Friday, 17 July 2009

Was Shakespeare a time-travelling computer?

The question is not as absurd as it may at first appear. For centuries, scholars have wrestled with the Shakespeare authorship question. How ever did the son of a Stratford glover, with limited education, emerge as England's premier wordsmith?

Attempts to uncover his identity as Bacon, Marlowe or Oxford have foundered because they rest upon implausibilities even more absurd than those which suppose Shakespeare to have been a polymath (with no evidence of a library) having unprecedented verbal skills. Indeed, they defy the 'coherence of probabilities'.

First, Bacon was far too busy with civic affairs to churn out - in his spare time - as many as four plays in a year, as Shakespeare attestedly did in 1593-4 and 1599-1600. 'Proofs' of Bacon's signature encoded throughout the works in anagrams are risible. The scripts never stayed the same from one play night to the next, as the many variorium editions of the Folios suggest. For an anagram to be decryptable, it must be encoded in a durable and published text. Shakespeare (or whoever wrote his plays) never showed the slightest interest in publishing his evanescent scripts.

Moreover, the modern Dan Brown craze for finding expedient cryptograms in everything - famously exemplified by Drosnin's lucrative The Bible Code - was laughed to scorn even in the sixteenth century (see Montaigne's Essais, 1580).

Kit Marlowe is a candidate even less plausible. He died on 30th May 1593 yet many of Shakespeare's most famous plays were not only produced up to nine years later but also some, like Macbeth and The Tempest, are indisputably grounded upon contemporary events unknowable to the 16th century Marlowe.

Only Oxford remains a feasible candidate, but he exhibited little wit or genius in those writings attributed to him.

All textual quibbles aside, the clearest impartial evidence that Shakespeare was, well, Shakespeare comes from his close friend Ben Jonson. If someone other than Shakespeare had written the plays (perhaps a Marlowe recidivus lurking in the closet?), Jonson would have known it. So would Shakespeare's early paymaster, Burbage, and all the other major actors like Kemp. (Who fell out with Shakespeare and was not noted for his discretion.) This hints at a massive conspiracy. Yet Jonson gives no hint of it in his candid memoires Discoveries, published 1640 and written in the 1630s, nearly twenty years after Shakespeare's death.

No. Shakespeare was Shakespeare. So how was he able to write so well?

BRUTUS is a software programme developed at MIT that already composes convincing short stories indistinguishable from those written by a human author, but without human mediation. It is not impossible that the recuperation of Love’s Labours Won is next on its agenda.


Just suppose some futuristic university English dept had encrypted BRUTUS into algorithms as small as a virus, and time-flown them back to 1585, and implanted them in Shakespeare when he first left Stratford to make his fortune in London? Time travel? I am not privy to the technologies of future English depts. Unethical? Not for English depts. Trust me. I know these guys.

Suffice to say, this simple explanation entirely clears up the authorship question. In fact, MIT patently acknowledges that its program wrote Shakespeare. Why else would the program have embedded in Julus Caesar the explicit clue: 'Et tu, Brute?'.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Did Roger Bacon Discover the Secret of Immortality?

This has long been a topic of scholarly conjecture. We might equally ask: did the Elizabethan Dr John Dee light upon the secret too? Or the alchemist Richard Ingalese in the early 20th century? Both were on the quest for immortality and both vanished mysteriously in 1609 and the 1930s, respectively. We have no record of their deaths or places of burial.

That fact alone is enough to convince fabulists that both men are alive today. (Ingalese explicitly stated: 'I know of one alchemist more than 600 years old, and one whose age is more than 400, and another whose age is 200, and all of these look and function as do men in the prime of life at about 40 years.") Perhaps, then, Dee and Ingalese are still among us, heavily disguised as Peter Ackroyd and A.S. Byatt? How else could such novelists have acquired their polymathic knowledge of their respective periods if they had not lived in them?

To return to the question: did Roger Bacon discover the secret of eternal life?

Very possibly.

We know that Bacon had sent his first three books on the Philosopher's Stone – his Opus Minus, Tertium, and part of the Maius - in the year 1265 to Pope Clement IV, at the Pope’s command. Bacon dispatched them from his house in Paris to the Vatican by separate carriers, and encoded for safety.

Yet Clement died in 1268 before Bacon could send the last of his Maius which were, some say, its most crucial chapter. (See Thorndike, Lynn, 1916, ‘The True Roger Bacon’, I, The American Historical Review, Vol. 21, No. 2. (Jan., 1916), pp. 237-257.)

There is no mystery about the composition of the formula. Bacon published it openly and Dr John Dee reproduced it in a pamphlet, published fifty years after Dee's death (?) in 1659: ‘Friar Bacon, his Discovery of the Miracles of Art, Nature, and Magick/Faithfully translated out of Dr [John] Dee’s own Copy by T.M.’

But we must remember that the good friar was a humorist. He created an omnisicent speaking head of brass. (It is immortalised in the name 'Brasenose College' at Oxford.) When nobody asked the wretched golem a question, it exploded in a fit of petulance.

Bacon's Philosopher's Egg is likewise a joke. When decoded, it proves to be no more than a recipe for making gunpowder.

So what did Bacon send to the Pope? Not a formula for gunpowder, we can be sure.

Of course, the answer might lie just twenty yards from me at this moment, in the garden of the Yeoman Institute. If we are to believe Hippo (I do), it is some three foot below the rose bush where he buried his decryption of Bacon's book in 1625. I could dig it up in thirty minutes. Should I?

No. It might kill the rose bush. And as a gardener, I value a rose bush attestedly four centuries old a good deal more than I do some will o' the wisp fable of immortality.

And who needs eternal life? Did I have it, I might (perish the thought) end up writing like Peter Ackroyd or A.S. Byatt.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Was Elizabeth I truly the legitimate heir to the English throne?

Certainly, Queen Mary I thought that Elizabeth was a bastard. She claimed that Elizabeth was really the daughter of Ann Boleyn by way of Mark Smeton, Ann's lute player. (See Benjamin Woolley The Queen's Conjuror, 2002: 60.)

Mary had a point. Henry VIII was arguably impotent, raddled with syphilis and incapable of conceiving a child. Hence, his desperate quest for yet new wives to assert his long-gone potency. The son of Henry's personal physician Sir William Butts (1486-1545), who might have learned this from his father, hinted at it to the young Yeoman.

So why was Elizabeth nonetheless famous for being 'flame' or red haired like Henry?

One interesting speculation is that she was, in fact, a brunette. Both Ann Boleyn and Smeton were (see Woolley, ibid). Her hair had been dyed red from infancy, possibly using madder or henna. This fact would have been known to her intimate maid servants.

No wonder that she panicked when Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, burst into her bedchamber, unannounced, on 29th September 1599 when she were ill-dressed and, by some reports, naked. It was not her maidenly modesty she were concerned for, but the revelation of the true colour of her public hair.


Consider another mystery. Why did Elizabeth banish Sir Walter Raleigh so suddenly from her court in 1591? He was the most popular man in England, the Winston Churchill of his times. He had single-handedly (at least, in rumour) seen off the Spanish Armada just three years previously. Yet she tossed him into the Tower of London in a moment and shortly afterwards shipped him off to South America.

Why? Historians tell us it was because he had married Elizabeth Throckmorton, Elizabeth's maid servant, without her knowledge or consent. Hardly a hanging offence, surely? But it was. For Throckmorton surely knew the secret of Elizabeth's true hair colour.
Had that knowledge spread, the brunette Elizabeth would have been proclaimed a bastard. The Pope, gleeful, would have roused the Catholic nations against her. Philip of Spain would have marshalled his ships once more. And the Scottish lairds might have marched on England to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with their own king, James VI.

Raleigh had to be got rid of.

Speculation? Yes. But as Yeoman reminds us: a 'fact' is merely a myth consentially agreed upon.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Where was the Ivinghoe brothel sited in 1623?

This question has understandably vexed the excellent churchwarden at St Mary's Church, Ivinghoe, Jamie Scott. He e-mailed me last week (when I was enduring a reluctant 'holiday' in the rain-soaked streets of Avignon) that his parishioners were in a storm about the issue. Was the brothel in 1623 sited (heaven forfend) right beside the church?
No. It was not.
First, we know that Yeoman gave his desperate speech to save Jess's life on 8th June 1623 in the Ivinghoe courtroom that was also its town hall.
Now, that 16th century hall still exists. (It is currently the village library.) It fronts Ivinghoe High Street, twenty paces south of the 16th century brewery (now a youth hostel) which was almost certainly owned by Brun Purkiss until early May 1623 when Sogwit gave it to Filsmiro.
Second, Yeoman states clearly that, after the collapse of Jess's trial, the joyful company proceeded to the Swan tavern across the village green. This would locate the tavern some twenty paces west of the modern Kings Head restaurant on the modern Horton Road.
Third, Hippo clearly refers to the Ivinghoe brothel in his defence of Jess as a place 'adjacent' to the Swan. So the brothel was not immediately beside St Mary's Church. Jamie and his parishioners can relax. It was almost certainly a few paces either west or east of the tavern.
I think the owner of the modern Kings Head restaurant can relax too. But I do believe the present inhabitants of the cottages on Horton Road that face the green should take a close look in their cellars. They might chance upon many a bawdy relic, buried beneath four centuries of dust.

Friday, 10 July 2009

What happened to the Great White Man of Pitstone?

As a resident of Ivinghoe, I have often wondered about Mercer's intriguing reference in 1623 to a great white figure of a man cut in the chalk above the village of Pitstone. Possibly it resembled the outline of Hercules at Cerne Abbas (left). By independent evidence, it was also visible in 1580 but had vanished from record by the late 17th century (John Houghton, Manors & Mayhem, 1996: 65).
Where could it have been sited?
To have been visible to Mercer, looking north from Pitstone, it might have been located on the south-eastern scarp of Beacon Hill. However, the elevation is modest and the figure would have been puny. More likely, the site was a mile still further north at the great hill of Whipsnade.
This is precisely the place where Whipsnade Zoo now flaunts a chalk figure of a lion. Local rumour has it that the figure was created during the 2nd World War to warn German aircraft that Here Be a Zoo. And therefore they should not bomb it. I doubt if it worked. Bomber pilots at the time were not noticeably sentimental.
So I would suggest that the modern chalk Lion of Whipsnade Zoo disguises a figure - medieval or earlier - that is possibly that of Hercules. No doubt the diligent volunteers of the National Trust could confirm that in no time, using depth radar. I commend it to their next Funding Application.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Was Yeoman wise to exorcise the talking horse with a cabbage?

Several scholars at the last Yeomaniana conference (Ecce Yeomanus, 2009) posed the interesting question: why did Yeoman choose a cabbage, leek and garlic bulb to exorcise Abell's talking horse? These are not the customary tools of an exorcism, yet clearly they worked.

I am grateful to Prof. Simon Roseblatt for the following conjecture. All three of these vegetables are spectacularly high in sulphur. Sulphur is brimstone, popularly the 'smell of the pit' ie. Hell. In folklore, the devil is frighted by his own smell. (Indeed, Martin Luther is said to have driven the devil from his privy by casting at it a shovelful of dung. See Oberman, Heiko A. 'Luther Against the Devil', Christian Century, 1990: 77.)

Therefore, it would make perfect sense - at least, by the medieval doctrine of correspondences - to evict the devil from a possessed horse by exposing it to the vegetable sulphur in cabbage, leek and garlic.

As always, Yeoman was wiser than we know.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Boiled potatoes with the Popes

I've spent most of the week in Provence. Rain. More rain in one day than in the English famine year of 1596. I sheltered, dripping, in a cafe beside the Pope's Palace at Avignon and ate boiled potatoes in a tourist's aoili, as bland as washbrew porage. And I devoured Religio Medici on my e-book reader. Browne's spry memento mori added an ironic gloss to that great sarcophagus of true misery towering above me, the fortress founded by four schismatic Popes in the 14th century.

I love my Sony ebook reader. It holds more than 1200 titles and academic papers. Given a few memory cards, I could carry half the Bodleian library in my pocket. And it's no bigger than a sandwich (English style). That's true wisdom. I commend it to the Popes.

Monday, 6 July 2009


Can any sin be worse than completing someone else's crossword puzzle? Nay. I did it today to help out my wife, while she bought postcards in the Avignon rain. 'Bird's feather?' 'Pinion.' Obvious. She didn't thank me. For a moment, I felt quite autocidal.

BTW: I've discovered that Sir Thomas Browne coined the term 'suicide' in 1635, though the OED wrongly dates it to 1651. Shall I e-mail the OED? Nay. They'd tell me that Al Alvarez had pointed it out to them in 1972, so bugger off. (So why haven't they still clarified their reference?)

Ho, I've found another OED mistake. It dates ‘fadoodle’ as appearing first in 1670 but a variant appears in Middleton’s The Roaring Girl (1611): ‘Trapdoor. “'Tis fadoodling: if it please you”’. Definitely worth an e-mail.

I love this ebook reader. What else is there to do than use it to confute the OED? While all the rain otherwise unemployed in Spain falls on Provence?

Saturday, 4 July 2009

The sexual connotation of 'wit'

It's raining. It's France. And in utter despair, satiated with cafe cremes and Gauloises, I have just finished Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity. (All the footnotes in text on an ebook reader disappear into arcane spaces. With Empson, this is a very good thing.)

That sweet old duffer finds seven different meanings for the term 'wit' in Pope's Essay on Criticism but utterly fails to detect its implicature as a sexual double entendre! (Would you believe?) However, it seems unlikely that Pope was unaware of the possible sub-text of the term 'wit' and - given his plethora of ribald double entendres in the contemporaneous The Rape of the Lock (1712) - I think I might legitimately defy Empson to detect in Pope's Essay a rakish wink of the Jacobethan, as in: ‘young Lords had wit:/The Fair sat panting at a Courtier’s play,/And not a Mask went unimproved away’ (line 541).

Had Empson never read the Nurse's lines in Romeo and Juliet, where 'wit' is explicitly sexual? Or Sidney's Defense of Poesie ('the erected wit')?

But what else can you expect of a man who wore a 19th century beard but was a contemporary of Ronald Reagan? Answer: word blindness and temporal disorientation.

Damn it, it's still raining.

Read 'The Apothecary's Tales' now


Many have proposed that The Apothecary's Tales is a detective novel in the genre of historical fiction or fictive history set in the Jacobean and Elizabethan era called the Jacobethan (or the age of Shakespeare). Certainly, its tone of mystery, suspense, humour, comedy and ribald sex might suggest that. However, the mystery, detective and thriller elements merely support its presentation as an historical novel; they do not invaidate the possibility that it is a true account originally written in the language of Shakespeare and revised for the reader of modern historical novels.