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

An Index to Representative Subtextual Vocabulary in the Runes
“My mystery-sighs are nothing like the sun” (pun, Rune 127.4)


Click below to scan segments of this index, which is alphabetically arranged.
In the entries,
the listed numbers refer to the Runes, not the visible Sonnets. A number such as 38.11 means Rune 38, line 11; 38X means that the indexed term occurs in the lefthand acrostic codeline of Rune 38.

         As one pervasive aspect of his Runegame, Will’s lines in the 1609 Quarto embed thousands of subtextual puns that aren’t overtly visible and must be ferreted out or “deciphered.” To detect them, a reader/player must reconstrue authorized alphabet codestrings.

          While puns in the lines grow from Q’s spellings of whole-word units, those in the acrostic codelines emerge from authorized combinations of initial letters arranged in vertical columns.

         The encoded terms that are catalogued here occur in the Runes, and some puns spill over from one line to the next in the runic arrangements of the Q lines; many (and indeed most) of these same puns, however, also occur in the Sonnets, since Sonnets and Runes comprise the same lines. (Acrostic arrangements in the Sonnets are, of course, different, and have not been the subject of my explorations. Similarly, run-on puns that occur where Sonnets lines join are not considered here.)

          The runic convention seems to be that punning terms occur, punningly, in syntactic frameworks rather than in isolation, or at least that the reader/player will try, after finding any key term, to hear it as part of a contextual comment. Such hidden “messages,” sotto voce strings of sense and nonsense, are those that I list in the “puns” and “acrostic wit” sections (and sometimes the comments) accompanying each edited rune. By providing access to those sections, this index may help readers begin to assume the coterie role. Though Q’s puns often seem to banter almost incoherently, at times they interact with overt themes and motifs in apparently contrived ways.

         The term “subtext” reminds us that, in Q’s layered scheme, the Runes exist as parallel texts to the Sonnets and are “subtextual” only in the sense that they’ve lain buried in the published Sonnets for centuries. Such “subtextual” terms as this index catalogs, by contrast, lie under the runic lines themselves—or their juncture points: As if to replace “missing” rhyme in the Runes, Will seems to insure that each connection of runic lines gins out one or several puns.

           Though this index omits some routine puns in Q, it does list samples of such commonplaces as antic/antique, heart/art, and well/will, along with less overt puns such as tombe/tome, could/cold, foul/soul/fowl, angel/angle, hower/hour/whore, vfe/wife/verse/vice, and fuch/f--k. Other non-canonical puns such as So thy/Southy, and/Anne, any/Annie, Shall/S[ue] Hall, In/Anne/John, and loue/loo move us a step further down Punster Road.

           But the most interesting puns are deeply hidden ones that emerge only if one re-clusters overt letterstrings and/or reconstrues their phonic implications radically. Some such puns hop out from simple combinations—the way Q’s …loue you are (1.13) encodes “lawyer,” “lower,” “lour,” “lore,” and “lure.” Sometimes the puns sleep in the text the way “Eumenides,” “humanities,” and “you meant ass” do in Q’s “true mindes” (113.4). We’re used to hearing “time” as a pun on “thyme”—but not, e.g., on “tame,” “tie me,” and “Tommy.” In this index, I’ve entered the familiar spellings of the puns (e.g., Tommy) rather than the sometimes-outrageous “code spelling” forms (e.g., time).

           While the puns in Will’s plays are for the ear, those in Q, as page-based forms, are also for the eye—and are typically more elusive, multifarious, outrageous, “far-fetched.”

         In whatever forms, Will’s puns result from what The Norton Shakespeare calls the routine “phonetic association between words” in his time that allowed “‘bear,’ ‘barn,’ ‘bier,’ ‘bourne,’ ‘born,’ and ‘barne’ [to] sound like one another” (63)—and also from non-prescriptive spellings and inverted sentence patterns that were standard in Renaissance rhetoric. Any coterie writer or reader looking for ambiguity to enjoy in a page-based wordgame—and not governed by a drive for “correct” spelling—may see the written letterstring “part,” e.g., as “party” (i.e., “par-T”), “parity,” “pear tea,” “pay our T(y),” “pee, our tea,” “pee hardy,” “pard,” “peered,” “paired”—even “Bard.” I know from my own experience of working “backwards” into the coterie that the impulse to find multiple, contextually-determined “meanings” in any letterstring develops progressively over time.

       Playful construction of letterstring codes is thus not only a hallmark of the traditional Runegame that Will inherited (as I deduce it); it is also fully typical of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance practices. As Norton notes in its section “The Play of Language” (61ff.), Will lived before prescriptive grammars, dictionaries, and “rules” had laced writers into the narrower modern patterns. Given this, and given that Q gradually lures us into what is at bottom a snakepit of puns, we can be confident that learning to read language as playfully as possible moves us closer to, not farther away from, the paths that Will’s own capacious mind once sought out as he composed. Partly he manipulated the code to embed meanings, but partly, no doubt, he just let the multiplicity of meanings register mentally as he created lines in which they “naturally” occurred. If he saw something emerging, he could always encourage it craftily, as any poet might do but with greater mental dexterity. In each case, then, my assumption is that the freighted lines in Q always carry the writer’s ultimate “will,” however hard intentionality is to determine with precision.

       Like meter and rhyme, punning is certainly a “natural” aspect of written language that’s susceptible to authorized, purposeful manipulation. A main difference is that rhyme and meter emerge in verse lines as inarguable realities. The puns in Q, by contrast, occur in multiple, subjective, concurrent, and staggeringly ambiguous forms. “Night,” “knight,” and “Nate,” e.g., are hopelessly tangled, as are “Waite,” “Wyatt,” “weight,” “white,” and “wait.” Had all the indexed puns surfaced from a less self-conscious mind than Will’s, or in one less obsessed by punning, many of the terms might best be viewed as meaningless accidents of language or products of my “overreading.” But Will’s mind so far outruns most of ours and the extent of his control over his materials is so great that very little we see in his lines is likely to’ve escaped his own Maker’s eye. We non-geniuses, in fact, can hardly fathom how a mind could have contained so much concurrently and crafted such cornucopic multiplicity. (Since such anachronistic puns as “CBS,” “tommy gun,” Nazi, and “silhouette” are clearly not Will’s, I’ve tried to rule these out.)
Finally each reader can decide which of the punning terms and concurrent “messages” to regard as authorized and thus significant. My own guess is that some eighty or ninety percent of the substantive puns I’ve indexed may be plays that Will was conscious of—and that, obversely, I’ve missed many more puns than I’ve detected—especially Will’s topical and arcane allusions. In every playthrough of the text, I find possibilities that had escaped me earlier.

          In any case, we modern readers interested in recovering Will’s puns have to learn to parse the language code in a new, even foreign way that goes against most post-Enlightenment thought patterns: Rather than filtering out “irrelevancies” in the code, we have to go searching for them. What happened in Will’s head easily will happen in ours only with concentrated work (or play), but we can still reapproach what went on there and, if clumsily, reconstruct a good portion of it.

        Now that we know that Q is an elaborate double entendre, we see that Q’s puns are like buried treasure in a boundless hide-and-seek game that time has not yet been called on. Individual puns are somewhat like the hidden acrostic words that my mother enjoys ferreting out of gamy letterboxes in the daily papers as one of her pastimes. Though Will’s puns, even cumulatively, may seem to lack meaning beyond their capacity for literate entertainment, the scholar’s truth is that, altogether, the puns exerted a nearly prescriptive influence over Q’s overt vocabulary.

        Q’s hidden vocabulary shows in itself an entertaining range of ambiguous bawdry and other kinds of private humor. Contemporary coterie readers—John Hall, Southampton, and Thorpe—and family members appear often in the puns as addressed auditors, subjects, and butts of wit. Aside from bawdry in its universal forms, key elements in Q’s punning game are allusive—classical, religious, medical, nautical, topical, personal, what-you-will. Arcane terms intermingle with the whole range of ordinary diction that one might use to establish syntactic contexts for mounting witty, gemlike allusions. Elementally, the patterns include “See X happen,” “X does A to Y,” “Acknowledge [‘Owe’] that Z is true,” and so on. Like spectators at a rigged sporting event, or as doomed antagonists—modern readers can still marvel at Will’s wordplay.

          As one key to Will’s life and mind, the index may help readers track topical interests and allusions—e.g., to medicine, sailing, law, writing, religion, and the range of New World and non-European life. Since expert scholars may make something of name references that I merely infer and record, I’ve not “censored out” names I don’t recognize. Isolated puns are always hard to use as proof of anything, so the makers of the OED may not accept my findings as adequate to show that Will was the first English writer to use, e.g., “renal,” “neural,” “thymus,” “amoeba,” “serum,” “stat.,” and “test tube”—or “deckle(d)” and “state” as printing terms, or “loo” for toilet. But some of the patterns make strong cases. Will’s genius at word-creation is a given; his known vocabulary comprised “some 25,000 words,” twice Milton’s (Norton Shakespeare 61). Finding “new” English words of his clever contrivance buried in Q would seem likely, not far-fetched.

        By presuming to catalog the ineffable, this index can only be imperfect, incomplete, and speculative. At best it is a full sampling but isn’t comprehensive. And any given pun in Q can be variously read—or not read at all, as one chooses. Many details, I admit, seem quite fon. The index, further, mirrors my own conditioning and my limits and is thus more subjective than its neat order suggests. In general, the higher the rune number, the more expansively I’ve dealt with its hidden vocabulary. This approach, partly the result of my own progress (or deterioration) as a punster during several complete play-throughs, has in a practical way allowed me page room in the body of this book for fuller discussion of the lower-numbered texts—where players just trying to make sense of the overt runic linestrings may find the longer discussions of the texts helpful.

        Using the OED as a guide, I’ve tried, crudely, to sort out fully “English” terms from a terminal catalog of (italicized) neologisms and foreign borrowing. Both Will’s prescience and the conservative written usages that OED records tend to blur the edges of that dichotomy. Anyway, users may check both lists, picking out the grain and discarding what they conclude is the chaff in each of the two bins.

Click below to scan segments of this index, which is alphabetically arranged.
In the entries,
the listed numbers refer to theRunes, not the visible Sonnets. A number such as 38.11 means Rune 38, line 11; 38X means that the indexed term occurs in the lefthand acrostic codeline of Rune 38.

Return to Index Page: Shakespeare’s Lost Sonnets