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Thursday, March 3, 2011

O Titania!: The Brave New World of Shakespeare’s Thematic Acrostics Part One: Setting the Stage

A few months ago, I made the argument in this blog that the so-called Titania acrostic in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has been discussed rarely, and exclusively in articles from the world of puzzles rather than the world of Shakespeare, was intentional and thematic on Shakespeare’s part:

In particular, I noted the thematic aptness of the Titania acrostic in the context of the action of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the moment where it appears, and claimed this was a very good reason for Shakespeareans to care about it as much as the puzzle people did. The acrostic was, in a nutshell, a “jewel” that the reader could “fetch from the deep” of the text, and a symbol of all the metaphorical “jewels” which are the fundamental stuff of Shakespeare’s poetry.

Samuel Johnson famously (and as I have argued before, obtusely and wrongly) quibbled that Shakespeare punned too much, and, in the same vein, the first reaction of many Shakespeareans to hearing about Shakespearean acrostics is probably similar to Johnson’s, i.e., that the Bard’s love of riddling word games is a distraction from, rather than an enhancement of, appreciation of his literary art.

Today, I am giving strong evidence to the contrary: that Shakespeare never lost his balance as a writer, and that he always subordinated the puns and the riddles to the meaning of his stories.

In that earlier post, I also claimed that Jane Austen, in her greatest novel, Emma, written two centuries after Shakespeare, but two centuries before today, embedded in Emma a covert homage to the Titania acrostic, hidden in the charade on “courtship” that Emma and Harriet receive from Mr. Elton.

And finally and tangentially, I also discussed a famous acrostic in one of Nabokov’s short stories, and mentioned in passing one additional tier on this acrostic layer cake, a kind of expanded acrostic in the text of the recent novel The Ghost (adapted to the film, The Ghost Writer), which I claim is itself a complex allusion to Emma and its riddles.

After I finished that post, I was left with the strong conviction that Shakespeare must have embedded many more thematic acrostics in his plays and sonnets, perhaps even anagrammed acrostics like the one in Austen’s charade in Emma. I felt that way partly because I already knew about another acrostic, in A Comedy Of Errors, which was mentioned in those 1990 and 2003 articles in puzzle magazines about the Titania acrostic, and which I will return to shortly, below.

But how to find the other Shakespearean acrostics without going blind trying to find them myself, or hiring a computer jock to create a very sophisticated program to spot them for us?
I thought an exhaustive search of the various literary scholarly databases might turn some up, buried in journals from decades ago. However, the only references I found (and I found a lot of them) were exactly what I was not searching for, which were all the claimed acrostics and other wordgames that supposedly pointed to the “true” identity of Shakespeare. In particular, the woods were thick with claims that Francis Bacon was the real man behind Shakespeare.
A half hour of reading the absurd contortions that the Baconians (and other identity zealots) twisted Shakespeare’s verse into, in a vain attempt to prove their claims to anyone not already a diehard Baconian, was enough for me to run screaming from my desktop.

I realized that part of the negative reaction of Bardolaters to the very idea of acrostics in Shakespeare’s plays was precisely that the field has been so thoroughly hijacked, for well over a century, by those looking for and at these acrostics for the sole purpose of establishing the “true” identity of Shakespeare.

This merely reinforced my original interest in finding other thematic acrostics like the Titania acrostic—acrostics which did not require reading at strange angles, did not require translation of obscure or Latin words, did not require any other elaborate sleight of hand, and, most important, required no ideological litcrit agenda.

The beauty of the Titania acrostic was precisely in its “hiding in plain sight” quality. It told us that Shakespeare played fair with his readers, and that it did not require an advanced degree in linguistics or math to spot them! Plus, the Titania acrostic taught us that these genuine acrostics were thematic, i.e., they connected in some straightforward way to the non-acrosticked text and context where they were situated, and added to our understanding of character and theme.

And it also occurred to me that there was one very broad implication of these thematic acrostics, which bore on an important scholarly debate that has raged among lovers of Shakespeare for centuries—i.e., were the plays written by Shakespeare primarily so as to be performed onstage, with the printed versions of same mere accidental byproducts? Or were the stage performances a necessary precondition subordinate to Shakespeare’s primary focus on being read by knowing readers who would have the time to study the text of the plays at their own speed, and also to detect wordplay not audible in real time in a theater, and to delve into aspects of the play which could not possibly be absorbed while witnessing a live performance?

My answer to these two alternatives, which fits with my sense that many, if not all of Shakespeare’s plays, are double stories, has all along been “both”--these are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary, goals! Now, with these acrostics, I realized I have something substantial to back up that strong intuition—because there is no way that the sharpest person sitting in an audience is going to be able to hear acrostics, whereas any person reading the text of a play in a book who is looking for acrostics can find them if they are there. So I say that those who dismiss the aspects of the plays which are only discernible from reading them as accidents of printing history must now explain why Shakespeare would take the trouble to scatter these thematic acrostics across his plays!

Anyway, that thought process got me no closer to finding more of these thematic acrostics, so I set myself a modest short term goal, which was to find the earliest published explicit sighting of the Titania acrostic, which had never been tied down in any of the articles I read. I thought that would be a promising place to start, maybe it would lead me someplace good. But I never dreamt how that intuition would actually bring me to the “mother lode” almost immediately!

When I found that source, it not only told me the identity of the first Shakespearean (since Jane Austen, that is) to spot the Titania acrostic, it also pointed me to several other thematic Shakespearean acrostics very similar to the Titania acrostic! And what’s more, it turned out that several of them are not only valid within the context of the play they appear in, but are also, in several cases pointing toward each other across the boundaries of those plays! This fit with Harold Goddard’s sense, which I have certainly found to be the case, that Shakespeare conceived of his plays both as individual works of art, but also as part of a kind of dramatic “Bible”, embodied in the First Folio, where meanings of all kinds leap to and fro between and among plays, just as the different books of the Bible interact in precisely this same way.

And irony of ironies, those valid Shakespearean acrostics have been hiding in plain sight for 85 years inside a book containing a veritable forest of alleged Baconian acrostics! That is, I believe, why they were never noticed by any non-Baconians, and so simply vanished almost without a trace (i.e., except for the Titania acrostic and the Comedy of Errors acrostic). It was because their discoverer, who had been driven by his own Baconian obsession, was unable to distinguish the Shakespearean wheat from the Baconian chaff. But the other side of that irony is that had it not been for his obsession with finding Baconian acrostics, he would surely never have undertaken the decades-long effort to discover acrostics in Shakespeare’s verse, and then to publish his findings, and I would not be writing this article today.


In 2003, Ross Eckler wrote the following in an article about the Titania acrostic in the puzzle magazine Skepticism”:

“In the 1960s, Martin Gardner sent me a note by the famed British palindromist Leigh Mercer, giving 23 examples in five different languages of long line-by-line acrostics found in Shakespeare. He did not give the source of this information, but it seems likely that these were found by contributors to the British magazine Notes & Queries (where Mercer sent his palindromic discoveries in the 1940s, as discussed in "Leigh Mercer, Palindromist" in the Aug 1991 Word Ways). “

However, what I found out last month is that Mercer did not make the discovery himself, he surely read them in the following 1925 book written by William Stone Booth: Subtle shining secrecies writ in the margents of books generally ascribed to William Shakespeare, the actor and here ascribed to William Shakespeare, the poet.

The following Baconian web-book tells you more than you’d ever want to know about Booth:

For Kenneth Patton, the (now deceased) author of that web-book, as it was for Booth, it’s all about the cosmic war between the Stratfordians and the Baconians. And so it is hardly surprising to me that Booth’s discovery of the Titania acrostic does not even get mentioned by Patton.


But even though he overlooks the Titania acrostic, Patton does at least mention what I think is arguably Booth’s second greatest discovery, what I call the “double mirror acrostic” from A Comedy of Errors which Eckler and others were aware of:

Patton begins with this: “The following acrostic is a direct comment on the feelings of Egeon, who, condemned to die, has been searching for his youngest son, who went to find his brother. Poor Egeon, beset by many misfortunes, and condemned to die is explaining his situation to the Duke of Ephesus. Booth’s comment follows the acrostic. I have not included all of the text in Booth’s illustration.”

Act 1, Scene 1:


I hazarded the losse of whom I lov’d Five Sommers have I spent in farthest Greece, Roming cleane through the bounds of Asia. And coasting homeward, came to Ephesus: Hopelesse to finde, yet loth to leave unsought Or that, or any place that harbours men: But heere must end the story of my life, And happy were I in my timelie death, Could all my travells warrant me they live.


Haplesse Egeon whom the fates haue markt
To beare the extremitie of dire mishap:
Now trust me, were it not against our Lawes,
Against my Crowne, my oath, my dignity,
Which Princes would they may not disanull
My soule should sue as aduocate for thee:
But though thou are adiudged to the death,
And passed sentence may not be recal’d
But to our honours great disparagement:
Yet will I fauour thee in what I can;
Therefore Marchant, Ile limit thee this day
To seeke thy helpe by beneficiall helpe.

Patton then quotes Booth’s own brief analysis: “The device turns upon the idea of wanting a baby. It is disguised by alternate direction and the use of the word “My”, WANT MY BABY” but then leaves this without further comment. Of course Patton and Booth both hit this acrostic and run away from it, because it has nothing to do with Bacon!

I hope you’ll agree, though, that it’s worth some extra attention. Note that it has the same essential features as the Titania acrostic—it is a memorable speech, not filler; the acrostic message is, as Booth noted, a bulls-eye on the meaning of the speech, in terms of Egeon’s yearning for his son, whom he lost as a baby; and, although it is not a simple top to bottom acrostic, it has a beautiful symmetry, the words “Want” and “Baby” being, in a visual sense, “twins” of each other in terms of length and also as “arrows” pointing to the actual word “Baby” in the middle, which functions as a kind of two sided “mirror” which reflects the other two words in opposite directions. It is also a representation of the Duke’s unconscious empathy for Egeon in real time, feeding back to Egeon that he genuinely understands Egeon’s primal yearning for his missing child, who is still, as far as Egeon’s heart, still the baby who was lost to him.

But because neither Booth nor Patton (representative of contemporary Baconians) in any way make a big deal about this spectacular bit of Shakespearean wordplay, but instead bury it in a forest of ridiculous Baconian arcana, is it any surprise that the only other mention of this acrostic in modern times is to be found not in a book of Shakespearean criticism, but in an article in a puzzle solvers magazine? No wonder Booth’s discoveries vanished without ever being registered by genuine Bardolaters!

In this remainder of this post, I am going to address one of the acrostics discovered by Booth, and leave my discussion of all the others that Booth discovered and I found to be thematic for Part Two, which I will link to at the end of this post. I am going to treat this one separately because of its strong connection to my own deepest obsession, Jane Austen, because I realized only in the writing of this post that Booth had been preceded by Jane Austen with respect not only to the Titania acrostic but also this second one!


Besides the Titania acrostic, here is the other one which, as I will now explain, I am certain that Jane Austen noticed, in Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2:

175. At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him:
176. Be you and I behind an arras then;
177. Mark the encounter: if he love her not
178. And be not from his reason fall'n thereon,
179. Let me be no assistant for a state,
180. But keep a farm and carters.

Note that the first letters of lines 177-180 in order spell MALB, and thus comprise an anagrammed acrostic on the word “lamb”.

That should ring the same bells for those who know Hamlet well as it did for me, as I am not the first to point out that Ophelia plays the role of a kind of sacrificial lamb in the play. Her father veers between pandering his daughter to Hamlet, and then warning her off him, putting her in a Catch-22. And in the end, caught in the crossfire between Hamlet and Claudius, she goes mad and is thus in a real sense a victim of their conflict. And this is not lost on Hamlet, who alludes to Jephthah from the Book of Judges, who literally sacrifices his daughter to fulfill a sacred vow! And it is not long after the above scene that Hamlet and Ophelia have their fateful encounter when he rejects her, and suggests she take an unscheduled trip to a nunnery.

So how fitting it is that Shakespeare has his ponderous fool, Polonius, after first unwittingly admitting via the acrostic that his daughter is a sacrificial lamb, also be the one to also give an unwitting review of Shakespeare’s having put such an unwitting self-incriminating message in the above speech, when he says:

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in't" Indeed, there is “method” in the “madness” of an anagrammed acrostic like “lamb”!

Jane Austen displays her awareness of this anagram acrostic on the word “lamb” with an even more virtuosic one of her own, in the first stanza of the “courtship” charade in Chapter 9 of Emma. The jumble order is MLAB, nearly the same as in Shakespeare’s!:

My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!

And, for good measure, she does it again, in the second stanza, but this time with a different jumble order:

But, ah! united, what reverse we have!
Man's boasted power and freedom, all are flown;
Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave,
And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.

As I will never tire of pointing out, this double anagram acrostic was discovered by my friend Colleen Sheehan in early 2006, and her twin articles on the subject can be found here.

Colleen is correct in all her conclusions in those articles. However, there is a world of meaning in this charade beyond even those spectacular insights, and there will be an entire chapter in my book analyzing the full significance of same.

Suffice for here and now to point out that the allusion to Hamlet in Emma is not based only on the word “lamb” appearing in an anagram acrostic in each, but also on the striking covert parallels between Ophelia and Jane Fairfax, the shadow heroine of Emma. Most of all what they share is that, in the shadow story of their respective fictional worlds, they share a crucial status—that of having to hide a concealed pregnancy! Much more on that topic in my book!

So the word “Lamb” hidden in Austen’s charade does not merely refer to Charles Lamb, and to Mary Lamb and to Caroline Lamb, all of them well known contemporaries of Jane Austen, but also to Ophelia, the character in Hamlet whom Jane Fairfax uncannily resembles, even down to her plan near the end of Emma to get herself to a nunnery.


And while we’re on the subject of young female sacrificial lambs who are represented by Jane Fairfax in Emma, how about this one, in lines 16-19 of Act 1, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet’s father, Capulet, says:

13. And too soon marr'd are those so early made.
14. The earth hath swallow'd all my hopes but she,
15. She is the hopeful lady of my earth:
16. But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart,
17. My will to her consent is but a part;
18. An she agree, within her scope of choice
19. Lies my consent and fair according voice.
20. This night I hold an old accustom'd feast,
21. Whereto I have invited many a guest,
22. Such as I love; and you, among the store,
23. One more, most welcome, makes my number more. ETC.

This is only one scene after Juliet’s nurse has said :

“Now, by my maidenhead, at twelve year old, I bade her come. What, _lamb_! what, ladybird! God forbid! Where's this girl? What, Juliet!”

And it is no accident, in light of the above, that Emma thinks the following at precisely the moment after Emma has just pronounced her own solution to Mr. Elton’s charade:

“There does seem to be a something in the air of Hartfield which gives love exactly the right direction, and sends it into the very channel where it ought to flow. “The course of true love never did run smooth –“ A Hartfield edition of Shakespeare would have a long note on that passage."

My claim that JA alluded, via her double acrostic, to both Ophelia and Juliet as Shakespeare’s tragic “lambs”, is part of that long note!

I will leave off here now, and leave for Part Two....

....the thematic Shakespearean acrostics which (as far as I have ascertained so far) were not discovered first by Jane Austen, but as to which Booth seems to hold priority.


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