Masonic Ciphers And Symbolism In Shakespeare

A lot has already been ascertained quite recently with regard to the Masonic ciphers and symbolism found within Shakespeare’s plays and poetry (eg: “The Shakespeare Enigma”, by Director of the Globe Theatre, Peter Dawkins). Some academic authors have found anagrams and coded ciphers which support the theory that the pseudonymous “William Shakespeare” was a member of some secret Masonic Order, namely that of the Rosicrucian College, the “Sacred Order of the Rosy-Cross”. The presence of the actors Guiderstern and Rosencrantz in Shakespeare’s melancholic but autobiographical play, “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” is an obvious yet simple clue to the existence of the Rosicrucian Order in England since Christian Rosencreutz was the name of their founder in Germany. Clearly, the author of Hamlet was writing for an elite, educated and esoteric audience not as most academics have assumed for the average man who frequented the London theatres. I have already written an analysis of the “Alchemical Symbolism” to be found in Shakespeare’s dramas and poetry and the deeper significance of this in determining that the secret author, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford was a 28th degree Mason and the real author of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. Indeed, some authors writing on the subject are convinced that Shakespeare worked alongside other colleagues of a similar persuasion and interest, namely Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh or Christopher Marlowe who were all considered by other writers to be alternative candidates as authors of Shakespeare’s 1623 Folio (See “Sir Francis Bacon versus Edward de Vere”). An initial clue of Masonic or Alchemical terminology can be found in Shakespeare’s late play Macbeth when Lady Macbeth secretly arranges to drug the guards’ drinks so that her husband can safely kill King Duncan while he is asleep:

“That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only: when in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lie as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
The unguarded Duncan? what not put upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?”
(Act One, scene 7)

Some academic researchers insist that the assassination of King Duncan is an allegorical representation of the murder of the early founder of Freemasonry, Hiram Abiff (Helen H. Gordon). The use of the rather rare and esoteric word ‘limbeck’ actually means a glass retort employed in alchemy for the purpose of distillation (derived from the Arabic, ie: “Alembic”). By analogy the author compares the human brain to an ‘alchemical alembic’ where the rare distillation of perception and reason takes place in the human mind through conscious reflection. Space and time does not allow in this essay for a full history or explanation of the origins of Freemasonry in Europe, but suffice to say that its origins go as far back as the late Egyptian era and to one Dionysus the Areopagite, the first Bishop of Athens (1st century AD) as well as the Greek Philosopher (Plato) and the Egyptian Mystery Schools (Hermes Trismegistus, “The Emerald Tablets” which are even older). It evolved in Europe under the clandestine cloak of numerous Salons, Academies or Lodges each allocated with their own set of rituals, allegories, emblems and symbols and was in no sense universally homogenous, each lodge being somewhat divergent in its doctrine. Although the Knight Templars were to a certain extent the early initiators of a Masonic system after their travels during the crusades to Jerusalem (1095-99) and their contact with the Syrian Church and Muslim leaders. Now, I have already described in a previous article the predominance of the “Neo-Platonic Symbolism in Shakespeare” as well as the influence of the Elizabethan Magus Dr. John Dee in establishing a British Commonwealth in the New World of the Americas (See: “The Queen’s Sorcerer”). Dr. Dee was patronised and consulted by Mary Sidney, a member of the Pembroke circle who helped to publish the 1623 Folio and instituted the elite literary circle known as Areopagus. The First Folio of 1623, as we shall see, was liberally peppered with Masonic Symbolism. Mary Sidney, whose brother Phillip Sidney was an established poet and author, was a great adherent of Christian mysticism, magic and astrology. She was also a close friend and admirer of Dr. John Dee who was consulted many times by Queen Elizabeth 1st, in particular to arrange an auspicious date for her coronation. The 20th century poet Ted Hughes, in reference to Shakespeare’s art quite correctly states: “Everything was ordered to numerical and alphabetical ciphers, secret keys, symbols and sigils that constitute a mnemonic or psychic map of consciousness” (“Shakespeare & The Goddess of Sublime Being”, Faber & Faber 1992).

The Title page of Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”

This was sometimes referred to as the Heavenly Ladder of Ascent or conversely the Hellish Fall from Grace. (ie: In the prevailing Christian Qaballah of the time The Tree of Life constituted Three Pillars, 10 Sephirotic Spheres, & the 22 Paths of Wisdom). These ideas can also be found in the study and use of Tarot cards (Triomphs or Tarrochi) which evolved into the practice of divination during the early part of the Italian and French Renaissance. All of which, depending on the initiates’ faith in themselves or some invoked or imagined higher power, will eventually lead to the transitional paths of Holy Purgatory or Holy Redemption (ascent to the Father or liberation of the soul). The traditional Three Orders of English Freemasonry (symbolising the Arts, Humanities & Sciences) were each composed of eleven degrees denoting a scale of preferment or deferment in ascending or descending order from 1-33, the number of bones or vertebrae in the human spine. The human skull having some 22 separate sutures or bones in its entirety of its construction as Hamlet discovers in the comic grave-digging scene;

The 22 sutures of the human skull and their Tarot numerical correspondences

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!”,
(Hamlet, Act 5, scene 1 ).

Although Hamlet, while holding Yorick’s skull is cleverly alluding both to Freemasonry (the human skull was as an emblem a reminder to the acolyte of their own inherent mortality) and to the actor/clown Richard Tarleton, we know that similar literary and scientific works written and published by Edmund Spenser, Dante Alighieri, Giordano Bruno, Francis Bacon, Robert Fludd and the Elizabethan Magus, Dr. John Dee, based their philosophy and were greatly inspired by these Cabalistic initiations and experiments into the workings of Occult Freemasonry. In his book “Shakespeare & Platonic Beauty” (Chatto & Windus 1961) John Vyvyan suggests that a literary and dramatic working model was actually borrowed from the Italian author/philosopher Balthazar Castiglione (The Courtier) and Marsilio Ficino who in turn had studied and translated the works of Plato and Plotinus. These Platonic and Qaballistic ideas were first taken up by Edmund Spenser in England and soon after fell into the literary dominion of Shakespeare and several others in his intimate circle. The poet Ted Hughes also identifies what may have been conceived as the polarities on the Tree of Life in Shakespeare’s plays – albeit in another context eg: Catholic & Protestant or romantic-pragmatic which are often reconciled in a Pythagorean context with a third principle ie: Renaissance Humanism.

Scene on a painted Greek Vase depicting the rites of Dionysus

The Sidney-Herbert circle influenced by Neo-Platonic, Hermetic and Rosicrucian ideas was not the only one operating in Elizabethan England therefore some additional reference needs inserting at this point to complete the picture of socio-political life in Elizabeth’s long reign of forty-four years. In particular one secret Elizabethan society was known as “The School of Night”. Although the name of this apparently “atheist cabal” was coined sometime after its actual existence, there is good reason to presume that it was really a loose affiliation of “Free Thinkers” that were in contradistinction to the romantically inclined Sidney-Herbert circle with its emphasis on promoting elements of Reformation faith. At its core was a firm belief in the New Enlightenment in Europe posed by the pursuit of scientific enquiry. The name of the group is presumed to echo sentiments expressed in Thomas Wyatt’s poem “The Shadow of Night”, a theme also taken up by the poet George Chapman who joined this esoteric school. A similar reference is made in Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labours Lost” to a “School of Night” in contradistinction to the romantic path of the feminine advocated by the members of the Herbert/Sidney/Essex Circle. With the discovery or advent of Rosicrucianism, a form of esoteric Christianity, inclusive of Hermeticism, secretly infused with Egyptian and Judaic magic, gradually emerged in Europe. Its socio-political culmination, the institution and practice of Freemasonry also took hold in certain aristocratic circles, and interest as well as experimental research into the art of Alchemy began in Europe. The playwright Ben Jonson satirised and lampooned these adherents and practitioners in his own play “The Alchemist”.

The Alchemical alembic depicting the male and female energies inherent in the human psyche

Similarly, Christopher Marlowe’s controversial play, “Dr. Faustus” was thought to parody and lampoon the so-called ‘magical workings’ of Freemasons. This was often coupled with the abstract ideas of Giordano Bruno as well as the application of the deductive scientific process, through which came a strong presumption of doubt if not an epistemological crisis within orthodox faiths. The need to communicate secretly and anonymously through codes and ciphers was therefore extremely important when we consider the serious socio-political crisis that was predominant during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and James 1st (eg: The Jesuit Counter-Reformation Conspiracy and the 1605 Gunpowder Plot). Numerous treatises on the subject of encipherment and coded messages (Cryptography) were available from the time. The Italian Giovanni Battista della Porta (b. 1535) published his famous book on cryptographic codes; “De Furtivis Literarum Notis” in 1563. Della Porta’s book was reprinted in England by John Wolfe in 1591 and Dr. John Dee, tutor to Arundel Talbot (alias William Hastings), Sir Phillip Sidney and Robert Dudley was familiar with the writings and encryption methods of the occult sage, Trithemius. Sir Francis Bacon was himself an expert practitioner on the subject, his brother Anthony Bacon was himself an intelligence agent and would also have been well aware of the use of ciphers and codes in espionage. In his book “The Shakespeare Enigma” Peter Dawkins suggests and illustrates that Bacon (Baron Verulam) was the 33rd Degree grandmaster of the Grand Lodge of St. Albans, an institution which goes back to early Medieval times. The English aristocrat and Freemason, Sir John Davies (1569-1626) wrote twenty-six elegant Hymns to his muse “Astraea” each an acrostic upon the words “Elizabeth Regina” while Mary Fage in “Fames Roule” (1637) venerated in similarly encoded verses 420 luminaries of her own age.

Albrecht Durer’s engraving of the Art of Melancholy

In the Masonic treatise “The Lost Key, an explanation and application of Masonic Symbols” by Prentiss Tucker, B.A, the author states:

“My course thus far is symbolic of that well known passage in Scripture: ‘Seek and ye shall find, ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you’.

“Because a rap upon a door is, symbolically, equivalent to a request for the knowledge which is held by those behind the door. A knock on the door of a school is a symbolic request for the instruction of that school. We are accustomed to this use of the term. It is quite understandable to say of such and such a man that he “knocked upon the doors of Plato’s School and was taught in the wisdom of that sage philosopher.” Or, we might say, “He left the forests of the North and journeyed south to knock upon the gates of Harvard University in search of knowledge.” In either case we would be using the very same symbology nor would even the most unenlightened reader need to ask for an explanation. But why the THREE raps? Why not one or two or four? Simply because he is asking, symbolically, for instruction in the three great departments of his lower nature, the physical, emotional and mental. Hence the three raps which correspond to the three steps of the Master’s platform.”

An artist’s impression of the Alchemical Wedding

In Act Two, scene 2, of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth a knocking is heard and Macbeth, the Thane of Cawdor asks:

“Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appals me?”

And in the following scene, the knocking noise intensifies:
[Knocking within. Enter a Porter]

“Here’s a knocking indeed! If a
man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key.”

[Knocking within]
Knock, knock, knock!
“Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebub?
Here’s a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty:
Come in time; have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.”

[Knocking within]
Knock, knock!
“Who’s there, in the other devil’s
name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could
swear in both the scales against either scale;
who committed treason enough for God’s sake,
yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come
in, equivocator.”

[Knocking within]
Knock, knock, knock!
“Who’s there? Faith, here’s an
English tailor come hither, for stealing out of
a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may roast your goose.”

[Knocking within]
Knock, knock;
“Never at quiet! What are you? But
this place is too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter
it no further: I had thought to have let in
some of all professions that go the primrose
way to the everlasting bonfire.”

[Knocking within]
“Anon, anon! I pray you, remember the porter.”
[Opens the gate]

Robert Burton’s title page from the Anatomy of Melancholy

Thomas Quincy wrote about how disturbing this dramatic device can be in his essay “Knocking at the Gate”, saying that it made him feel extremely apprehensive, anxious and full of dread. However, the text of this scene has other interesting allusions too complex to reveal within the confines of this current essay but will be the subject of a future post (The Robert Catesby Gunpowder Treason). However, returning to the subject of hidden ciphers in Shakespeare, a researcher and mathematician, by the name of Peter Bull thinks he has conclusively cracked the Shakespeare Code in the Sonnets Dedication. He is of course not the only author to have declared this. He suggests a clever acrostic system based on a Judeo-Greek cipher system where the initial letter of each line of Shakespeare’s Sonnets creates the phrase in reverse ascending order: “KIT MARLOWE WROTE THIS” in a zigzag pattern on a table of stanzas and lines. He also demonstrates that the word KIT occurs in several instances. Other code-breakers have demonstrated that the name DE VERE (Earl of Oxford) is also encrypted into the letters of the Sonnets Dedication. And let us not forget that Robert Nield (“Breaking the Shakespeare Codes”, 2007 CC Publishing), using numerous anagrams has given poor evidence to say that William Hastings is named as the original author. While it would be extremely common and not unusual to see any pattern of letters in such a huge grid (14 x 154) and to select certain of those letters to spell out whatever name one desires. When devising anagrams one can so easily fall into errors of judgement despite the discipline of the mathematical and analytical methods employed. Even so, the fact that they do exist may be the result of conscious deception on the part of the real author to mislead or someone tampering with the original work to achieve such a patterned arrangement. Let us not forget that the text of poetry and plays was much abused, amended or abridged during the compilation of fonts prior to printing in the 16th century.

Alexander Waugh’s solution to the coded message in the Sonnets Dedication

In 1997 a retired physicist John Rollet examining the mystery of the Shakespearean Sonnets discovered that when the dedication is arranged in a 16X9-row grid the name HENRY appeared in a diagonal section.

And when arranged in a 18×8 grid, the name WRIOTHESLEY appeared vertically although broken up into three sections. Sir Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton was as everyone should know the patron of “William Shakespeare”.
However, the cipher secretly hidden in the Sonnets Dedication was finally cracked by Alexander Waugh using an 18×9 grid where the arrangement of letters spell out “DE VERE LIES HERE” (See “The Sonnets Code De-Ciphered”).

The Sonnets Code superimposed upon the ground plan of Westminster Abbey

Although hypothetical theories of the existence of acrostics and anagrams within Shakespeare’s plays and poetry has over time become an “infinite numbers game” by which if we play around with a great number of possibilities we will eventually find some obscure confirmation of a secret code or name. This example does occur in the dedication and we can therefore suspect some cryptic Masonic clue lies within it. It might not have been the intention of the real author to reveal his identity but the intention of the publisher or compiler to mislead in a very cunning manner. Secret codes and messages in written works were more prevalent in Shakespeare’s time than they are now although the author Dan Brown (“The Lost Symbol”) has made an attempt to redress or correct that omission. Just to suggest a sense of mysterious meaning in a literary or dramatic work was enough to create a greater demand for its sale from the curious and gullible public eager for any hidden gossip or scandal.

An engraved illustration from Emblemata depicting the Tree of Life, the 12 Zodiac Signs and the 7 Planets

So it seems that an apparent random series of letters could easily conceal a secret message or meaning by appearing to be a piece of poetry or blank verse. Furthermore, because poetry is structured according to certain rhythms and metrical patterns then each line or number of verses could be a clue to the type of cipher system employed. This might happen by chance or synchronicity, this is the nature of the craftsmanship, the medium and to some extent the poet’s mood. In his book “The Shakespeare Codes”, Robert Nield suggests that there are various anagrams in several inscriptions, introductions and prefaces to the material, whether that is a poem, play or dedication. The inscription on Shakespeare’s grave has also been deciphered by him to suggest that the real author was Lord Arundel Talbot or William Hastings. He asserts that William Hastings was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley. For me personally, the anagrams identified are far too simple a solution, given the technological tools available today, for most cryptographers of the intellectual calibre and time of Shakespeare would have contrived a far more cunning or random method. Still we have to ask why would the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth conceal his true identity so easily within his work, (knowing how calamitous this would have been for the Tudor dynasty and his own mother). The revelation of his identity meant the so-called “Virgin Queen” would be branded a whore? Then finally before his own death, he conspires to reveal his true identity on a bogus gravestone inscription! None of this could have been done without some external assistance or without anyone else knowing and certainly Lord Arundel Talbot or William Hastings could not have done it entirely on their own.

Astrology was a means to study Man and the Stars in Elizabethan times

There are further examples of deliberate numerical orders and stages in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, temporal forms are clearly expressed in Marcellus Pallingenius“Zodiacos Vitae”, in George Chapman’s “Amorous Zodiac”, in the form of astrological decanates and Edmund Spenser’s “Shepherd’s Calendar” in the form of 12 zodiacal signs. Like many other authors and researchers Alastair Fowler regards Spenser’s “Epithalamion” as a temporal form that reflects the new knowledge of a heliocentric universe, the 23rd verse of which refers to the inclination or angle of the zodiacal ecliptic around the earth. However, the art of arranging poetry to reflect some eternal or mathematical truth or even geometric proportion became ever more complex and diverse in the Elizabethan era. Poems could even appear to take on mathematical proportions or complex geometric shapes. Alastair Fowler says his own study is premature and tentative and he hopes that it will arouse greater interest and promote further enquiry and study into other works since spatial or symbolic structures in poetry and other forms of literature has in practice has now become obsolete. The Sonnets Dedication certainly displays a triangular format or structure.

Poems could even take on mathematical or geometric proportions by virtue of the number of lines per verse and the number of verses or sections. They could be arranged evenly or square, denoting stability, alternatively as a triangular form denoting dynamism and ingenuity, or circular denoting perfection and completion. In the first instance the effect could be achieved with 4 lines per verse, in the second example by 3 lines per verse and in the final example with six lines per verse. Milton re-arranged his 10 chapters of “Paradise Lost” to make 12 chapters and many would argue that this gives the work a greater emphasis and value. In this sense the artist, architect or poet was imitating God’s laws and creation, and was elevating himself to the role of demigod through this practice and tradition. However, the value of numerical or alphabetical structures in poetry had practical applications for it was also a mnemonic device, in that it made poetry easier to remember and could be orated without recourse to written notes.

The ceiling mural at the Globe Theatre featuring the 12 Constellations

Contrary to Alastair Fowler’s (re: “Triumphal Forms”, Cambridge University Press, 1970) irrational conclusions about whether or not Shakespeare and others in his circle were consciously constructing or encoding their verses, Frances Yates (Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age) asserts that Spenser’s “Fairie Queene” has a structure that alludes to Hermetic and Alchemical ideas and a symbolic format reflecting the order of the planets found only in Francisco Giorgio’s tableau of the “Three Worlds”. Similarly, I have already analysed the alphanumerical significance of “Shakespeare’s Codename” and discovered some interesting correspondences. However, of great interest to cryptographers is the Sonnets Dedication of 1609 which clearly suggests the implication of a cipher or code. The main reason being that it is all written in capital letters (a rare occurrence for Elizabethan literature) and each word ends in a full-stop. A curious tendency in Rosicruscian ciphers is the use of dots, geometrically placed within a field or “Magic Square” to signify a cipher code (A-Z). The Oxfordian author and researcher Helen H. Gordon has discovered the use of an interesting and unusual cipher in the poetic work of Edward de Vere as well as in the well known Sonnets Dedication, which numerous academics that contend with each other for a “viable solution”, although these remain bewildering and implausible to the average person.

Various techniques or methods of Cryptography and encipherment were employed for this purpose throughout history going back to the ancient Persians and Greeks. In military campaigns for example it would be to no avail if a messenger was ambushed carrying a message simply written in a foreign language. It would simply be translated and the enemy’s movements, tactics or intentions would be revealed giving them an obvious advantage. Joannes Trithemius, an abbot, occultist and theologian was the first person to write on this obscure subject (See “Polygraphiae”). Since then the study and use of coded encryption has entered every sphere of modern life and science from the internet, covert intelligence, commerce, artificial intelligence, and computing generally. In the simple 24 alphanumeric cipher the letters I, J and Y were given the same value (9) and then even rotated to produce a different attribution of number to letter. If for example the values are rotated 5 times then A=E, B=F, C=G etc. From this technique another twenty codes could be employed to make decipherment of a coded message even more difficult to crack. The Elizabethan cipher alphabet consisted of 24 letters in accord with the Latin with J, and I being the same and V and W maintaining the same numerical value. Therefore we have ABCDEFGHI(JY)KLMNOPQRSTU(VW)XZ which can be arranged in a table with their corresponding numerical values as follows:

Shakespeare regularly uses emblems, colours or icons that have a Masonic, Biblical or Alchemical significance. As a typical example his poetry is metaphorically infused with the colours “Pale” (silvery grey), “Red”, “White” and “Black” or “Dark” and all of these colours can be found on the equine mounts of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse described in the King James Bible. I have already examined in great detail the use of the word “Rose” in two articles entitled “A Rose By Any Other Name” and “Oh, But What’s In A Name” to illustrate the Bard’s tendency in using innocent but analogous emblems. In his Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Agrippa went to great lengths to describe a system by which the very words one writes can convey a message, saying that this message could be read even if the manuscripts were translated into any one of the three primary languages, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Portions of the system are scattered across the three books for concealment, and it is only when you diagram all the things written in the books that the system eventually reveals itself to the student. Cornelius Agrippa uses an alphabet that is reprinted by Vigenere, Porta and Selenus, and also used by his mentor Johannes Trithemius. This relates the alphabet mnemonically to the 12 zodiac signs, the 7 planets, the 4 elements and the spirit (soul). The Zodiac is represented by the consonants, the 5 major planets are represented by the vowels (excluding the Sun and Moon), and the remaining letters are the four elements and the spirit (soul). Their order appears just as they were taught in the seven occult sciences of the time, and the entire system is based on the mnemonic teaching that was so prevalent in Renaissance academies:

Agrippa’s Cipher Code using the 12 signs, 7 planets, and 5 elements

The various parts of the body are also mnemonically presented from their order of teaching in medicine, and the 12 signs of the zodiac, the 7 traditional planets, and the four elements, including a star symbolising ‘spirit’. The names of numerous orders of birds, plants, animals, etc. are also assigned these celestial virtues and remembered in their order against this scale. (see Pliny) In fact, if you go back to the teachings of the “ancients”, you will find an order prevalent in these books, probably because there were few textbooks and it was important to remember things in an order that allowed for easy retention.

Agrippa takes this mnemonic teaching one step further. As an example, Saturn has the lapwing as its bird, the cuttlefish as its fish, the mole as its mammal, lead as its metal, onyx as its stone, the right foot as a body part, the right ear as its head part, and the colour of blue, with many more distinctions to be found in the texts relating to the planet Saturn which also equates to the letter A.
Agrippa’s system is based on his observation that when you write the word “lapwing” you are also representing the letter A. When you write the word “lead” you are also saying the letter A, etc. So if I were to write:

“He has the grace of a lapwing, the swiftness of a cuttlefish, and the cunning of a mole, but his right ear has all the tone of a leaden vessel, and his right foot knows not how to command the dance.” Then I would have just written the letter A five times in a row. This is the simple version of concealed ciphers alluded to in Book One. Now the Baconian cipher code was composed using only the letters A and B written in a variety of combinations as follows: A=aaaaa, B=aaaab, C=aaaba, D= aabaa etc. Another simple and ingenious cipher was known as the bi-vowel cipher whereby the five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) in combinations of two represent the 24 letters of the Elizabethan alphabet. Thus in any written passage of text by noting the sequence of ‘double vowels” that occur consecutively in any sentence such as say: “I AM THAT I AM”; I (ei) am (aaie), that (ooeeaaoo) I (ei) am (aaie)” where ei = I, aa =A, ie = M, oo=T, ee =H, etc.

The Elizabethans also used a system similar to that designed by the Greek mathematician Polybius to conceal messages using a simple 25-letter alphabet enclosed within a 5×5 grid which would be easy to memorise and employ. From the above table therefore; 11 represents the letter A, 12 =B, 13 =C, 14 =D, 15 =E, 21 =F and 22 =G and so forth, so that a whole message could be written merely with a simple pair of numbers. Conversely, if we exclude the double numbers (ie; 11, 22, 33, 44, & 55) allocated to each of the letters then B could be written as 21, C as 31 and D as 41.

Cryptology was further complicated or rather advanced by the use of various alpha-numerical tables each pertaining to a language or alphabetical script. In the case of the Jewish system a 22 letter alphabet, the Greeks a 24-letter alphabet, the Romans a 23-letter alphabet and much later the modern English 26-letter alphabet. During Shakespeare’s time there was no letter J and it was often written using an I or Y. The letter U was sometimes substituted for V and a double V was written as VV (double-u, W). Sometimes a decoy letter or word would be employed to throw the decryption process into confusion, usually the first or last letter/word beginning or ending a coded sentence. One method described by Trithemius employs the second letter and one before the last of each word and there are as many variations in this method as there are inscrutable or cunning minds to devise them. Another method devised to encode messages was letter substitution; whereby say the letter A was substituted by the second, third, fourth or fifth in the alphabetic series. In this case the same converse rule applies that is “revolving” both backwards and forwards. Employing a pentagonal rule (every 5th letter) then A would be represented by the letter E, the letter B by F, and C by G and so on.

The Rosicrucian cipher system (PigPen) left, its extension A-Z centre and the Knights Templar Cipher

This is known as “alphanumerical rotation”, a system employed by the Hebrew agents for many years in antiquity (See Rotariquon). In his book of ciphers, “Polygraphiae”, Trithemius gives many methods that rotate or combine the letters of the alphabet forwards or backwards. As the Biblical admonition states “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” which suggests the use of a reverse cipher whereby the first letter A (=26) has the value of the last letter Z, which is numerically 1 (The “Alpha & Omega” being a Masonic key phrase or clue suggesting a cipher). The first play in Shakespeare’s 1623 Folio is coincidentally “The Tempest” although it was probably the very last play “Shakespeare” wrote, so by placing it as the first only verifies a Masonic connection for the compilation of the Folio. In Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night” the rather zany character of Malvolio (who some researchers have established is a parody of Sir Christopher Hatton), receives what he considers is a coded message from a secret admirer. It should be noted that Shakespeare chose the names MALVOLIO (13+1+12+22+15+12+9+15 = 99), from which is derived anagrammatically the names OLIVIA and VIOLA. While Malvolio gives us a Masonic double number (99), both Olivia and Viola reduce numerically to 5, they are numerological or anagrammatic twins hence the number 55 is connoted. Edward de Vere’s heraldic shield has a “Five-Pointed White Star” or pentacle emblazoned on it and both Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere employed the Boar as an heraldic animal totem. In the Shakespeare play, “Twelfth Night” which presumably takes place on the 6th of January there is a clever cryptic reference to the science of encryption in Malvolio’s speech in Act 2 scene 5, when he tries to analyse the “false letters” from his Lady planted by her maid Maria to deceive him into thinking that Olivia is enamoured of her fawning servant Malvolio: First of all he recognises her handwriting:

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. It is, in contempt of question, her hand.

‘I may command where I adore.’ Why, she may command
me: I serve her; she is my lady. Why, this is
evident to any formal capacity; there is no
obstruction in this: and the end,–what should
that alphabetical position portend? If I could make
that resemble something in me,–Softly! M, O, A, I,–

And then realising that all of these letters coincidentally appear in his own name later speculates on the meaning and sequence of the letters themselves:
M, O, A, I; this simulation is not as the former: and
yet, to crush this a little, it would bow to me, for
every one of these letters are in my name. Soft!
here follows prose.

‘If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I am above thee;
but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.

Clearly, although intended as an amusing interlude this reference also reveals Shakespeare’s knowledge and experience of devising codes and code-breaking while working as an playwright and spy in the theatre. The phrase “and yet to crush this a little” refers to the technique of folding a paper document in such a way as to reveal the hidden sequence of letters from an apparent random or jumbled arrangement of letters on the page. While the term “revolve” originally meant to ponder or reflect, probably refers to the technique employed in determining all the different arrangements derived from those letters (A Revolving Cipher such as the Vignere).

The Vignere Rotation Cipher

One of the simplest methods of encoding is of course abbreviation using the first and last letters of a word or removing the vowels altogether. Rotating or reversing the letters can also be employed just to confuse decipherment. This method does involve some guesswork but can still work in an emergency when given a lack of resources. In some instances a word or a name could be abbreviated eg: William Shakespeare can be written as WS. Or VQ represent the Virgin Queen. This is often referred to as a personal monogram as in the case of the Elizabethan printer Thomas Thorpe (TT), the publisher of Shakespeare’s Sonnets which was printed on the frontispiece and dedication to a mysterious Mr. W.H. Interestingly enough Thorpe’s monogram resembles the Greek symbol (Pi or 22/7), just as VV (20 in Roman numerals) makes a W as printed text and an “oo” sound phonetically. Roman numerals therefore had an additional bonus for the purpose of secret encryption.

Dr. John Dee, his pentacle and his patron, Queen Elizabeth 1st

Acronym ciphers can appear in poetry where the first or even last letter of each line can become the coded acronym as devised by myself:

Let the bird of loudest lay
Eggs of various tone and hue
On their nests built out of sight
Not so easily seen by you.
If you ever spend your day
Driving on till dead of night
All you really have to do
Stop a while, enjoy the view.

It should be noted that several symbolic motifs occur repeatedly in William Shakespeare’s 1623 Folio, for example the first play to be paginated is the Tempest even though it was probably the last play to be written by the Bard. But this is merely an affirmation of the Masonic and Biblical phrase “the last shall be first and the first shall be last”. Alongside of this is the appearance of the Greek God Dionysus, the patron of drama and Apollo, the patron deity of poetry, and Athena the patron deity of government and law. So an apparent random series of letters could easily conceal a secret message or meaning by appearing to be a piece of poetry. Shakespeare’s 154 verse Sonnets can be structured into a table as follows:

The poetic structure of Shakespeare’s Sonnets reflects the spheres on the Tree of Life

Masonic acronyms usually extended from 2-3 letter combinations. The double A which stands for Athena & Apollo as a decorative motif appears within the introductory pages of the 1623 Folio alongside images of rabbits (symbolising Springtime as well as fecundity). The letters A & O stand for the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet. Three letter acronym ciphers are regularly used in text messages today, eg: LOL = Laugh Out Loud, SAS = Short Attention Span, SSS = Sofa Surfers Suck, etc.

The “Double A” symbolism in the first Sonnets Title page

It is merely a short step from this method to devise a triple number system and a great deal has already been elucidated regarding the number 37 as the numerical key to the Old and New Testaments, as already mentioned in other posts on the subject and the division of the triple numbers 111 (AAA), 222 (BBB), 333 (CCC), 444 (DDD), 555 (EEE), 666 (FFF), 777 (GGG), 888 (HHH), and 999 (III) by the “key number” 37 gives us the so-called Fibonacci series of numbers eg: 3, 6, 9, 12, 15 etc. Triple letters are also employed in the Enochain system of invocation which Dr. John Dee utilised and espoused as “a divine language” that only angels could readily understand and were compelled to obey as does the angel Ariel for Prospero’s benefit in the Tempest.

Francisco Giorgio’s tableaux of the “Three Worlds”

However, it was thought expedient to improve or refine the numerical values of letters to avoid any confusion since ten (1+zero) was the first double value and eleven (11th sign Aquarius invention/reform, a sigil for the zodiac sign of Gemini-the heavenly and earthly twins, the Greek letter Pi (), or a dolmen arch of two pillars suggesting logic, ambiguity, and distinction as well as natural polarity) being the first air sign, and Aquarius the last air sign of the zodiac (A-Z). This system derived from Cabalistic practice conveniently dovetails into the Cabalistic 22 letter alphabet and was much favoured by spymasters and known as the “K” (Kaye) Cipher:

The highest value letter being I=33 signifying the Thirty-Three degrees of Freemasonry. Of which an alternative reverse numbered cipher was also employed by spies and cryptographers. The number of letters or words employed also provide clues since numerology maintains that words or letters with the same value are synonymous and resonate at the same frequency. The higher and lower case, italic form or simple forms denoting the count. The number of words are purposely devised to parallel the word or words implied. It may be that a certain everyday word is repeated so many times in a passage so this becomes the basis of a numerical cipher or clue to which system is employed in the text.

The numerous intrigues, plots, counter-plots, secret agents, double agents and widespread espionage during the Reformation and the Inquisition necessitated greater skill, ingenuity, variety and often casual or covert dissemination of encrypted messages or references. Therefore a business contract, a shopping list, a proposal of love, a poem or casual piece of correspondence could really conceal an instruction or piece of information for an agent abroad. The same method is employed by spies today, a regular daily or weekly article in a newspaper, a broadcast message over the radio and so forth would actually conceal the message the agent required so there was no need to send written communications that could so easily be intercepted.
However, these crude mechanical means of encoding real meaning were not the only means at the disposal of artists, writers and commentators during the Elizabethan era. In literature, satirical drama and poetry it can be found that allegory or allusion was often the means by which a coded reference, accusation or condemnation could be made, often disguised in some ambiguity, contrary or substitution. Often a play might be performed whose plot or characters parallels a contemporary condition or situation (Parallel Lives & Parallel Dramatic Structures). The enlightened audience of Shakespeare’s’ circle, mostly the aristocracy, the literary cognoscenti and statesmen would intuitively pick up on what the Bard had secretly intended to say.

The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Published by Leonidas Kazantheos

For as long as I can remember I have been passionate about the arts, social change and the sustainable environment. After more than thirty years of voluntary and professional involvement commuting between Yorkshire and Lancashire while working in those areas I finally relocated to Buxton in 2013. This was after the birth of our son Gaspard and to further the career of my French partner, Francoise Collignon who is currently seeking work in the tourism sector. In 1988 I became the Regional co-ordinator for the National Artists Association in Manchester and helped promote the artistic revival in the region. At the turn of the millennium in 2001, while pursuing my vocational interest in symbolism and the natural world, I became involved in environmental conservation and the protection of green space in W. Yorkshire. I was elected editor for Calderdale Friends of the Earth, a monthly postal and online newsletter. In my spare time I was preoccupied as a writer, natural archivist and amateur poet. Over a period of five years I also worked briefly as an architectural technician, landscape designer and mural artist near Holmfirth where I gained invaluable insights into restoration and the development of Green Field and Brown Field sites. In my mid-forties I relocated from Halifax, W. Yorkshire to Manchester where I worked as an artist and freelance set designer for several photographic, film and video companies. My work recieved reviews in Hotshoe International, Avant Magazine, NME, The Face, the Big Issue and one shot (The Wolf) became a best-selling poster for Athena Posters. In the late 80’s I became an active member of the National Artists Association and a subscriber to the Design & Artists Copyright Society. I assisted in the instigation of the first Multi-cultural Arts Conference and the first Black Arts Forum in Manchester. I became editor of a quarterly Arts Magazine concerned with promoting and supporting artist’s initiatives in the region. Nevertheless, in my spare time I wrote numerous articles on the natural world and researched aspects of Dream Symbolism and the study of semiotics and gestalts in literature and art. I was involved as facilitator for the local allotments and helped set up a local nature reserve at Hough End. Finally, I was encouraged by a close mentor in America to write more seriously about the work of the literary genius William Shakespeare and to pursue a role as a poet. Although somewhat reluctantly over the past four years I have given poetry performances, workshops and readings in Manchester. I have recently published an anthology of my poetry entitled “Parthenogenesis” and a companion to Shakespeare studies entitled “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”. I am currently working on a screenplay entitled “Not Without Mustard” about the life of Edward de Vere.

One thought on “Masonic Ciphers And Symbolism In Shakespeare

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: