Synopsis: This essay examines the possibility that William Shakespeare constructed his Sonnets with recourse to gematria and numerology as set out by Agrippa in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy (1532). Cabalistic evidence is presented supporting this thesis of esoteric, numerical composition.
The Shakespeare Sonnets are legendary for their opacity. Modern editions, such as those by Vendler and Booth, gloss the lines with impressive erudition, but still leave the reader wondering about their exact purpose and private meaning. Even Booth reminds us that the Sonnets, “can easily become what their critical history has shown them to be, guideposts for a reader’s journey to madness”. So much about this sonnet sequence remains obscure, like the biography of William Shakespeare himself.
One piece of recent scholarship that has disclosed unambiguous method in the apparent madness comes from Alastair Fowler. He approached the Sonnets from the angle of Renaissance esotericism and was particularly concerned with their structural and numerical properties. Noting that, “The most subtle and conceited of all numerological patterns are those in the sonnet sequences of the late sixteenth century” (1), Fowler went on to demonstrate the way in which Shakespeare’s sequence, “abounds in the intricate formal devices requisite to its genre” (2). In particular, Fowler showed how the three irregular sonnets (numbers 99, 126, 145) are all meticulously placed when the sonnets are arrayed as a Pythagorean pebble triangle of base seventeen. This ‘pyramidal’ form reflects the poet’s intention that his work stand as an enduring monument to his love.
For all the light that Fowler has been able to shed on the architectural design of the Sonnets, his numerological cue has not been taken very much further. One possible means by which this might be done is via the cabalistic practice of gematria – counting words according to the value of their component letters and using this as a means to transmit covert meaning. There is clear evidence that gematria exercised the minds of poets both before and after Shakespeare’s time. Normally a surreptitious practice, it was brought into the open in the following medieval poem (3):
8 is my trew love;
do beffore 9;
put therto 5;
so well it wil beseme;
18 twyse told,
Here we find the alphabet code, with values from ranging from ‘a’ = 1 to ‘z’ = 24, employed in order to spell out the name of IHESUS (Jesus). In this case the poet was particularly helpful in also providing his own gloss for the uninitiated, “this goth by the letters of the abse as the letters stonde in nombre”.
Shortly after Shakespeare’s time, in 1633, Henry Reynolds was also a most enthusiastic exponent of:
That Art of mysticall writing by Numbers, wherin they (the ancient Poets etc.) couched under a fabulous attire those their verball Instructions, was after called Scientia Cabalae, or the Science of reception, . . . A learning by the auncients held in high estimation and reverence, and not without great reason; (4)
The fact that this technique of cabalistic numerology is demonstrably present in the minds of poets before and after Shakespeare, combined with the fact that sonnet sequences are replete with the devices of esoteric numerology, prompts one to wonder if Shakespeare’s Sonnets might not also constitute a suitable vehicle for its practice.
If Shakespeare were to have employed gematria in his sonnet sequence he is most likely to have turned for instruction to the Renaissance ‘encyclopaedia’ of such recondite arts, Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy (1533). This was the primary reference work for such information drawn on by two Hermetic adepts known to have had a direct influence on Shakespeare: John Dee and Giordano Bruno (5). Agrippa set out the gematria codes for Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He also emphasised the point that the modern European languages based on Roman script, including English, are suitable to be evaluated by the Latin code, too.
Where should we look for evidence that Shakespeare used gematria in the Sonnets? One way he might have done so is by selecting the theme of specific lines so that the line’s ordinal numeration (from 1 to 2155) matches a word with that gematria value. This method has the advantage of not being dependent on the printer producing faultless orthography and only requires that the lines are printed in the intended order. There is no convincing evidence to suggest that the lines in Shakespeare’s Sonnets are not set out as the author intended. There is, as we are about to see, a substantial body of evidence demonstrating that Shakespeare did construct his sonnet sequence with recourse to this method.
In the examples set out below the words marked with an asterisk are discussed individually in the commentary that follows them. The letter valuations as set out by Agrippa are to be found in the three Appendices:
Gematria equivalent Hebrew words are written in black, Greek in olive green and Latin or English words in blue:
|10||139 Make thee an other selfe for loue
|Μιμημα (A Copy –
283 Who heauen it selfe for ornament
291 As any mothers childe, though
The Moon (283)
Παις (Child – 291)
302 How can I then be elder then
307 Presume not on thy heart when
Ηιθεος (A Youth –
The Heart (307)
|23||311 Or some fierce thing repleat with
too much rage,
|The Beast (311)|
|26||364 Til then, not show my head where
thou maist proue me
|Caput (Head – 364)|
|28||385 The one by toyle, the other to
386 How far I toyle, still farther off
387 I tell the Day to please him thou
388 And do’st him grace when clouds doe
blot the heauen:
389 So flatter I the swart complexiond
390 When sparkling stars twire not thou
(Toil – 385)
Περας (Goal, End –
Ο Ηλιος (The Sun –
(Heaven – 390)
|29||395 And trouble deafe heauen with my
| (The Heaven –
|30||411 Then can I drowne an eye (vn-vs’d
412 For precious friends hid in deaths
413 And weepe a fresh loues long since
414 And mone th’expence of many a vannisht
415 Then can I greeue at greeuances fore-gon
Astrophel (i.e. Philip Sidney –
438 These poore rude lines of thy
442 Exceeded by the hight of happier
445 A dearer birth then this his loue
Υλη (Raw, inert Matter
Μακαριος (A Happy Man
|33||453 Anon permit the basest cloudes
457 Euen so my Sunne one early morne
Αμαρτια (Sin, Failure
464 And make me trauaile forth without
470 That heales the wound, and cures
Πεπλος (Cloak –
Πονος (Suffering –
|35||477 NO more bee greeu’d at that which
thou hast done,
(The Fault/Reproach -477)
|37||507 So I, made lame by Fortunes dearest
|Αδυναμια (Lameness, Impotence
521 Thine owne sweet argument, to
526 When thou thy selfe dost giue
527 Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times
532 The paine be mine, but thine shal
Το Ομμα (The Face,
Lucidus (Bright, Lucid – 526)
The Muses (528)
Οδυνη (Pain –
|39||537 Euen for this, let vs deuided liue,
538 And our deare loue loose name of
539 That by this seperation I may giue:
540 That due to thee which thou deseru’st
Διδυμοι (Twins –
551 Then if for my loue, thou my
557 And yet loue knowes it is a greater
Φιλια (Love –
Μητις (Wisdom, counsel
|41||569 Aye me, but yet thou mighst my
570 And chide thy beauty, and thy straying
Θρονος (Seat –
Πορνος (Fornicator –
590 For all the day they view things
601 All dayes are nights to see till
Σπιλος (Blemish, Blot
Σκοτια (Darkness –
619 The first my thought, the other
624 Sinkes downe to death, opprest
629 This told, I ioy, but then no
Σεληνη + Ηλιος
Σποδος (Ashes, Dust
Ευρηκαμεν (Joy at stg
|46||636 (A closet neuer pearst with christall
|Η Νου Μηνια (The New
Moon – 636)
Fiat Lux (Let there
be Light – 636)
|47||658 Awakes my heart, to hearts and
|Φρην (Heart – 658)|
680 Shall reasons finde of setled
682 Within the knowledge of mine owne
685 To leaue poore me, thou hast the
Ζυγος (Yoke, Heavy
Nosce Teipsum (Know Thyself –
Δικασπολος (A Judge
691 The beast that beares me, tired
695 The bloody spurre cannot prouoke
700 My greefe lies onward and my ioy
Αρκτος (Bear –
Το Κερας (The Horn,
Το Ισον (The Equilibrium
702 . . . when from thee I speed,
707 Then should I spurre though mounted
708 In winged speed no motion shall
710 Therefore desire (of perfects
714 Towards thee ile run, and giue
Ο Θεος Ερμης (The God
Πτηνος (Winged –
Προθυμια (Desire –
Προδρομος (Running forward
|52||728 Being had to tryumph, being lackt
| Διδυμος (Double, Twofold
|53||734 Is poorely immitated after you,||Ο Εμπαικτης (The Mimic
748 As the perfumed tincture of
753 Die to themselues. Sweet Roses
755 And so of you, beautious and louely
Μουσικη (Of the Muses
Το Θερος (The Harvest
Η Μουσικη (The ‘product’
759 But you shall shine more bright
| Φανης (Phanes ‘The Light’
(Dull, obscure – 760)
775 So loue be thou, although too
780 Which parts the shore, where two
Ποντιος (Lord of the
790 Whilst I (my soueraine) watch
801 Or at your hand th’ account of
Κυρος (Supreme Authority
Saturnus (Chronos – 801)
815 Which laboring for inuention
819 Show me your image in some antique
825 Oh sure I am the wits of former
Ζωη (Life, ‘Eve’ –
Ρυθμος (Shape, Pattern
832 Crawles to maturity, wherewith
837 Feedes on the rarities of natures
839 And yet to times in hope, my verse
Στεφανος (Crown –
Κεραστης (Horned –
Τα Τερπνα (Delightful
*Η Πυραμις (The Pyramid
872 With lines and wrincles, when
877 For such a time do I now fortifie
880 My sweet loues beauty, though
882 And they shall liue, and he in
Ηωθεν (From Morning
Ο Απεραντος (The Infinite
Ο Φιλος (The Lover –
Βιοω (To Live –
885 When sometime loftie towers
886 And brasse eternall slaue to mortall
892 Or state it selfe confounded,
895 This thought is as a death which
* Pompey’s Pillar (885)
Η Πτοιησις (Violent
Νεμω (To choose –
901 O how shall summers hunny breath
905 O fearefull meditation, where
Ωρα (Season, Prime
The Grave (906)
|66||911 TYr’d with all these for restfull
death I cry,
923 Tyr’d with all these, from these
* Το Στιγμα (The Stain,
|67||931 Why should poore beautie indirectly
932 Roses of shaddow, since his Rose
|Καλυπτρα (Covering, Veil
956 Vttring bare truth, euen so
960 By seeing farther then the eye
965 But why thy odor matcheth not
Ανειμων (Naked, Bare
Το Κυκλον (The Eye
Ειρων (A Dissembler
968 For slanders marke was euer
973 For Canker vice the sweetest buds
979 If some suspect of ill maskt not
* Αρρενοθηλυς (Effeminate,
* Ο Παιδεραστης (The
984 From this vile world with vildest
988 If thinking on me then should
Εχθρος (Hateful –
Η Εκλειψις (The Eclipse,
1009 THat time of yeeare thou maist
1010 When yellow leaues, or none,
1015 Which by and by blacke night
Ποδεων (End –
Ψιλος (Bare, Naked
Ο Θανατος και ο Αδης
1045 Some-time all ful with feasting
1049 Thus do I pine and surfet day
Η Οπωπη (The Faculty
* Ο Θυρσος (The Thyrsus
|76||1059 O know sweet loue I alwaies write
1060 And you and loue are still my argument:
|Επιθυμητης (Lover, Desirous
|77||1072 Times theeuish progresse to eternitie.||Αφανισμος (Melting Away
|78||1083 Thine eyes, that taught the dumbe
on high to sing,
1084 And heauie ignorance aloft to flie,
|80||1111 But since your worth (wide as
the Ocean is)
1112 The humble as the proudest saile
1113 My sawsie barke (inferior farre
| * Ζωδιακος (Zodiac –
1165 In whose confine immured is
1173 And such a counter-part shall
* Ο Παρθενων (The
* Δωρος (Doros –
1181 I thinke good thoughts, whilst
1182 And like vnlettered clarke still
* Γεωργος (‘George’
Ο Βωμος (The Altar –
|86||1195 Was it his spirit, by spirits
taught to write,
1196 Aboue a mortall pitch, that struck
me dead ?
|* Γοητευσις (Sorcery
|88||1220 And place my merrit in the eie
|Μωριος (With the Foolish
1234 And I will comment vpon that
1241 Be absent from thy walkes and
Γλωσσα (Gloss, Comment
Η Γλωσσα (The Tongue
|90||1258 At first the very worst of fortunes
|Ησσων (Worse, Defeated
|91||1266 Wherein it findes a ioy aboue
|Ευαιων (Joyful –
1281 I see, a better state to me
1283 Thou canst not vex me with inconstant
Παχυς (Wealthy –
Το Ελεγχος (The Reproach
|93||1297 But heauen in thy creation did
|Το Ζωον (The Creature
|95||1317 HOw sweet and louely dost thou
make the shame,
|Ψευδης (False, Sham –
|96||1339 How many Lambs might the sterne
1340 If like a Lambe he could his lookes
Το Ειδωλον (The Phantom
1353 Yet this aboundant issue seem’d
1358 That leaues looke pale, dreading
Την Αμπελον Της Γης
The Autumn Equinox (1358)
|100||1391 Darkning thy powre to lend base
|Φιλοσοφια (Love of Wisdom
|101||1415 To make him seeme long hence,
as he showes now.
| Ζηλωτος (Admired –
|104||1450 Three Aprill perfumes in three
hot Iunes burn’d,
|Μονας Δυο Τρεις (One,
Burn – 1450)
1461 To one, of one, still such,
1463 Still constant in a wondrous
1469 Three theams in one, which wondrous
Συνεχης (Constant –
Η Υποστασις (The Foundation–1469)
1530 Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold
1532 Most true it is, that I haue
The True Word (1532)
|112||1556 YOur loue and pittie doth th’impression
1557 Which vulgar scandall stampt vpon
|δεσμωτης (Prisoner –
1664 And ruin’d loue when it is
1668 THat you were once vnkind be-friends
Ευθυμω (To Make Straight,
Το Τιμωρημα (The Punishment
1700 Or at the least, so long as
1705 Nor need I tallies thy deare
Χρεως (Debt –
|124||1728 No it was buylded far from accident||Το Θυσιαστηριον (The
Altar – 1728)
(New Jerusalem – 1728)
(12 x 12 x 12 = 1728)
|127||1772 Therefore my Mistersse eyes are
1773 Her eyes so suted, and they mourners
|* Αστροφελ + Στελλα
(1206 + 566 = 1772)
|146||2042 So shalt thou feed on death, that
feeds on men,
2043 And death once dead, ther’s no more
|* Σαλπιγγος ο εσχατος
(The Last Trump 1 Cor. 15, 52 – 2043)
* Ο Νικων Κληρονομησει Παντα
(He that overcometh shall inherit all things Rev. 21, 7 – 2043)
|154||2150 This brand she quenched in a coole
|Τυχων (Fortunate – An
Hermes and Priapus – 2150)
This is a substantial body of evidence and at first sight its volume and appropriateness seems to preclude the possibility that could have arisen by chance. However it is also fairly certain that even a random collection of poetic lines would generate some matches of this nature. The problem is to find a yardstick by which to assess how significant these results are.
Two methods come to mind. The most obvious one is to assay other poems by the same criteria and see how the number of hits compares. To this end I checked the gematria : line-number correspondences found in the 108 stanzas of Astrophel and Stella and compared them to those found in the first 108 stanzas of Shakespeare’s sequence. I also did the same with a long poem exceedingly unlikely to be numerically coded in this way: in this case I chose the first 1512 lines of Byron’s Don Juan. The second method was to check the matches again in Shakespeare’s Sonnets but this time to distort the authenticity of the line numbering by adding 100 to the value of each line – from a cabalistic perspective this should effectively randomise it.
(1 – 108)
(1 – 108) + 100
Astrophel and Stella
(lines 1 – 1512)
No. of Matches
A glance at the table shows a very considerable difference between the number of matches found in Shakespeare’s Sonnets correctly numbered and the three controls. They occur with well over twice the frequency. It is also noticeable how close are the figures of Astrophel and Stella and the 100+ version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. This suggests that both are random from a gematria – line numbering perspective. It also gives an indication that as many as eighty-four of the ‘hits’ recorded in the first 108 stanzas of Shakespeares’s Sonnets correctly numbered, or one for every eighteen lines of poetry, are the result of deliberate authorial intervention.
The next question which arises is why Shakespeare would do this? Is it merely a product of idle whimsy? This is possible, but seems unlikely because the frequency of occurrence suggests a deliberate and methodical approach. A more prosaic explanation could be that Shakerspeare used gematria as some sort of an ideas blueprint: that he found in the numerical correspondences a source of inspiration and a rough guide to the content for lines and sonnets whose subject had not already welled-up from a purer Muse. This also seems a somewhat unlikely recourse, given the imaginative genius displayed throughout his writing.
A more colorful explanation is that Shakespeare wished to enhance his sonnet sequence with a little rough, cabalistic magic. Again, this doesn’t seem an entirely convincing explanation, especially when one considers the ambiguous way that Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote about magic. However, this said, there are different sorts of magic and it might simply have been that Shakespeare wished to attune his poem more closely to ‘the hidden order of the world’ (according to Hermetic belief), either out of a poet’s habit of numeration from constantly counting metre or simply for his own satisfaction. Until Shakespeare’s use of gematria has been more closely studied his precise motivation must remain in an open question.
The fact that most of the numerically predicated words are in Greek may be explained by the fact that of the two classical languages traditionally used in literary cabala, Greek and Hebrew, the former would have been better known to Shakespeare. In this context I don’t think we need be too perturbed by Ben Jonson’s comment that Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek’. Geoffrey Bullough was able to trace about five hundred classical authors that the Shakespearean canon draws on (6), and, as many of these were only available in Latin or Greek in Shakespeare’s time, it is highly probable that he was capable of reading Latin and had some knowledge of Greek. However, even this is not an absolute requirement, as one actually needs no more than a decent lexicon to find the meaning of a word and to count the numerical value of its letters.
The three Hebrew words I have cited are likely to have been well within the repertoire of a well educated Elizabethan with an interest in Cabala. The word for ‘heaven’ occurs in the all-important first verse of Genesis, that for ‘nothing’ in the title of the supreme cabalistic godhead (the Ain Soph) and ‘toil’ appears in the name for the lowest of the four worlds, the world of matter/action that we inhabit (Aulum ha-Asia). It would be very surprising if Shakespeare had not picked up a few Hebrew words, or a knowledge of its alphabet, during the course of his literary life.
Specific Lines (marked *)
This word, meaning ‘absolute nothingness’, is transliterated as ‘Ain’. It is therefore orthographically present in the initial three letters of the curious phrase ‘naigh noe dull flesh’. Semantically it relates to the double negative of ‘nay no’, especially as the doubling can point to the total nothingness of the . The lack of flesh, and reference to a ‘fiery race’, also echoes the pure spiritual state that the Hebrew word is taken, in the Cabala, to indicate. It seems that this explanation provides a validating pretext for an equine snort that has baffled most previous readers and editors of the Sonnets.
839 – The Pyramid
Professor Fowler recognized the structural design of the Sonnets to represent a pyramidal monument to his love (7). It therefore seems entirely fitting that the line where Shakespeare sets his verse to stand firm for times to come is the line corresponding to ‘The Pyramid’.
885 – Pompey’s Pillar
The explanation of this line seems a bit speculative on first glance, but a closer examination reveals it to be plausible. If we take it that the Egyptian theme has been set, following Fowler’s architectural analysis and via the pyramid apparently alluded to in line 839, then it is possible that another Egyptian monument famous in Shakespeare’s time, Pompey’s Pillar, should also register in the poem. Pompey’s Pillar is a spectacular Corinthian column of red granite erected by Publius (not, as was supposed, Pompey) at Alexandria in honor of Diocletian. It was described by contemporary travelers to Egypt such as John Sanderson, Lawrence Aldersey and John Evesham, all of whom visited northern Egypt in the mid 1580s and wrote accounts of their adventures (8). It is interesting that the latter two both sailed on the ‘Tyger’, a ship known to Shakespeare and mentioned in Macbeth: the First Witch says, “Her husband’s to Allepo gone, master o’ the Tyger . . .” (1.3.7).
John Evesham actually identified this unfortunate mariner in his travelogue (The Voyage passed by sea into Aegypt, by John Evesham, Gentleman), “On 5 of December we departed from Gravesend in the Tiger of London, wherin was Master under God for the voyage Robert Rickman . . .”. He then went on to describe Pompey’s pillar itself,
” . . . without the walls of the said Citie (Alexandria), about twentie score paces, another marble pillar, being round, called Pompey his pillar: this pillar standeth upon a great square stone . . . which is a wonder to think how ever it was possible to set the said pillar upon the said stone . . .” (9)
There is a slight problem in that Pompey’s ‘loftie’ pillar wasn’t ‘downe rased’ at the time the Sonnets were composed. However, a reasonable explanation is that the pillar refers to proud Pompey himself, who was murderously felled on Egyptian soil, not so far from where ‘his monument’ was erected.
973 & 979 – Homosexual Slanders?
The word Αρρηνοθηλυς really means an effeminate man, and, likely as not, a beautiful man such as the ‘master-mistris’ of the poet’s passion addressed in sonnet 20. However it also has strong connotations of homosexuality, or bisexuality, attached to it. It therefore seems very fitting for a line describing the ‘vices’ that are prone to assail a man likened to one of the ‘sweetest buds’. Effeminate men are naturally prone to suspicions about their sexual orientation. Line 979, corresponding to ‘the lover of boys’, also raises the spectre of some similar accusation, or slander.
Sonnet 66 – ‘Tyr’d and Dyed’
Sonnet 66 is formally idiosyncratic as it comprises a long list of complaints, starting with “And . . .”, sandwiched between two lines beginning, ‘ Tyr’d with all these . . .’. The reading of the initial word that Booth favours is ‘fed up with’ – and this certainly makes sense. However the gematria correspondences indicate that the ‘dye’ in the final line is also a pun meaning ‘colour/stain’ rather than simply referring to a wish for death. This adds to the meaning of the sonnet by more forcefully suggesting that the poet is attired in these stained and irksome garments, and also that adornment in this besmirched apparel can separate him from his ‘unstained’ friend.
1049 – Thyrsus
The wand of the Bacchantes owed much of its phallic appearance to the fact that it was traditionally tipped with a pine cone. Therefore it seems significant to find the word ‘pine’ (albeit with a different primary meaning) in the line corresponding to the value of the thyrsus. Shakespeare may also have had in mind the Latin name of the pine, ‘pinus’, as a pun on penis. This would fit in with a number of sexual double entendres that Booth noticed in this sonnet 9, and especially the double reference to ‘all’ – a symbolic ‘awl’ – in the following line. This pair of ‘alls’ may have made their appearance here because the Greek word for an awl, Τρυπανον, has a gematria of value of 1051: just one more than the line number.
1174 – Doros
The architectural style that the ancient Greek Doros ultimately founded was the Doric. The most recognisable manifestation of this was the Doric column, which was relatively squat in profile (originally designed with a 6:1 height to width ratio) and thus phallic in appearance. Doric architecture is masculine in relation to the Ionic and Corinthian orders. The word ‘style’ is etymologically derived from the Greek word Στυλος meaning a column, therefore line 1174’s reference to someone’s style can be taken as a double allusion to Doros and his sturdy upright. In context this is fitting, as the previous line – “And such a counter-part shall fame his wit,” contains two more such phallic hints – as Booth has noticed (10).
1165 – The Parthenon
The greatest example of Doric architecture in the ancient world was undoubtedly the Parthenon. The value of this name in Greek is 1165 and in the 1165th line of the Sonnets (also in the Doros sonnet, number 84) there is reference to a building that walls up a treasure (in Greek Θησαυρος means treasure or store) as if in a state of virginity. This is a reasonable allusion to the stone sanctuary of the Virgin: the Parthenon.
1112, 1181 and 1196 – The Rival Poet.
The greatest number of votes for Shakespeare’s rival poet has for long been counted in favour of George Chapman. This identification was first proposed by William Minto and then taken up and developed by Arthur Acheson. One particular point that Acheson noticed is that sonnet 21 seems to make satirical play on Chapman’s poem The Amorous Zodiac (11). This curious work constitutes an attempt at formalised eroticism: an intimate journey is taken around his mistress’ body, in the guise of the sun’s progress through the twelve signs of the zodiac.
Chapman indicates, through reference in the second stanza to ‘a Ship’ and its ‘crew’, and subsequent substitution of the sign Cancer by the adjacent constellation Argo Navis, that his tour through the heavens has parallels with the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts questing the Golden Fleece. The victorious, homeward journey followed the course of the sun from Colchis in the east, where the horses of Helios were stabled, back to the west. The solar symbolism of the Golden Fleece may also be counted astrological owing to its starting point being associated with the ram – Aries being the first sign of the Zodiac (12).
Two of the main Rival Poet sonnets, numbers 80 and 86, make considerable play on the nautical theme and it seems very likely that this represents a continuing reference to Chapman’s poem. The line numbering also bears this out. In sonnet 80 we have line 1112, which is the value of the Greek word ‘Ζωδιακος’ , and there is clear reference to both poets sailing on the patron’s (celestial) ocean. The fact that Shakespeare refers to ‘my sawsie barke’ seems to pick up Chapman’s reference (in the fourteenth stanza) to Argo Navis, “It is thy nose (stern to thy bark of love)” (13). This stanza is particularly noteworthy in that its final two lines make a vitriolic and jarring swipe at some third party:
It is thy nose (stern to thy bark of love)
Or which pine-like doth crown a flowery grove,
Which Nature strived to fashion with her best,
That she might never turn to show more skill:
And that the envious fool (used to speak ill)
Might feel pretended fault choked in his breast.
Was the ‘envious fool’ a rival of Chapman’s for his patron’s favours? Was it Shakespeare? If it was, then it would give him a strong pretext for some sort of response; and what more apt place to launch his own ‘sawsie barke’ than adjacent to the line with the value of ‘Zodiakos’ (14).
With the definite article, we find that ‘Ο Ζωδιακος ‘ has a value of 1182. Line 1182 in the Sonnets falls in sonnet 85. The line immediately preceding this (85.5) makes explicit reference to his rival(s): “I thinke good thoughts, whilst other write good wordes,”. The fact that we seem to be a digit adrift with this allusion can be explained by two pertinent properties of the number 1181. Firstly it supplies us, by gematria, with the original Greek form of Chapman’s first name George – Γεωργος. Obviously this is apposite. Furthermore, it also gives the value of his astrological poem (by English gematria) – ‘The Amorous Zodiac’ (15). Does this constitute George’s ‘good wordes’?
Shakespeare also makes considerable play on Chapman’s reputation as a necromancer (he had famously claimed to have traffic with the ghost of Homer). In lines 86.5 and 86.6 he refers to being struck dead by his rival’s spirit. The name for such practices in Greek is Γοητευσις, and the value of this word, 1196, also corresponds to the ordinal number of the second of these two lines.
1772 – Astrophel & Stella
Lines 9 and 10 of sonnet 127 are as characteristic of the theme of the ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets as any within the group: “Therefore my Mistersse eyes are Rauen blacke, / Her eyes so suted, and they mourners seeme,”. This theme, and these lines in particular, have frequently been acknowledged to point towards Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, and especially the seventh stanza. An examination of this stanza reveals how neat the synopsis is:
When Nature made her chief worke, Stellas eyes,
In colour blacke why wrapt she beames so bright?
Would she in beamy blacke, like Painter wise,
Frame daintiest lustre, mixt of shades and light?
Or did she else that sober hue deuise,
In obiect best to knitt and strength our sight;
Least, if no vaile these braue gleames did disguise,
They, sunlike, should more dazle then delight?
Or would she her miraculous power show,
That, whereas blacke seems Beauties contrary,
She euen in black doth make all beauties flow?
Both so, and thus, she, minding Loue should be
Plac’d euer there, gaue him this mourning weede
To honour all their deaths who for her bleed.
Thus it is numerologically apposite for Shakespeare to place his précis starting from line 1772 – which is the combined value of Αστροφελ + Στελλα – and thereby compound the allusion to his great exemplar.
If we are to search for a reason why the number 1772 might have been significant for the creator of Astrophel and Stella, there is a possible explanation. The number 1772 provides the value, by English gematria, of an apt esoteric description of the two lovers, ‘The spirit of the Sun’ and ‘The soul of the Moon’ (960 + 812 = 1772). This explanation receives some support in the fact that by Greek gematria the analogous couple, Ισις και Οσιρις have a value just one less, 1771. These two were commonly identified with the moon and sun. For example, in the Faerie Queene (5.7.4), Spenser wrote, “Isis doth the Moone portend; / Like as Osyris signifies the Sunne.” It would hardly be surprising if there were not some overlap of ideas between Sidney and Spenser in their two greatest poems, especially as they both shared John Dee as a tutor in matters esoteric. It should also be born in mind that Isis has always been associated with the colour black (16) (17).
2043 – The Last Trump
Sonnet 146 has long been recognised as ‘Shakespeare’s Christian Sonnet’ (18). The final couplet in particular sums up the Christian attitude to the finality of death. Stephen Booth, in addressing these lines, draws particular attention to two phrases from 1 Corinthians 15: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ and ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed, is death’; and one from chapter 21 of Revelation: ‘and there shall be no more death,’ (19). It therefore seems more than fitting that line number 2043 should supply us with the values of both, ‘The Last Trump’, (derived) from 1 Cor. 15, 52, and of, ‘He that overcometh shall inherit all things’, in Rev. 21, 7. Booth’s prescience seems almost as uncanny as Shakespeare’s placement was precise.
The extraordinary correspondence found between the line numbering of the Sonnets and words with equivalent gematria values is so consistent that it cannot have occurred without deliberate artifice. We therefore have an indication that Shakespeare’s numerological interests extended well beyond the Pythagorean and religious number symbolism described by Fowler and into the field of literary cabala. It also suggests that the apparently haphazard ordering of many of the sonnets was, in some measure, determined by considerations of esoteric numerology.
Our knowledge of Shakespeare and his contemporaries can only increase if we heed the avowed preoccupations of the Renaissance mind and reinvest their study with some of same seriousness they originally commanded.
1) Alastair Fowler, Triumphal Forms – Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry, Cambridge UP, 1970, p. 174.
2) Fowler, Triumphal Forms, 183.
3) Balliol College, Oxford, ms. 354. See R.H. Robbins, Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries, (Oxford: Clarenden P, 1952)80.
4) H. Reynolds, Mythomystes, rpt. in Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, ed. J. E. Spingarn, Vol 1, Oxford, 1908, 157-158.
5) See Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and The Hermetic Tradition, Chicago UP, 1964, 143. Also, Peter French, John Dee – The World of An Elizabethan Magus, Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc, modern ed. Ark Paperbacks, 90.
6) Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, London, 1961.
7) Fowler, Triumphal Forms, 186-192.
8) Aldersey and Evesham’s travels are recorded in Leslie Greener, The Discovery of Egypt, Dorset Press, New York, 1966, 42-43. Sanderson’s exploits are described in, John D. Wortham, British Egyptology 1549 – 1906, David and Charles Ltd., Newton Abbot, 1971, 13-16. It is also possible that the reference to the Tyger in Macbeth may have come from Shakespeare’s reading Ralph Fitch’s Near Eastern peregrinations, starting with a voyage aboard the Tyger to Allepo (Voyage of M. Ralph Fitch, merchant of London).
9) Stephen Booth, Shakespeare’s Sonnets – Edited with Analytical Commentary, Yale UP, 1977, 262-263.
10) Booth, p.285.
11) Arthur Acheson, Shakespeare and the Rival Poet, The Bodley Head, London and New York, 1903, mod. ed. A.M.S. P Inc, N.Y., 1971, 64-75.
12) The solar motif of the original voyage finds esoteric expression in the fact that Ιασων and the solar god Απωλλον both share a gematria value of 1061.
It is also worth pointing out that Chapman explicitly mentions the Argo (‘The senseless Argive ship . . .’) in his Shadow of the Night – a poem in which he berates contemporary poets (of Shakespeare’s ilk) and also one which is referred to in satirical terms in Love’s Labour Lost.
13) The constellation Argo Navis is distinctive because the ship has a stern but no bow.
14) In Chapman’s “The Shadow of Night” there is reference to the ‘barking’ of a fox and many more to the deafening cries of his goddess’ hounds. Considering that in this poem Chapman lambasts poets of Shakespeare’s ilk, the latter’s mention of his ‘sawsie barke’ in the Sonnets probably refers to this poem, too.
15) This numerical coincidence may have been a reason for Chapman choosing this name, and indeed this theme, for his poem in the first place.
16) See Ean Begg, The Cult of The Black Virgin, Penguin Arkana, 1985, 1996. There are many references to the blackness of Isis, but see especially the Introduction (13-15).
17) The name Stella may well have been chosen by Sidney for her Greek gematria value of 566. This equates her with the Greek goddess of wisdom H MetiV and by analogy with Sophia. Such an identification is fully concordant with the that of the mistress addressed by the original Italian sonneteers.
18) B.C. Southam, “Shakespeare’s Christian Sonnet. No. 146,” SQ, XI (Winter 1960), 67-71.
Charles A. Huttar, “The Christian Basis of Shakespear’s Sonnet 146,” SQ, XIX (Autumn 1968), 355-65.
19) Booth, 507. Explaining this couplet, he refers the reader to 1 Cor., 15:54, 1 Cor. 15:26 and Rev. 21:4.
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