Alec Nevala-Lee

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Archive for December 15th, 2014

The Shakespeare Code

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

I don’t think I’ll ever be accused of not having enough strange books in my library, but over the weekend, I picked up a battered copy of one of the most curious of them all: the first and only edition of The Great Cryptogram by Ignatius L. Donnelly, which was initially published in 1888. Donnelly isn’t particularly well known these days, but he’s a fascinating—and peculiarly American—character, an ingenious crackpot who draws on European models while remaining indelibly of his own place and time. He came out of nowhere to become, among other things, the lieutenant governor of Minnesota, a congressman, a state senator, and the founder of a failed utopian community, but he’s best remembered for a series of increasingly odd, and influential, literary productions. His book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World shaped much of the prevailing image of Atlantis as a lost empire that served as the basis of all subsequent civilization, and his Ragnarok anticipates Immanuel Velikovsky, among others, in arguing that a comet collided with the earth 12,000 years ago, altering the planet’s climate and leaving its traces in the myths and legends of a global cataclysm.

The Great Cryptogram was his most ambitious and personal project, a massive tome of over nine hundred pages that argues that Francis Bacon was the true author of the works of Shakespeare and left clues to his real identity—in the form of an elaborate code—in the published text of the plays themselves. I first encountered Donnelly’s theory in The Codebreakers by David Kahn, who rightly dismisses it as a pathological misreading, and even at the time, it was roundly mocked. But there’s something weirdly beautiful about it. Donnelly reproduces pages from the First Folio and his own notes in multiple colors, showing how he selected the words that spelled out Bacon’s secret message, and it would be hugely expensive to print it even today. (In the end, it was an enormous flop. According to Kahn, the book’s publisher had to bring in a special printer to make the plates, and later sued Donnelly for the recovery of advance royalties.) Yet the first half of the book, which lays out the biographical “evidence” for the Baconian hypothesis, could be published tomorrow to an enthusiastic reception. And while I don’t think I’ll ever make it through the whole thing, it’s worth asking why so many people are still so eager to believe that Shakespeare’s plays were written by somebody else.

The Great Cryptogram by Ignatius Donnelly

Donnelly’s core argument is a familiar one. Given the linguistic invention, erudition, and worldly knowledge of the plays, it seems impossible that they could have been written by a rural glover’s son. Bacon, a universal scholar with a suitable pedigree, seems like a much better candidate, although conspiracy theorists from Sigmund Freud to Roland Emmerich on down have settled by consensus on the Earl of Oxford. Yet the anti-Stratfordians are obsessed with solving a problem that doesn’t really exist. Shakespeare’s genius, to the extent it can be broken down, rests on three qualities: an unparalleled way with character, a deep intuition and shrewdness about dramatic structure, and a staggering degree of verbal energy and expressiveness. The first two traits have little, if anything, to do with formal education, and the second, in particular, could have emerged only from the daily, unforgiving grind of performance and playmaking—from the experience of a man, in short, who solved narrative problems for a living. And his language required less in the way of rigorous schooling than access to the right books and the determination to use them as tools. Whether or not he actually owned and annotated a copy of John Baret’s Alvearie, it’s exactly the kind of book he could have used, and it would have gone a long way toward providing the raw material he needed.

As for Shakespeare’s intellectual or philosophical depth, it’s difficult to imagine a writer with this set of traits—that is, an inhuman facility with character, situation, and language—operating for any length of time without yielding ideas of commensurate complexity, even if we glimpse them darkly, or as flashes of lightning that illuminate the text on the way to the next confrontation. Shakespeare was a machine for generating the kinds of ideas that emerge precisely from language and dramatic incident, a verbal magician whose spells produce resonances that can take a lifetime to unpack, and he did it consistently for a quarter of a century. (He also grew up as a writer in public: when you read all the plays in order, as I did a decade ago, it becomes obvious how the richness of the late works comes out of the lessons he learned from his early, more conventional efforts.) To put it another way, a talent like Shakespeare’s is so exceptional, so statistically rare, that his eduction or lack thereof seems like a trivial consideration: the world’s universities offer up thousands of excellent scholars each year, and their achievements are commonplace, even boring, compared to what Shakespeare possessed that can’t be taught. Donnelly, the Oxfordians, and the rest spin incredible webs of tortured logic to justify what is really the least interesting, and the most explicable, aspect of the works they admire. There’s no need to look for a cryptogram here; Shakespeare is already our greatest maker of codes.

Quote of the Day

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Simon Ramo

In the 1950s, [Simon Ramo] attended a series of key ballistic missile experiments at Cape Canaveral, Florida, with Air Force Gen. Bernard Schriever. One after another, the test rockets kept exploding on their launch pads. When one missile finally rose six inches before toppling over and bursting into flames, Ramo reportedly beamed and said: “Well, Benny, now that we know the thing can fly, all we have to do is improve its range a bit.”

Melody Petersen, in the Los Angeles Times

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2014 at 7:30 am

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