Indigesta Shakespeareana – or, A Midsummer Knight’s Dream

Prefatory comments: The following article, which turned up in a file of old stuff, was clearly written for Fortean Times in 1979, but never published. I publish it here for the first time, in an updated form, a) because I still like the idea behind it; and b) because Ewen MacDuff’s method of deciphering ‘messages’ from squared Shakespearean texts, is so similar in style to Michael Drosnin’s method of deciphering ‘messages’ from squared Biblical texts, as reported in his books, The Bible Code (1997) and The Bible Code 2 (2002). In addition, with computer programmes now available to push the finding of anagrammatic ‘messages’ to new heights – or new depths, depending on how you look at it – it is as well to remind ourselves that one cannot place too much faith in what is ‘revealed’ by anagrams. No better demonstration of this has been given than by Richard Wallace’s book Jack the Ripper, ‘Light-hearted Friend’ (1996) which seeks to prove, via anagrams, that Jack the Ripper was none other than Lewis Carroll. Finally, it is always as well to remind ourselves that there isn’t always safety in numbers.

Like all avid Forteans I was really amused when someone pointed out that the Loch Ness Monster’s new “scientific” name, Nessiteras Rhombopteryx, was an anagram of “Monster Hoax by Sir Peter S(cott).”

Anagrams and other word tricks carry an almost numinous air about with them. As an inveterate reductionist, I count such “airs” as evidence for everything and nothing, and yet, as a Fortean, I am drawn to them as much as anyone else. There is, after all, something innately satisfying in the fact that “astronomer” and “moon starer” are anagrams of each other, as are “shoplifter” and “has to pilfer”.

One field of study in which anagrams, acrostics and so forth are believed to be rather more than a game is the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy.

As a keen collector of outlandish books, I have amassed quite a collection of Baconian studies, and fascinating they are too, even if I don’t for a minute believe that Bacon did write any or all of Shakespeare. (Personally, I rather like Patrick Moore’s theory, mentioned in passing in his book Can You Speak Venusian?, that the plays were clearly not by Shakespeare but by another author of the same name.)

Which brings me to Ewen MacDuff.

No, I haven’t made the name up. As a Fortean, the reader should realise that a Baconian called MacDuff just has to be real. As real, in fact, as two other noted Anti-Shakespeareans, J.T. Looney and G.M. Battey. (The former claimed that the plays were really written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, the latter, that they were really by Daniel Defoe.)

Anyway, in 1974, MacDuff published a book called The Dancing Horse Will Tell You. After studying the 1623 folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, MacDuff concluded that a certain speech in the play Love’s Labour’s Lost (V.2.395-416) carried a cryptic message ‘proving’ that Bacon was the true author.

MacDuff’s method was to square that passage – that is, in the manner of all good spy movies, he set it out letter by letter, line by line, into a rectangular grid of squares, one letter to each square, and omitting all punctuation and word spacing. Having reduced the speech to such a cryptic, if unreadable, sea of letters, MacDuff began to pick out patterned arrangements of squares whose letters could be arranged to form words conveying such ‘significant messages’ as BACON – HEIR – TO – THE – THRONE. Fig.1 gives an example of his method – actually two examples in one. The word THRONE of the quoted ‘message’ is shown, laid out with its letters in a cross-formation. The other words of the ‘message’ cannot all be shown at the same time without one bit obscuring another with overlaps, but we can show part of the explanation of why Bacon was heir to the throne, for in the formation of letters over to the left we read, after a little juggling about, and using some letters twice, F. BACON BASTARD SON. Bastard son of whom? Of Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, as it turns out, hence all the cloak and dagger stuff of coded messages in plays written under the pen-name of ‘Shakespeare’.

Example of MacDuff's decipherment of Shakespeare

Fig. 1

Of course, MacDuff’s critics pointed out that his method implied he should know something of the ‘message’ before he could actually decipher any of it – my own view entirely – but the procedure struck me as a very entertaining game nonetheless: a sort of Shakespearean ‘oracle’, and much more interesting than Scrabble.

Accordingly, I tipped the wink to the Cosmic Joker, borrowed a facsimile edition of the first folio of the plays, and turned to the following speech in Antony and Cleopatra (Note 1):

Rather a ditch in Egypt
Be gentle graue vnto me, rather on Nylus mudde
Lay me starke-nak’d, and let the water-Flies
Blow me into abhorring; rather make
My Countries high pyramides my Gibbet,
And hang me vp in Chaines.

I chose this speech because it contains one of only three references to pyramids in the whole of Shakespeare, two of which are, perhaps not surprisingly, in Anthony and Cleopatra (Note 2). This was simply the first I chose. Very esoteric things, pyramids, so I felt there ought to be a coded message here somewhere, what with one half-baked theory saying that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, and another half-baked theory talking of Baconian Rosicrucian symbolism in the plays. The circumstantial flimsiness of such a fully baked procedure meant that something almost concrete should come of it. It did, too!

The squaring of the last five lines of this speech produces two interesting word-games on a pyramid theme, reproduced in Figs. 2 & 3.

Spoof decipherment of Shakespeare by Bob Forrest

Fig. 2 (top) and Fig. 3 (bottom)

In Fig.2, note the cross formation of letters formed by the word “pyramid” and the two (watchful?) letter I’s, above right and below right of the initial letter P, thus spelling out the word PI twice.

A cross formation, the word pyramid, the double and symmetrical hint of the number pi, and the text has supplied us with the essentials of classical pyramidology – circle squaring and Christian symbolism, via the Great Pyramid.

A typographical coincidence? Oh me of little faith!

In Fig.3 is picked out a pyramid formation of letters built upon the word pyramide as base. It takes only a little effort to arrange these letters into “SMYTH AT THE GREAT PYRAMIDE”, a clear prophecy, from a seventeenth century text, of the nineteenth century high priest of pyramidology, Charles Piazzi Smyth (Note 3).

A typographical coincidence? Or maybe Shakespeare – or was it Bacon – was really the agent of some extraterrestrial intelligence with the ability to see through time? Now there’s a hypothesis!

ET or not, he was something of a Fortean. Off-hand I can think of two UFOs (King John IV.2.182 and 3Henry VI  II.1.25) plus a reference to reincarnation (Twelfth Night IV.2.57) in the text of the plays. Almost certainly there’s more Fort in the great bard yet.

But returning to anagrams, many readers will know that the long word “honorificabilitudinitatibus” occurs in the play Love’s Labour’s Lost (V.1.45), and that Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence discovered that this was an anagram of,: “Hi Ludi F. Baconis Nati Tuiti Orbi” – meaning, “These plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world.” (Note 4)

Sir Edwin believed that this was the only anagram of the long word, and that this anagram was the reason for its introduction into the play. In actual fact, at least two other anagrams were later pointed out to him, but since both of these proclaimed Bacon as the true author, Sir Edwin wasn’t too perturbed. (Note 5)

I have myself discovered yet another anagram of the long word which throws an entirely different light on things, as well as being slightly on the risqué side. It is:

“O, ‘if’ and ‘but’ inhibit coitus, I rail.”

I read it as a sort of epitaph for a frustrated Casanova (Note 6), and it strikes me as a curious coincidence that it occurs in the play Love’s Labour’s Lost.

I should also mention that my good friend Michael Behrend has come up with yet another anagram of the long word. Using the fact that u and v are interchangeable in Latin, he finds that it wasn’t so much Francis Bacon who wrote the plays, as my good self who “polished” them up. This task, it seems, I accomplished in a previous life in which I bore the same name as in this one, though in a Latinised form. Michael’s anagram reads:

“Hi crudi toti ab B. Silvano finiti”

meaning, “These crude [plays] all polished by B. Forrest.” Whether I polished them up for Bacon or for Shakespeare, though, I have no idea, as I do not remember anything about that previous life, or about any other for that matter!

But getting back to Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence and the long word, not only did he discover the anagram “Hi Ludi etc”, he also backed up his discovery with numbers, and numbers, as we all know, cannot lie. He pointed out that if one assigns to each letter the numerical value corresponding to its position in the alphabet (A = 1, B = 2, C = 3 etc, but with I = J = 9 and U = V = 20, so that Z = 24.), then the sum of the values corresponding to the initial letters of the anagram is 73, whilst the sum of the values corresponding to the terminal letters is 63. Now, 73 + 63 = 136, which is the number of the page of the first folio on which the long word appears. Not only that, but the intermediate letters of the words of the anagram total 151, and the long word is the 151st word on p.136. Nor is that all, but the long word contains 27 letters, and it is on the 27th line of the text. Alas, the world of orthodox Shakespearean scholarship remained unmoved by all this. (Note 7)

This little essay of Shakespearean coincidences wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Psalm 46 – to be precise, the King James Version of Psalm 46.

It is a curious fact that the 46th word from the beginning of the actual psalm (ie counting from “God is etc”) is “shake” and the 46th word from the end (not counting the final “selah” as part of the psalm) is “spear”. Further, it is said, Shakespeare was 46 years old in the year 1610, the year in which the King James Version was completed. (Well, sort of – Shakespeare was 46 in April 1610 and 47 in April 1611. The King James Version was first published in 1611, and so presumably was for the most part finished in 1610.)

Robert Anton Wilson counted William Shakespeare as a W (23rd letter of the alphabet) in his article “The 23 Phenomenon”, published in Fortean Times, issue 23 (Note 8), adding that both Shakespeare’s birth and his death occurred on the 23rd April. Wilson further noted that 46 is 23 × 2, thus again linking Shakespeare with the 46th Psalm.

To the foregoing I would add that, as noted above, the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in 1623. (Skeptics will, of course, ask about the dates of the earlier quarto editions, the earliest of which was the quarto edition of Titus Andronicus, published in 1594, which year apparently has no associations with 23. However, it is a fact that the earliest quarto editions were anonymous, and the first to appear which actually bore Shakespeare’s name was, by a strange coincidence, the play so beloved of both Ewen MacDuff and Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, Love’s Labour’s Lost, which was published in 1598. Now, 1 + 5 + 9 + 8 = 23……)

Incidentally, when browsing through a Manchester bookshop the other week, I came upon Wilson’s joint venture with Robert Shea, the Illuminatus trilogy. Unfortunately, the shop in question only seemed to have parts 2 and 3 in stock.

Bob Forrest, Manchester, June 1979 & January 2013.


  1. In a modern edition of Shakespeare this is Act V, Scene 2, lines 57ff, though the modern spelling differs from the 1623 version, of course.
  2. The other reference in Antony and Cleopatra is in Act II, Scene 7, Line 21; the other reference in Shakespeare is in Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1, Line 57.
  3. Smyth’s most detailed account of his work was his Life and Work at the Great Pyramid, published in three volumes in 1867. (His more famous work, of course, was Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid, which ran to five editions between 1864 and 1890.) Smyth, a devout Christian, is buried in the churchyard at Sharow, near Ripon, beneath a large pyramidal monument which is surmounted by a cross.
  4. He reported his discovery at some length in his book Bacon is Shake-Speare (1910), p.91ff.
  5. I’m afraid I can no longer locate my reference for this, though it may well relate to the Baconian anagrams of the long word given on p.106 of the book by the Friedmans cited in note 6 below.
  6. Compare, perhaps, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” from Hamlet (III.2.242-3.)
  7. See, for example, W.F & E.S. Friedman, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined (1957), p.106-8, which also contains an account of Durning Lawrence’s precursor in this field, Dr. Isaac Hull Platt (p.104-5).
  8. In his article, Wilson describes how he was talked into doing a nude walk-on as an extra in the Black Mass scene of the National Theatre production of Illuminatus. I wonder if he found the first two lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23 relevant?