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By David Basch
If a donut were to have been mysteriously found on the moon by the first astronauts, the discovery would have had far reaching implications even if no one could figure out how this came to be. That is roughly the caliber of the steganographic, or hidden, embedments found in Shakespeare’s Sonnets in the original 1609 quarto version. Up to now, these embedments have yielded primarily names, most frequently that of William Shakespeare but also that of others, including his wife, his mother, and Christopher Marlowe. The latter is especially surprising since it suggests a personal relationship between the two dramatists that has up to now been unknown. But what has now emerged is the most striking embedments of all. These form a transliteration within Sonnet 78 of a full line of praise of the God of the Bible from the Jewish Kaddish prayer, given in the Aramaic language ― an ancient sister language of Hebrew.
The very fact of this and the other embedments suggest that scholars have misconceived the nature of the Sonnets. Apparently, these poems are not at all a compilation of the poet’s spontaneous expressions of his raw emotions that they had been thought to be but a work more carefully and painstakingly composed. Now, with the poet’s apparent knowledge of the words of a Jewish prayer in the Aramaic language, there are indications about him of a background and capability that have been hardly suspected.
This finding could have profound implications since it opens new avenues for research on the poet and his work that, no doubt, will one day be undertaken. For now, this article will focus on demonstrating the presence and details of this Aramaic prayer. In doing so, a brief review will be made of the characteristics of the steganographic technique used to embed it within the text as well as some of the relevant factors about the Elizabethan printing style through which it was rendered.
The printing style used in the 1609 publication of the Sonnets was the same used in the printing of the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611 just two years after the Sonnets. Casual readers who are unfamiliar with this style of printing are usually put off by some of its peculiarities. One of these that causes the most difficulty is the use of the long “s,” a letter “s” typeface that resembles the letter “f” but without the latter’s horizontal center bar that entirely crosses its vertical stem. Readers are often confused by the appearance of this picturesque letter shape and attempt to read it as the letter “f” instead of as the “s.” As it appeared in printed material of the time, the long “s” was used at the beginning of words and at mid word. And when it came before a letter “t” or “c,” its top loop was usually joined to these, creating distinctive “roofed” “st” and “sc” configurations.
Other peculiarities of Elizabethan printing involve the letters “u,” “v,” and “i,” the latter serving also as the letter “j” making words such as “majestie” read “maiestie.” In the case of the letters “u” and “v,” these are often interchanged. Thus, when a “v” is used in mid word, it is written as a “u” so that words like “love” become “loue.” But when the letter “u” occurs at the beginning of a word, it is written as a “v,” making words like “use” read “vse.” What is relevant about these details for our subject is that Shakespeare exploited the dual nature of these letters in using them in his steganographic embedments, in which these letters could serve as either one or the other of its identities as appropriate to the secret reading intended.
As to the nature of the steganograhic technique that the poet used, it is altogether different from the cryptographic methods of cipher systems, in which different letters will substitute for the letters of the text to be hidden. In fact, the letters used for the poet’s steganographic messages are altogether visible. They are hidden because they are unsuspected in their role as embedments, merged as they are with the text they are a part of ― a characteristic that meets the definition of steganography as a technique of hiding a message within another message or object.
Because steganographic messages are unsuspected, readers have not the slightest thought to search for them. Hence, when these embedments show up in various configurations ― sometimes in vertical or diagonal strings or in combinations that could include horizontal elements ― they pass unnoticed. That is why the full name of William Shakespeare appearing in Sonnet 148 went unnoticed for 400 years and was discovered only by accident. That these embedments of the poet’s name, when pointed out, do so clearly appear within Sonnet 148 helps to reveal the methods and conditions of their use. This shows something of the manner in which such messages may be set into a text and how they may relate to the subject or themes of a sonnet in which they appear. To demonstrate these factors, the poet’s full name in Sonnet 148 is presented below. This is first shown extracted from the text for ease of visibility and this is then followed by the complete text of the lines in which this appears:
 ake i
 selfe h eere
 l s p
 w s
 That is so vext with watching and with teares?
 No maruaile then though I mistake my view,
 The sunne it selfe sees not,till heauen cleeres.
 O cunning loue,with teares thou keepst me blinde,
 Least eyes well seeing thy foule faults should finde.
Notice above that what appears as the second syllable of the poet’s name is represented in two versions, “s-p-eere” and “sp-e-i-eare,” and that the configuration that represents the poet’s first name as “w-l-l” has an absent letter “i.” This illustrates some of the characteristics of such embedments, which, unlike ciphers that demand exactness, are often rendered in approximations of spelling and emerge from various vertical or diagonal alignments of their letters and may leave off vowels that are left to be assumed. (A second vertical configuration reading “w-ll” also appears in the sonnet.)
What makes these embedments persuasive as steganographic presences is the recognizability and complexity of what is rendered ― here the sonnet author’s full name. But no less confirming are other factors, such as the sonnet’s pointed thematic opening words, “O me!” and the appearance of numerous embedments of versions of the poet’s first name in forms such as “wil,” “wyl,” and “wylye,” as well as in acrostic in lines 5 to 8 as “I-W-I-L.”
To be sure, there are sometimes problems in establishing the authenticity of such steganographic material since it is possible that letter sequences may emerge accidentally and only resemble communications. For this reason, the conditions surrounding these must be carefully considered. For example, is what is presented an isolated instance of a short string comprising a syllable or two? If so, it would be unreasonable to conclude that it was contrived. But if, as observed, the presence of elements is repeated or appears with additional related material that form it into a longer name or with first names, as happens in the instance observed, the conclusion becomes compelling that this was the product of deliberate design. With every additional element of complexity, including the fact of such appearances in other sonnets, it becomes exponentially ever more likely that chance alone could not have yielded such coherent and pertinent displays.
Up to now, the most common steganographic elements found in the poet’s work have been renderings of the poet’s name. This not only discloses that he used such devices but, as noted, helps disclose the creative manner in which he did so, revealing his methods of representation, such as the one below left in Sonnet 72 ― which mentions opposite it the words, “My name” ― and the resourceful one of Sonnet 143 on the right. (As will be shown, another example appears in Sonnet 78.)
In the first example above, “s-h-k” is read upward and then with the letter string “spea-here” that horizontally crosses it with a midway drop to the line below to give the credible reading “s-h-k-spea-her.” In the second example, the letter “s” of the upwardly read letters, “s-h-c,” is recycled to be read horizontally with letters of the words, “mothers part,” to become “s-h-c-s par.”
The Aramaic Device
In Sonnet 78, what first can attract attention is that in line 13 there is the phrase, “you are all my art.” What makes this stand out is that part of it may be read, “all my a,” which happens to be an exact transliteration of an Aramaic word that concludes the congregational response in the Jewish Kaddish prayer. This is a most familiar thousand year old prayer of praise to the Lord said to this day by Jewish mourners. In this, the word “al’may’a” means “forever” and appears in a longer alliteration of the three words, le’o’lam ul’al’mai almaya,” which together means “forever and ever” ― literally, “world without end.”
What further attracts attention is that the same sonnet bears an acronym in lines running from 9 to 7 that transliterates the shortened form of God’s name, “Y-A-H,” found in the Hebrew Psalms. In the sonnet, the poet praises his friend as the inspiration that led to a heightened discernment, raising his own “rude ignorance” to a state as “high as learning.” In line with these observations, the surmise arises that the sonnet’s Aramaic word, “al may a” (“forever”), could be an expression of the poet’s undying praise and thanks for this gift from his friend, Who could very well be God. Further investigation reveals that the sonnet contains the entire Aramaic line from which this word originates.
Below, first written in Hebrew letters, is the Aramaic congregational response of the traditional Kaddish prayer, followed by its transliteration using the Ashkenazic pronunciation as rendered in the Artscroll Prayerbook:
Y'hei sh'mei rabbaw m'vawrach, l'allam ulallmei all'mayaw.
(May His great name be blessed for ever and ever.)
As mentioned, the concluding word of this prayer as shown in bold in the transliterated line above (“all’mayaw”) has already been identified in Sonnet 78. Let us now see how the remaining words of this Aramaic prayer response have been transliterated, beginning with the word “ulallmei“ (ul’all’mai) ― shown underlined above ― that precedes the word we have already seen. Note that the earlier word already transliterates the two last syllables of the second word, “all’my,” ready to be recycled for use as part of it. A glance at the lines of the sonnet in which this embedment appears reveals how the poet managed to add to it its first syllable, “ul all”:
 But thou art all my art,and doost aduance
 As high as learning,my rude ignorance.
Note the letters, “u a,” in bold on line 13 that are located in tandem with the letters “le” of “learning” below. Taking these letters, divided into two syllables, we read “ual’e.” This joined to the letters, “all my,” located directly on the line above and in tandem, completes the word as ual’eall’my.
Returning now to the beginning of the full line of the Kaddish, let us see how the rest is rendered. (See page 8 for the full sonnet and a facsimile of the original on page 9 following.) The first word of this, “y’hei, can be read in the words “eyes” and “heauie” that are interwoven on lines 5 and 6, in which the letters “ye” of line 5, read from right to left in “eyes,” are then read in tandem with the letters “hea” below in “heauie,” giving “ye-hea” ― giving a clear transliteration of “y’hei.”
Continuing to the next word, “sh’mai” (“name”), this is rendered in a vertical string of letters beginning on line 4 with the “s” of “poesie” that reads down in the letter sequence, “s-h-o-e” to then continue diagonally to the right to pick up the letters “Mai” of “Maiestie,” giving “s-h-o-e’-Mai” ― again a reasonable rendering, especially when reading “shoe” clipped as “shuh.”
Next comes the word, “rabbaw” (“great”). This is transliterated in the sequence “r-b-b-h” that begins with the letter “r” of “graces” on line 12 and ascends in an upward right diagonal string that ends on line 9 with the final letter “h” of the word “which.” Here vowels are assumed as in the Hebrew manner, in which only consonants are written, with the letters read as “rabbah.”
The next word, “m’vawrach,” is transliterated as “m-e-u-or-hc” in a more convoluted manner. This string begins in a downward loop to the left that starts with the “m” of “mend” on line 11. The loop then circles down to the “e” of “graces” on line 12 and then, continuing, the loop ascends to pick up the letter “u” of “but” above ― the letter “u” here read as a “v.” The looped string then continues, now circling rightward, to pick up the letters “or” of “borne” and then, circling upward to the left, ends in the letters “hc” on line 9 (this read from right to left in the word “which”), which completes the full transliteration rendering “m-e-u-or-hc.”
Interestingly, the latter Aramaic word ― which happens to be the same word in Hebrew ― means “blessed.” Uncannily, the English word too appears as an embedment in the sonnet as “b-l-e-s-d.” It shows up in a descending vertical string beginning with the “b” of “dombe” on line 5 and picks up below it the letters “l,” “e,” and “s,” the latter on line 8 in the word “Maiestie.” The string then turns sharply up to line 7 to end with the “d” of “learneds.” It suggests that the poet was concerned that the difficult sequence of reading “m’vawrach” could prejudice it as a persuasive transliteration and needed the English version to confirm its presence.
Finally, the remaining word, “l’allam,” is rendered as “l ’o-l-M” in a sequence that begins on line 5 with the “lo” of “aloft” and extends below in a sharp right diagonal to the “l” of “learneds” and down to the “M” of “Maiestie.” In this sequence, the consonants, “l” and “M,” are read in the Hebrew manner with a vowel assumed between them, giving the pronunciation l’o-laM, closely resembling “l’allam.”
Despite the imperfections in detail of the poet’s rendering of this Aramaic sentence ― its use of various sound approximations, difficult reading paths, and with elements dispersed throughout the poem ― the fact that all its words show up in the text of a beautiful poem as a recognizable transliteration must be regarded as a spectacular and astounding, virtuoso demonstration of the great skill and artistry of the poet. He has simultaneously mastered the composing of the words of his poem and the demands of a complex interweaving of configurations of text letters to render words in another language. For all its flaws, it is altogether impossible that the elements of this recognizable Aramaic response could appear in a fourteen line sonnet unless this had been contrived by the author of the poem. Like the hypothetical donut on the moon, the transliterated presence of this content speaks powerfully for itself.
There are a few additional noteworthy elements to be observed in this sonnet. First is the embedded transliteration of the Hebrew word a’lei-nu,” which begins the concluding prayer of all congregational Jewish prayer sessions. This is a call to praise the Lord, declaring, “It is incumbent upon us [to praise The Master of All]. The word “a’lei-nu” shows up as constituted of the letters of the words, “Alien” and “found,” on lines 3 and 2, respectively. Observe that in the original sonnet version, the word “Alien” is italicized and its letters “Alie” can be read with the letters “nu” directly above and in tandem, the latter read from right to left. This adequately transliterates the Hebrew word as “A’lie’-nu,” a call to prayer that is answered by the poet through his Aramaic transliteration.
Another additional element found is the poet’s name as “sv-c-sper.” This emerges from letters on lines 2 to 4. Note here again that the Elizabethan letter written “v” is actually a “u” and that, as in the word “sugar,” it can be read with the “s” to be pronounced as “sh.” This begins in a right to left reading of the letters “sv” of “vse” on line 3 that is read with the “c” of “assistance” directly above, yielding “sv-c” (“sh-c”). In turn, this is read with the letters “sper” of “disperse” directly below on line 4, becoming “sv-c-sper” (“shac-sper” when voweled), another of the Sonnets’ numerous embedments of the poet’s name.
In closing, it is to be noted that the Aramaic response discussed above is followed by the word “yis’bo’rach” (“May He be blessed”) that begins the next part of the prayer that is declaimed by the prayer leader. But sometimes this word is appended to the end of the earlier congregational response. What is notable about this is that it too is transliterated in the sonnet as “y-a-e-st-bu-rac.” This begins on the sonnet’s last line with the “y” of “my” and extends above through the letters “a” and “e” to the long “s” and “t” of “doost, ” giving a pronunciation midway between the Ashkenazic and Sepahardic, ” and making a direct transition to the “bu” in the next word “but,” before turning down to the letters “rac” on the line below in “graces,” an inverted “U” configuration approximated as follows:
(All embedments described, except the last, can be read on the next page, marked out in the sonnet in various colors and repeated under it. This is to be compared with those of the facsimile of the original sonnet that follows.)
Hidden Content of Sonnet 78:
YA’Hau (ye-heau) shoe’Mai rb’bh me’u’or’hc (bles’d)
l ’o-e’l M u al’ea ll my all my a
sv = su, which can be pronounced sh ”as in “sugar”
svc-sper = transliteration of SHaC-SPER
Alie-nu [le’sha’be’ach]= It is incumbent on us [to praise]
Note: The Kaddish prayer goes back at least 1100 years and is recorded as used in prayer in the thirteenth century.
The above is a facsimile of Sonnet 78 as it appears in the original 1609 quarto printing which shows the actual alignments of the various embedment. Note the Elizabethan practice of using the letter “u” for the “v” at mid word and the letter “v” at the beginning of a word that begins with “u.” Note also the use at the beginning of a word and at mid word of what is called “the long ‘s,’ ” a letter “s” that resembles the letter “f” but without the horizontal line fully crossing at its center.
from the July 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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