THE STRATFORD MONUMENT


The practice of seeking cyphers in Shakespearean or other works is widespread. However, the results of such searches tend to be unreliable, because the probability of fluke coincidence becomes high with a myriad of underlying potential associations. The true, enormous range of such associations is often unrecognized, in which case seekers will probably be misled when they are able to perceive supposedly encrypted messages in support of their preconceptions.

This phenomenon is well illustrated by certain enigmatic wording on Shakespeare's monument at Stratford. The memorial, comprising bust and commemorative inscription, stands near his grave. It was financed from an unknown source and we know that it was established no later than 1623 (because it is referred to in the First Folio of Shakespeare's Plays, published in that year).

The inscription opens with Latin expressions of praise. It then switches into English, whereupon the strange, rather clumsy, wording (reproduced below) arguably invites one to contemplate the possibility of hidden meanings. However, such exercise is rife with possibility. Marlovians, Baconians and Oxfordians, have - with varying degrees of strain and ingenuity - all been able to extract messages from this one source, in support of their candidate for the real Shakespeare. When their interpretations are dismissed by the orthodox, they point (not unreasonably) to the oddities of wording and demand an orthodox explanation for these (other than the attribution of sub-standard skills to the inscription author and/or engraver).

In order to show that William Shakspere can be played in this game, at least as plausibly as any pretender to Authorship, I offer below my own decryption of a Stratfordian monument.

First, however, like other players of the game, I must cite or postulate some underlying premises. These are as follows, and are all either supported by, or consistent with, evidence described in The Biography in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

  • Shakspere's erstwhile patron, friend and (on occasion) lover was Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, also the subject and object of much of his poetry;

  • The pair were estranged from around 1604, when the last few of Shakespeare's Sonnets were written; however, in this scenario, after Shakspere's death in 1616, a mellowing Southampton decides to commemorate his old friend and their many-faceted relationship with an appropriate monument;

  • Nevertheless, he does not wish to advertise this association openly, since this might revive or encourage potential scandal (discernible in the Sonnets, whose circulation was constrained with difficulty after their publication in 1609). Consequently, he commissions a cryptic elegy to convey the desired messages.

The lines in bold characters, below, represent the original poem on the monument1. The wording underneath each line shows an alternative construction, which accords with the above premises.

STAY PASSENGER, WHY GOEST THOU BY SO FAST,

Hang on, passer, why go by so fast

READ IF THOU CANST, WHOM ENVIOUS DEATH HATH PLAST

decipher if you can whom envious Death2 has placed

WITH IN THIS MONUMENT SHAKSPEARE: WITH WHOME,

in this epitaph with Shakespeare (with whom

QUICK NATURE DIDE: WHOSE NAME DOTH DECK Ys TOMBE,

lively wit died3) whose name brings to this verbal construction of concealment

FAR MORE, THEN COST: SIEH ALL Yt HE HATH WRITT,

much more splendour.... then Hal Wriothesley4

LEAVES LIVING ART, BUT PAGE5, TO SERVE HIS WITT.

remains the living art, outside his writings, of Shakespeare's muse and support.


PS: The characters of the original inscription are generally presented in capital letters throughout. However, some of the capitals are slightly enlarged, for example the opening letters of English lines 1, 5 and 6, and the opening S of “Shakspeare" and the D of "Death". Peter Farey (a Marlovian, whose work I respect) focuses on what he sees as peculiarly non-enlarged letters (the R, W and Q at the beginnings of lines 2, 3 and 4) and peculiarly enlarged letters (the openers to Tombe, Sieh, He in lines 4 and 5). He suggests that these anomalies are code pointers. I am ambivalent. However, in order to play out the game, here below are Fareyan-style interpretations to support my construction.

Following Farey, non-enlarged R means the word “read” should be construed in a secondary sense (ie as “decipher”). Following Farey, non-enlarged W emphasizes that “with“ was indeed intended to stand separately from “in”, as originally presented. Non-enlarged Q denotes that “quick nature” should be construed in a secondary sense (such as the “strong natural affection” of note 3). Enlarged T shows that the word "tomb" should be read as an allegory for the epitaph itself. Following Farey, enlarged S confirms that the strange word, “sieh”, is deliberate. Finally, enlarged H points to the fact that “He” - the foreshadowed subject of disguise – is within this part of the epitaph.


Notes

1 Without amendment, in the fifth line, of “sieh” (often reproduced as “sith”, meaning “since”). There is some evidence (subtle differences from, and between, early transcripts of the wording and the fact of the monument's refurbishment in the 18th century - though all description of this excludes the inscription) to raise the possibility that what has been visible in modern times might not be identical to the original display. If there has been change, then attempts to discern hidden meanings become open to further error, because none of the early transcripts of the wording are entirely reliable. The wording and punctuation reproduced here are, according to Peter Farey (see postscript above) in line with photographs prior to 1974 (when repair of vandalization concealed some of the punctuation).

2 Death is perhaps here envious because, although he is the cause of the epitaph, and hence the placings therein, he has not yet captured the second of the persons so placed. However, he is often described with such adjectives, so there may be no secondary associations intended.

3 This is the obvious plain text meaning. However, as shown in the OED, the words “quick” and “nature” then carried several meanings. One valid rendition of this expression is “strong natural affection died”, suggesting an estrangement of the two persons in reference. Another, more provocative construction takes “nature” as a synonym of “semen” (as then it was) and “quick” as “alive” - thereby suggesting ejaculation and, hence, shared sexual experiences.

4 The name can be extracted from the letters of “cost sieh all yt he hath writt”. The anagram requires (and so explains) the strange “sieh” instead of “sith”. The complexity of Southampton's name and other constraints of the desired anagram arguably explain the strained language of the plain text. The weeding out of extraneous letters is perhaps hinted at by the “leaves” following on in the final line.

5 The word “page” then carried a secondary meaning of an author's works – see OED.