Thursday, 23 April 2009

Fair Friend

We are meaning-making creatures. Constructing random dots into faces and unrelated noises into malevolent intruders downstairs seems to be what we do as a species. It appears to have worked well for us, although those dark, windy nights in the Ice Age must have been a trial, hunkered around the flickering fire with the more nervous members of the tribe -- "No, really, listen, what was THAT??" Religion and art may well originally have been invented as harmless distractions for these hypersensitive souls.

In particular, the discovery of anagrams, cryptograms, and the like seems to hint at a deep, hidden meaning lurking like a monster pike beneath the placid surface of language. But these are usually a form of madness made visible. The idea that, somehow, a code has been implanted into the very symbols we use to represent the sounds that come out of our mouths is clearly insane, but nonetheless seems more profound to many people than the idea that random patterns throw up random meaningless meanings. It is a madness with a very respectable pedigree. And, of course, cryptograms have been concealed in texts from time to time, though quite why is probably a matter for students of abnormal psychology.

So, what do you make of these frequently-cited "natural" anagrams?

George Bush = He bugs Gore
Year two thousand = A year to shut down
Eleven plus two = Twelve plus one

They're very neat, and that last one is fun (think about it), but it's clear none of them means anything beyond having a superficial resemblance to a hidden code. They're as accidental as a run of six sixes in a dice game. But what about this one?

"To be or not to be: that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ..."

Familiar words. But -- improbably, unbelievably, outrageously -- they are an anagram of:

"In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero Hamlet queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten ..." *

This has to mean something, surely. But it doesn't. Other than the fact that (a) whoever worked it out had far too much time on their hands, and (b) these two sentences indisputably contain the same letters. As someone reflects in Thomas Pynchon's V: "Life's single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane." If nothing else, this constructed coincidence -- lying in wait for 400 years -- should persuade you not to let the hunters for hidden signatures and cryptograms convince you that anyone but The Stratford Man wrote the plays. William Shakespeare was William Shakespeare. That's mystery enough for anyone.

However. Today is my man Shakespeare's official birthday, so I thought I might share with any other Shakespeare enthusiasts my favourite piece of "extra-curricular" frisky Shakespeariana.


It has been suggested that William Shakespeare may have helped with the wording and meter of the Book of Psalms in the King James Version of the Bible. So, just suppose that in 1610, when the Bible was within a year of publication, the members of the Committee of translators had reason to thank and surprise him on his birthday. He was forty six years old, so let's just pretend he was invited to examine the translation of, oh, let's say Psalm 46.

Pretend further that he was prompted to count to the forty-sixth word from the beginning, and to the forty-sixth word from the end (ignoring the title and the "selahs" -- words signifying pauses or rests). Get a King James Bible, and count them for yourself, and you'll find in line three the word "shake" and in line nine the word "spear." In the way of these numerological things, if you then add the 4 and 6 of forty six, you get 10. The tenth word of the tenth line is "will". Curious, no?

It's all a complete coincidence, of course. But: quite some birthday present, even -- or maybe especially -- if unintended. Of course, it's a present Shakespeare might quietly have given to himself ...

Oh, and it is an interesting fact (allegedly -- I haven't had the opportunity to check for myself) that the KJV Bible on permanent display in Stratford church has been open at the pages containing Psalm 46 for as long as anyone can remember. Again, probably all a complete coincidence.

Happy 445th birthday, Will!

To me, fair friend, you never can be old;
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers' pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived.

For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty's summer dead.

Sonnet 104

* The author of this anagram has been identified as Cory Scott Calhoun (see here).

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