspect it’s a routine hack example from contemporary practice. Though other games may lurk in the text, the one I detect is recoverable in the sequence of 11 italicized words that the poem embeds.

S h a k e s p e a r e
M e r c u r y
A r g u s
h o r s e - ƒ o o t e
L u c r e c e
V e n u s
A d o n i s
M e a n d e r :
T e r e n c e
P l a u t u s
M e n a n d e r

Accessible suggestions of authorized runic craftiness lurk in 1) the obvious tone of the poem; 2) the 11 x 11 dimensions of the letterbox; 3) A.M. and P.M. in the lefthand acrostic; 4) the line-up of “hero” in column 2 (1-4); and 5) the double-panhandle play “…eare/…oote…” (cf., e.g., arete, Herod, aret [reckon, ascribe], error, tee!) in the upper righthand “long lines”—which become the tailend of the overall acrostic letterstring code (down the columns, left-to-right in turn).

The lefthand first-line down/up acrostic code—a “hairpin code”—suggests these authorized (or authorially encouraged) puns:

Semele you, A.M. t’ P.M. empty, may (my!) you lay a miss.
Smell you, A.M. t’ P.M., empty—my offal, a mess (…my “oval” amiss).
Smell “V” [i.e., crotch, groin] A.M. t’ P.M., my “pit” may you lay, my ass.
Small “V,” empty pee hymned my Oval [cf. Round], a ms.
Small, vamped [shoe part, therefore “footed”], th’ [=thorn, p] hymn, [an] empty male “ha-ms.”
Small [Smell, Detect] 5 [=S=Ass]: AM T’ PM [five letters], my pet, my “oval,” aye, my ass.
Simile—empty, pimped—may veil a ms.
Small 5 [inches], aye empty pee, m’ empty male aims.
Is my lamb (limb, lam, loom, iamb) t’ pimp Tommy, lay miss?
Ishmael, you eye him to pimp, t’ mawl aye my ass.

          And so on. The allusion to Semele, the mother of Bacchus, calls to mind the myth in which she seeks “proof” of an Epiphany that turns out to be false—for her skeptical position is much like ours here. Other provocative vertical acrostic line-ups in the letterbox encourage exploration of the fuller vertical code: e.g., hero, deele, noa, oar, ran, c us [see us], runne, neu, see, sr-c [Circe], cud, eor. The acrostic term “runne” (col. 4, 5-9 down) reiterates exactly the spelling in Freeman’s title, while the forms lear, rank, and seeor occur at run-on points. Funny “theatrical” scenarios emerge from the full code, including plays on Lear and Noah and phonic equivalents of wrote, cues, scene, aside—and even a joke about an intermission break to “ese” a “py[s]er.” The incipient Noah scenario is a variant of one that I’ve found occurring often in the runes (from OE onward) and that seems fairly “easy” to encode. Other vaguely allusive forms—Circe, Cynara, Semele—occur, and the place names Jersey and Angus catch the eye. Perhaps “sinner Angus” is an in-grouper who, as Freeman jokes, outshines Herod.

          Here is a limited exploration of a primary acrostic lettercode:

SMahLV          AM  T   PM    he rouede  e  lear gr   c n        o                  a    rank    c us
Simile (Smelly), A.M. t’ P.M., he wrote a larger scene, O [cf. Globe, round], eye rank queues,
                                        …he wrote      a Lear      Grecian    o’er [i.e., about] Ann-kisses
Small lamb t’ B.M. here ode [i.e., praise], a larger scene owe [acknowledge], our Angus…
                                             …he rode a      larger sea,   Noah,           rank seas run new…
                                                  Hero you deli[v]er, Jersey Noah— rank, see us rune…
                                                                       …jeer [did y hear?] Cynara…
Small you aimed th’ hymn: Herod a larger sinner, Angus, ruins…
                                              …hero, you dally, our Jersey know, our Angus rune you eye…

[code cont.] runne  u           a           u   see sid       n  tn s   r-cs   ec   ud py   ƒer ese eor aor tee
[cont.] … rune you eye (ruin you aye), you see sight intenser ceases. You’d pisser ease hardy.
                                                  … you see Satan, ten Circes each, you’d pay for easy art. Eee!
                                                        …seaside, end nice o’er seas easy, you’d pay for…
                    …ruin you eye, you cease (…you see, sudden, “tennis” rises easy…) …erase you rarity.
                                                            seaside intense or seas easy you’d piss…
                                                             … aside entend …could be y’ fare easy or hardy.
                     …our anus (Eunice) is eyed, entend, sirs… …you’d pay for easy arete [excellence].
                                                                       …Circes easy you’d pay, Pharisee, “oar” hard(y).

          Readers who pursue the gridgame in this little “unlocked treasure” may find such encoded diagonal plays as Log ce [cf. “log see”]; Md nr eye [cf. “empty in her ‘eye’,” “M.D. in ’er eye,” “maiden wry”]; Pean sc∫r [“pain seize ’er,” “paeon’s Caesar,” “paeons see, sir”—where the 4-syllabled foot, or “paeon,” alludes to the 4-syllabled code unit itself]; Mlr n ie oe [“Miller, nigh O”]; nun et; Ae run; V daetd; Leon nue; hunnd csr [cf. “Hunn’d Caesar,” “hunt see, sir”]; and ero [in an “E Row” (fifth line) position]. “Horse-foot” (overt in line 4) suggests 4-footed and alludes both to “Mercury” and more covert “paeons” of the grid; it also might be a “Horseford” pun. The element “Meander” suggests, of course, what one does in trying to follow the lines of the game.

          M. Possible “Hypograms” in Shakespeare. See Jakobson, who applies de Saussure’s idea of the hypogram (separated phonic strings embedded as anagrams) to Shakespeare’s texts.

          N. Absey Books and Christ-cross Rows. Young Shakespeare would have called his primer or horn book an “ABC” or “Absey”—signifying, in part, “an alphabetical acrostic” (OED 1597). “Shakespeare has several references to the Absey book with its rows of letters and syllables, the first row beginning with a cross—hence ‘Christ-cross row’ for the alphabet—and the Lord’s Prayer.” Will’s fixed memory of the visual arrangement of these crisscrossed “rows” shows, e.g., in Richard III as “King Edward, suspicious of his brother George, ‘from the cross-row plucks the letter G’” (Rowse 35). Both Will’s puns in Q on “rows” and his interest in the plays in the “characters” of various letters seem more understandable with these alignment practices in view as patterned archetypes that would have been formative in Will’s childhood experiences.

          O. “Rounds.” Coterie readers would have heard not only “ruin” but also “round” as a pun on “rune.” Where “round” occurs to mean “a circular dance” (OED 1513), a round of drinks (1633), or possibly a polyphonic song (1683), the punning coterie meaning may also be present.

          I suspect a coterie allusion to “round” not only in “wooden [cf. ‘crazy’] ‘O’,” an epithet for a round theatre, but also in Hamlet’s famous term “mortal coil”—something burdensome and all-enveloping to be “shuffled off.” Coterie ears would probably have heard routine puns on “O” as “round” in Shakespeare’s dramatic works. Touchstone’s comment about poetry as ideally a “feigning art,” used as an epigraph for this introduction, opens with the pun, e.g., “In ‘O’ true lies ore: The truest poetry aye Southy must find in candle averse or Jew (…gondola-verse, or June)….”—with many other variants to mine, including “In ‘O’ truly sordid are you….”

          Will must have enjoyed the irony in the fact that one meaning of “round,” as he used the word, was “straightforward and direct” (e.g., Hamlet 3.1.19).

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