In Brief

In the library Stephen argues that an artist's life is hugely important to understanding his work, eliciting skepticism from men who find Shakespeare's life less interesting than the universal truths that his art reveals. John Eglinton brushes aside Stephen's preoccupation with familial and sexual relations: "The highroads are dreary but they lead to the town." In the string of thoughts that follows this remark, Stephen associates Eglinton with people who have tried to make Shakespeare's life utterly irrelevant by assigning authorship of the plays and poems to more eminent Elizabethans: "Good Bacon: gone musty. Shakespeare Bacon's wild oats. Cypherjugglers going the highroads. Seekers on the great quest." Of the dozens of anti-Stratfordian candidates that have been proposed Sir Francis Bacon was the first, and ever since the 1880s arguments for his authorship have involved the solving of ciphers, or secret codes. The aims of this approach are "high" in several senses.

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No one in the decades after Shakespeare's death questioned his authorship of the plays and poems. Nor do most Shakespeare scholars of recent times. But in the 1840s and 50s, when bardolatry was at its height, a purported American descendant of Bacon named Delia Bacon argued that a collection of men including Sir Walter Raleigh, acting under Bacon's direction, had written the great works and conspired to present them as the work of the actor from Stratford. Others joined her crusade, and by the end of the 19th century hundreds of books had been published on the question. Ms. Bacon traveled to England and tried to have her ancestor dug up in hopes of discovering manuscripts in his handwriting within the casket, but these and other searches for hard proof bore no fruit.

In its absence, arguments that Bacon or some other nobleman wrote the plays (today the most popular candidate is the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, even though he died in 1604) have rested heavily on the assumption that a poorly schooled commoner from a small town could not possibly have written so convincingly about the conduct of state affairs and other aristocratic accomplishments: the author must have been well-born and/or university-educated. Slote cites a frank statement of this view in Georg Brandes' book: "In 1856 a Mr William Smith issued a privately printed letter to Lord Ellesmere, in which he puts forth the opinion that William Shakespeare was, by reason of his birth, his upbringing, and his lack of culture, incapable of writing the plays attributed to him. They must have been the work of a man educated to the highest point by study, travel, knowledge of books and men––a man like Francis Bacon, the greatest Englishman of his time" (88).

This assumption underrates the powers of the imagination (a high-placed reader of The Secret Agent once admiringly asked Joseph Conrad which branch of the intelligence services had employed him), and it neglects to ask the opposite question: could someone steeped in books and government councils but lacking years of theater experience have written so masterfully for the stage? Stephen's resistance to "highroads" may in part reflect a poor Catholic Irishman's dislike of such upper-crust snobbery. "Good Bacon: gone musty" seems to imply that, in the view of high-minded Protestants, nobles and gentlefolk are cleanly, while commoners are rank and unsavory. But the word probably carries other associations as well. Gifford notes that it comes from a Samuel Taylor Coleridge essay on Shakespeare, praising him for sticking to "the regular high road of human affections." Whatever Coleridge may have meant by this phrase, it would seem to exclude some of the degrading sexual involvements that Stephen focuses on in his talk.

Still another kind of elevation is implied by "Cypherjugglers going the highroads. Seekers on the great quest"––namely, a belief that the First Folio which preserved Shakespeare's plays for posterity contains coded clues to the actual identity of the author. Gifford summarizes the origins of this approach: "One way of 'proving' Bacon's authorship of the plays was to 'discover' in Bacon's letters or papers a numerical cipher that when applied to the First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays would evoke letters (words, sentences) clearly stating Bacon's authorship. Delia Bacon claimed to have discovered such a cipher, but 'she became insane before she had imparted this key to the world' (Brandes, p. 89)."

The investigation was resumed by Ignatius Donnelly, an American politician who served as a congressional representative from Minnesota and later as a Senator. Donnelly published a long book titled The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays (1888) and a much shorter one called The Cipher in the Plays and on the Tombstone (1900). Stephen could have found mentions of the longer work both in Brandes' critical study and in Sidney Lee's life of Shakespeare. In a note at the end of chapter 14, Brandes calls The Great Cryptogram a "crazy book": "Donelly claims that among Bacon's papers he has discovered a cipher which enables him to extract here and there from the First Folio letters which form words and phrases distinctly stating that Bacon is the author of the dramas, and how Bacon embodied in the First Folio a cipher-confession of his authorship.... Apart from the general madness of such a proceeding, Bacon must thus have made the editors, Heminge and Condell, his accomplices in his meaningless deception, and must even have induced Ben Jonson to confirm it by his enthusiastic introductory poem."

Contemporaneously with Donnelly, an American physician named Orville Ward Owen was using a "cipher wheel" of his own invention to investigate the problem of Baconian secret messages. It held two separate wheels on which the complete works of Shakespeare, pasted to a 1,000-foot-long canvas sheet, could be collated with key words in other writers' works. In a multi-volume published study, Sir Francis Bacon's Cipher Story (1893), Owen revealed that Bacon's autobiography was contained in Shakespeare's plays, and also that Bacon was the secret son of Queen Elizabeth. In 1907 Owen traveled to England with the aim of dredging up from beneath the River Wye Baconian documents that his ciphers led him to believe had been buried there. He found nothing. In the same year one of his former assistants also traveled to England looking for secret documents in another location revealed by ciphers. She too came up empty-handed.

Stephen's characterization of "Cypherjugglers" as "Seekers on the great quest" may refer simply to their effort to establish Francis Bacon as the true author of the Shakespearean corpus, but the air of quasi-religious striving evoked by his phrase evokes another aspect of the enterprise, its search for a spiritual boon comparable to the philosophers' stone of the medieval alchemists. Some scholars have speculated that Bacon had connections to the Freemasons and to the Rosicrucians, another secular but loosely Protestant spiritualist movement that began in Europe during his lifetime. By the 1920s another American, the poet and critic Walter Conrad Arensberg, was discerning links between Baconian ciphers and the Rosicrucians. This tradition has persisted to the present day: since the beginning of the 21st century a Norwegian organist named Petter Amundsen has been advancing new arguments about Baconian ciphers in the First Folio, with an emphasis on their use of masonic and Rosicrucian symbology and messaging.

Amundsen's claims are ambitious and original, but they extend beliefs established a century or more earlier: that Francis Bacon, working with some other writers (in this case Ben Jonson and Henry Neville), organized an elaborate campaign of deception to present William Shakespeare as the author of the plays and poems; that evidence of this conspiracy is concealed within the First Folio and certain other literary works (as well as commemorative plaques placed at Shakespeare's Stratford tomb); that the missing manuscripts of the plays have been preserved and hidden in a location that can be identified by deciphering the codes; and that the whole enterprise was conducted in the service of masonic and Rosicrucian spiritual aspirations. Amundsen claims to have found numerous steganograhic ciphers––a form of coding in which letters, words, and numbers are hidden within a forest of non-signifying characters, rather than being cryptographically transposed. By means of geometric, astronomical, and geographic designs implied by the ciphers, he has also found what he thinks is the site of the buried manuscripts: under a marsh on Oak Island, off the eastern coast of Canada.

A firm "Stratfordian," I have always dismissed such wild goose chases out of hand, but a video urged on me by Vincent Van Wyk, displayed at the end of this note, does punch some holes in my skepticism. People who watch the entire film may, like the young English scholar who made it, become less hostile to the Baconians' long "great quest," even if they are not persuaded to abandon their belief that Shakespeare wrote the plays.

For his part, Stephen Dedalus seems ready to accept any candidate for the honor of authorship so long as he can maintain his belief that great writers discover universality within the messy facts of lived experience: "When Rutlandbaconsouthamptonshakespeare or another poet of the same name in the comedy of errors wrote Hamlet he was not the father of his own son merely but, being no more a son, he was and felt himself the father of all his race."

JH 2023
1617 oil on panel portrait of Francis Bacon by Paulus van Somer, held in the Palace on the Isle, Warsaw. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Delia Bacon in Theodore Bacon's 1888 biography, from a daguerreotype taken in 1853. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photographic portrait of Ignatius Donnelly by Frederick Gutekunst ca. 1898. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
1909 photographic portrait of Dr. Orville Ward Owen. 
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
"Cipher wheel" used to discover cryptograms in Shakespeare's works, shown on the frontispiece of Owen's Sir Francis Bacon's Cipher Story (1894). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Petter Amundsen. Source: