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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, March 3, 2011

O Titania!: The Brave New World of Shakespeare’s Thematic Acrostics Part Two: The Rest of them (for now)

In the above linked Part One, I gave the background on the above topic, and also explained the two Shakespearean acrostics which Jane Austen discovered, and paid homage to in Chapter 9 of Emma, a hundred years before William Stone Booth rediscovered and described them in his 1925 book on Shakespeare’s acrostics.

Now I move on to the other acrostic “jewels” I have fetched “from the deep”, i.e., from the deep freeze inside Booth’s forgotten book where they have rested since 1925.

As I left off in Part One describing two “lamb” acrostics in Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet, respectively, it is only fitting that I move on to another Shakespearean acrostic animal.


In Richard III, Act 5, Scene 3, lines 184-187 various ghosts appear to Richard in his horrid nightmare before his death, and lines 184-87 from the dire comments by the Ghost of Buckingham, who not long before has met an untimely death thanks to Richard, tell Richard what Buckingham _really_ thinks about his erstwhile leader:

Ghost Of Buckingham
183. The last was I that helped thee to the crown;
184. The last was I that felt thy tyranny:
185. O, in the battle think on Buckingham,
186. And die in terror of thy guiltiness!
187. Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death:
188. Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath!
189. I died for hope ere I could lend thee aid:
190. But cheer thy heart, and be thou not dismay'd:
191. God and good angel fight on Richmond's side;
192. And Richard falls in height of all his pride.

Richard famously rues the absence of a horse at a critical moment on the battlefield, but who ever saw a “toad” riding a horse anyway? And isn’t a toad an animal particularly apt for representing Richard’s physical deformity? Perhaps because Richard III is an early play, Shakespeare was worried that his acrostic might be missed. So, by making sure it is not lost on any of the other characters in the play, I suspect he wished to give his readers their best shot of not missing it either:

In Act, 1, Scene 2, Lady Anne: Never hung poison on a fouler toad. Out of my sight! thou dost infect my eyes.

In Act 1, Scene 3. Queen Margaret: “….The time will come when thou shalt wish for me To help thee curse that poisonous bunchback'd toad.

In Act 4, Scene 4. Queen Elizabeth: "O, thou didst prophesy the time would come That I should wish for thee to help me curse That bottled spider, that foul bunch-back'd toad!

...and also the Duchess of York: "Thou toad, thou toad, where is thy brother Clarence?"

And it also fits with the psychology of Richard—he has been called a “toad” so many times by the end of the play, that it’s only logical that the acrostic will slip into his final dream, as a kind of unconscious psychological overtone!


To show how Booth’s obsession with Bacon blinded him (and his fellow Baconians reading his book) to what might be obvious to ordinary readers of Shakespeare, consider that Booth sees the acrostic in lines 134-138, below, as an anagram of “Nasta” rather than the better answer, which I have already given away in the title of this section!

In Act 2, Scene 2 of Henry V, the young king confronts the plotters who have sought to betray him, but who have been caught just in time. It is a long speech, and the anagram acrostic appears near the very end, so, to save space, I will first merely quote all the phrases earlier in the speech which all point toward Satan in so many words:

“Ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature!.... one spark of evil… two yoke-devils…whatsoever cunning fiend it was…the voice in hell of all other devils …If that same demon that hath gull'd thee thus Should with his lion gait walk the whole world, He might return to vasty Tartar back, And tell the legions 'I can never win A soul so easy as that Englishman's.”

And now here is the anagram acrostic itself (NASAT => SATAN):

134 Not working with the eye without the ear,
135 And but in purged judgment trusting neither?
136 Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem:
137 And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot,
138 To mark the full-fraught man and best indued

And here the climax of the speech, with one last pointer to the revolt against God by the original fallen angel, Satan:

With some suspicion. I will weep for thee; For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like Another fall of man. Their faults are open: Arrest them to the answer of the law; And God acquit them of their practises!

It seems likely to me that Milton,with his own love of thematic acrostics, was aware of this one in his master, Shakespeare! Take this one, identified by PJ Klemp in 1977:

with her who bore
Scipio the highth of Rome. With tract oblique
At first, as one who sought access, but feard
To interrupt, side-long he works his way.
As when a Ship by skilful Stearsman wrought
Nigh Rivers mouth or Foreland, where the Wind
Veers oft, as oft so steers, and shifts her Saile;
So varied hee, and of his tortuous Traine Curld many awanton wreath in sight of Eve,
To lure her Eye. (IX. 509-18)


And there has been another “Satan” in Henry V’s life, or at least a man he chooses to call a Satan, although at one time he was more of a father:

In the final scene of The Merry Wives of Windsor – Act 5, Scene 5, the other characters have all collaborated to make Falstaff, in his own words, as an ass, and he has been wearing a buck’s head that reminds us even more of Bottom from Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ford refers to him as being “as slanderous as Satan”.

And then in Henry IV, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 4, we have Prince Hal saying it too:

445. That villanous abominable misleader of youth,
446. Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.

And this leads us to another of the acrostics, in that same vein, in Henry VI, Part 1, a Messenger at one point speaks ill of Falstaff and embedded in the five indented lines is the epithet "cheat"!:

A Talbot! a Talbot! cried out amain
And rush'd into the bowels of the battle.
Here had the conquest fully been seal'd up,
If Sir John Fastolfe had not play'd the coward:
He, being in the vaward, placed behind
With purpose to relieve and follow them,
Cowardly fled, not having struck one stroke.
Hence grew the general wreck and massacre;
Enclosed were they with their enemies:
A base Walloon, to win the Dauphin's grace,
Thrust Talbot with a spear into the back,
Whom all France with their chief assembled strength
Durst not presume to look once in the face.

It is no accident that a preponderance of the references to "cheaters" in the Shakespeare canon are spoken by or in close proximity to Falstaff!

And while we are still mucking about in the Henriad, here is an acrostic that goes to the heart of the character of Prince Hal's biological, as opposed to his psychological, father:


Booth once again spots a valid acrostic, but misreads it, when he finds the foreign phrase
“atos bos” in a speech by Bolinbroke in Act 1, Scene 1 of Richard II, when he should see the thematically appropriate word “boast”!

The play begins with Bolingbroke’s accusations against Mowbray, and includes the following polemic by Bolingbroke, in which Bolingbroke refuses the King’s request that he revoke his challenge to Mowbray to mortal combat, and in so doing, engages in the very act of boasting which is revealed by the anagram acrostic “bsota” which transforms to “boast”, in lines 192-196:

Henry Bolingbroke
189. O, God defend my soul from such deep sin!
190. Shall I seem crest-fall'n in my father's sight?
191. Or with pale beggar-fear impeach my height
192. Before this out-dared dastard? Ere my tongue
193. Shall wound my honour with such feeble wrong,
194. Or sound so base a parle, my teeth shall tear
195. The slavish motive of recanting fear,
196. And spit it bleeding in his high disgrace,
197. Where shame doth harbour, even in Mowbray's face.

The word “boast” has already been used by Mowbray earlier in that same first scene…:
“Let not my cold words here accuse my zeal: 'Tis not the trial of a woman's war, The bitter clamour of two eager tongues, Can arbitrate this cause betwixt us twain; The blood is hot that must be cool'd for this: Yet can I not of such tame patience boast As to be hush'd and nought at all to say…”

And then in Act 1, Scene 3, Bolingbroke twice more uses the word “boast”(and note also the metaphor of “jewels” which reminds us of Titania’s acrosticked speech with its “jewels from the deep”):

John Of Gaunt
268. The precious jewel of thy home return.

Henry Bolingbroke
269. Nay, rather, every tedious stride I make
270. Will but remember me what a deal of world
271. I wander from the jewels that I love.
272. Must I not serve a long apprenticehood
273. To foreign passages, and in the end,
274. Having my freedom, boast of nothing else
275. But that I was a journeyman to grief?

Henry Bolingbroke
307. Then, England's ground, farewell; sweet soil, adieu;
308. My mother, and my nurse, that bears me yet!
309. Where'er I wander, boast of this I can,
310. Though banish'd, yet a trueborn Englishman.

And it is worth noting that Richard II also contains a very famous speech by Bushy in Act 2, Scene 2, in which Shakespeare makes an unmistakable wink at alternative meanings to be discerned in his plays:

“ Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows Like perspectives, which rightly gaz'd upon, show nothing but confusion-eyed. Awry, distinguish form.”

That sounds like a very nice description of Shakespeare’s thematic acrostics (as well, of course, of other techniques that Shakespeare deployed to create alternative meanings in his plays.

Now we move on to another acrostic which reminds us of "Want My Baby" in The Comedy of Errors, a resonance which reaches across the entire time span of Shakespeare's writing career:


In The Comedy of Errors, we saw the acrostic of “Want my baby” in regard to a child separated from his father as a baby. That same theme of child mismatched to father is, in the setting of jealousy rather than reunion, is also the subject of a thematic acrostic in The Winter's Tale – Act 1, Scene 2. Lines: 73-76. Hermione, at Leontes’s urging, has joined in persuading Polixenes to extend his visit in Sicilia another week, and is all too successful (because her success raises Leontes’ nightmarish jealousy) when she reminds Polixenes of his childhood bond with Leontes, and her explicit reference to them as “boys” is echoed subliminally by the acrostic on the word “boy” in lines 73-75:

Hermione Not your gaoler, then,
73. But your kind hostess. Come, I'll question you
74. Of my lord's tricks and yours when you were boys:
75. You were pretty lordings then?

Thereafter, the word “boy” appears with unusual frequency in this play, referring at times to Mamillius the prince but also to Hermione’s unborn child, and also as the name the Shepherd calls his son, and also calls Autolycus. Suffice to say that the idea of male offspring is a dominant theme in the play.

And now we turn from the first stage of man to the last, dying:


In A Midsummer Night's Dream – Act 5, Scene 1, at the climax of the play within a play, Quince, as Thisbe, finds Pyramus dead. Her feelings are echoed in the acrostic in lines 326-329:

315. Asleep, my love?
316. What, dead, my dove?
317. O Pyramus, arise!
318. Speak, speak. Quite dumb?
319. Dead, dead? A tomb
320. Must cover thy sweet eyes.
321. These My lips,
322. This cherry nose,
323. These yellow cowslip cheeks,
324. Are gone, are gone:
325. Lovers, make moan:
326. His eyes were green as leeks.
327. O Sisters Three, Come, come to me,
328. With hands as pale as milk;
329. Lay them in gore,
330. Since you have shore
331. With shears his thread of silk.
332. Tongue, not a word:
333. Come, trusty sword;
334. Come, blade, my breast imbrue:
335. And, farewell, friends;
336. Thus Thisby ends:
337. Adieu, adieu, adieu.

Her speech, prior to her taking her own life in wild grief, is a kind of “howl”, and so it could not be more fitting that the acrostic “howl” should appear in the midst of her speech, at lines 326-330, and in the acrosticked verses Thisbe appeals to “Sisters Three” who sound like a blend of the Weird Sisters (as a representation of the Three Fates) and Lady Macbeth whose conscience will not allow her to wash the gore from her own pale hands.

And Shakespeare apparently found this howl in grieving for a lost loved one so compelling that he returned to it years later in writing King Lear, for the climactic scene of that play, where the tragedy is no longer a play within the play, but is the play itself. In a scene that is closely parallel, as Carol Chillington Rutter has pointed out, Lear mourns his “love”, Cordelia, and here the “howl” is so powerful that it bursts through from the unconscious to the spoken word, and is spoken four times by Lear:

Act 5, Scene 3.

King Lear
302. Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
303. Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
304. That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
305. I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
306. She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
307. If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
308. Why, then she lives


And now we come full circle, and see that Shakespeare has chosen to link these various thematic acrostics across the boundaries of the plays. We began with the Titania acrostic, spoken to Bottom; and we’ve had Falstaff who has been made a Bottom-like ass, and this connects to Prince Hal’s calling Falstaff a “Satan” but also veiledly calling the traitors “Satan” as well.

And now we have yet another marvelous link in this complex chain, in Act III, Scene 1 of Measure for Measure, when Duke Vincentio gives the following famous and fatalistic advice to Claudio, who stands condemned to die by the covert action of the Duke, whose stance toward Claudio is uncomfortably similar to the one that Oberon takes toward Bottom and Titania:

Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep'st,
Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death's fool;
For him thou labour'st by thy flight to shun
And yet runn'st toward him still. Thou art not noble;
For all the accommodations that thou bear'st
Are nursed by baseness. Thou'rt by no means valiant;
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear'st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get,
And what thou hast, forget'st. Thou art not certain;
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou'rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear's thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth

35 Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
36 Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
37 Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
38 TO Make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this

That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.

Did you see it? The acrostic is on the name “Bottom” and appears on lines 35-38. What makes it hard to see at first is that the last three letters come on line 38. Among all the acrostics that Booth found and that I bring forward today, this one might at first seem the most speculative, because of having the final three letters on one line, making it seem less probable that this was intentional.

However, those reasonable doubts are quickly dispelled when the following points are noted:
First, we have the Titania acrostic itself, which is contained in a speech spoken to Bottom himself;

Second, the second half of Vincentio’s speech is riddled with variations on the idea of a person’s rear end, or, as the English call it, a person’s “bottom”. We have “the moon”, we have “an ass”, we have “death unloads thee” (excretion of feces, it was well known from public executions, is exactly happens at the moment of death), we have “thine own bowels” and finally “effusion of thy proper loins”. This is one long “bottom” joke!;

Third, the reference to a dream is, along with the acrostic on “bottom” a direct allusion to that very same scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and

Fourth, as with the “Want my baby” acrostic in A Comedy of Errors, we have the last three letters of the word “bottom” presented as, visually,the bottom of the word “bottom”, a self referential game of the kind that Shakespeare exploited in all his plays, but particularly plays with Machiavellian “playwrights” like Oberon and Vincentio.

Incredibly, Booth did NOT connect the above to the Titania acrostic which he described several pages earlier in his book, so deeply is he focused on the Baconian that he cannot see the purely Shakespearean.


I conclude with the observation that this post has presented only those acrostics which were discovered by Booth nearly a century ago, and have been gathering dust ever since. Now that I have pulled them out of the shadows and shone a bright light on them, I hope that I will inspire other Shakespeareans to go back into the text of the plays and the sonnets, and see which others eluded Booth’s obsessive search.

I suspect there are many of them scattered across all the plays, because we find them in Shakespeare’s earliest plays such as The Comedy Of Errors, and we find them in his latest plays such as The Winter’s Tale, and in plays written throughout his career. So if these were found by someone with Bacon on the brain, imagine all the others which would be visible to readers who could care less about Bacon.

I myself at first thought I found one that Booth missed at the very beginning of Antony and Cleopatra, when Philo says:

NAY, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glow'd like plated Mars, now bend, now turn,
The office and devotion of their view Upon a tawny front: his captain's heart, Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper, And is become the bellows and the fan To cool a gipsy's lust. Look, where they come: Take but good note, and you shall see in him. The triple pillar of the world transform'd Into a strumpet's fool: behold and see.

Everything seemed to point toward this being an intentional acrostic on Shakespeare’s part. It was early in the play, part of the initial setting of the stage for the entire play, and it is a speech about Mark Antony himself containing an anagrammed acrostic on what at first seemed like a close variant of Antony’s own name! That is very like the Titania acrostic spoken by Titania, and there also seems to be a pointing back to the acrostic in Duke Vincentio’s speech in Measure for Measure by the reference to the dotage of Antony which “o’erflows the measure,” and also visually by having three of the letters at one “end” of the acrostic.
But….in the end of the day, there are TWO n’s in Anthony (an alternative spelling of his name that appears in Julius Caesar), not one as in this speech, and so, unless there is some ingenious explanation for that gap, it does not rise to the standard I would impose.

So, it’s time to leave off, but if anyone is inspired by these arguments of mine to search for Shakespearean acrostics, and then you actually find any others, please bring them here!

Cheers, ARNIE

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