Shakespeare's Sonnets and the Cabala

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,
20 betwen.

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:

Appendix 1 - Hebrew Gematria
Appendix 2 - Greek Gematria

Gematria equivalent Hebrew words are written in black, Greek in olive green and Latin or English words in blue:

Sonnet
Line (number)
Gematria Match (* footnote)
10 139 Make thee an other selfe for loue of me, Μιμημα (A Copy – 139)
21

283 Who heauen it selfe for ornament doth vse,

291 As any mothers childe, though not so bright

The Moon (283)

Παις (Child - 291)

22

302 How can I then be elder then thou art?

307 Presume not on thy heart when mine is slaine,

Ηιθεος (A Youth – 302)

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 complaine
386 How far I toyle, still farther off from thee.
387 I tell the Day to please him thou art bright,
388 And do'st him grace when clouds doe blot the heauen:
389 So flatter I the swart complexiond night,
390 When sparkling stars twire not thou guil'st th'eauen.

(Toil – 385)

Περας (Goal, End – 386)

Ο Ηλιος (The Sun – 388)

(Heaven – 390)

29 395 And trouble deafe heauen with my bootlesse cries (The Heaven – 395)
30 411 Then can I drowne an eye (vn-vs'd to flow)
412 For precious friends hid in deaths dateles night,
413 And weepe a fresh loues long since canceld woe,
414 And mone th'expence of many a vannisht sight.
415 Then can I greeue at greeuances fore-gon

 

Astrophel (i.e. Philip Sidney – 414)
Πενθος(Grief – 414)

32

438 These poore rude lines of thy deceased Louer:

442 Exceeded by the hight of happier men.

445 A dearer birth then this his loue had brought

Υλη (Raw, inert Matter – 438)

Μακαριος (A Happy Man – 442)

Παλινγενεσια (Second-birth – 445)

33 453 Anon permit the basest cloudes to ride,

457 Euen so my Sunne one early morne did shine,
458 With all triumphant splendor on my brow,


Αμαρτια (Sin, Failure – 453)

 

Sunbeams (458)

34

464 And make me trauaile forth without my cloake
465 To let bace cloudes ore-take me in my way,
466 Hiding thy brau'ry in their rotten smoke

470 That heales the wound, and cures not the disgrace:

Πεπλος (Cloak – 465)

 

Πονος (Suffering – 470)

35 477 NO more bee greeu'd at that which thou hast done, Metanoia (Repentence – 477)
Το Εγκλημα (The Fault/Reproach -477)
37 507 So I, made lame by Fortunes dearest spight Αδυναμια (Lameness, Impotence – 507)
38

521 Thine owne sweet argument, to excellent,

526 When thou thy selfe dost giue inuention light?

527 Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
528 Then those old nine which rimers inuocate,

532 The paine be mine, but thine shal be the praise.

Το Ομμα (The Face, Image – 521)

Lucidus (Bright, Lucid – 526)

The Muses (528)

Οδυνη (Pain – 532)

39 537 Euen for this, let vs deuided liue,
538 And our deare loue loose name of single one,
539 That by this seperation I may giue:
540 That due to thee which thou deseru'st alone:

Διδυμοι (Twins – 538)

Κρισις (Separation, Justice – 540)

40

551 Then if for my loue, thou my loue receiuest,

557 And yet loue knowes it is a greater griefe
558 To beare loues wrong, then hates knowne iniury.

Φιλια (Love – 551)

Μητις (Wisdom, counsel – 558)

41 569 Aye me, but yet thou mighst my seate forbeare,
570 And chide thy beauty, and thy straying youth,

Θρονος (Seat – 569)

Πορνος (Fornicator – 570)

43

590 For all the day they view things vnrespected
591 But when I sleepe, in dreames they looke on thee,

601 All dayes are nights to see till I see thee,
602 And nights bright daies when dreams do shew thee me,

Σπιλος (Blemish, Blot – 590)
Το Οναρ (The Dream – 591)

Σκοτια (Darkness – 601)

 

45

619 The first my thought, the other my desire,

624 Sinkes downe to death, opprest with melancholie.

629 This told, I ioy, but then no longer glad,

Σεληνη + Ηλιος (Moon 301 & Sun 318)

Σποδος (Ashes, Dust – 624)

Ευρηκαμεν (Joy at stg found – 629)

46 636 (A closet neuer pearst with christall eyes) Η Νου Μηνια (The New Moon – 636)
Fiat Lux (Let there be Light – 636)
47 658 Awakes my heart, to hearts and eyes delight. Φρην (Heart - 658)
49

680 Shall reasons finde of setled grauitie

682 Within the knowledge of mine owne desart,

685 To leaue poore me, thou hast the strength of lawes,

Ζυγος (Yoke, Heavy Burden – 680)

Nosce Teipsum (Know Thyself – 682)

Δικασπολος (A Judge – 685)

50

691 The beast that beares me, tired with my woe,

695 The bloody spurre cannot prouoke him on,
696 That some-times anger thrusts into his hide,

700 My greefe lies onward and my ioy behind.

Αρκτος (Bear – 691)

Το Κερας (The Horn, Flank - 696)

Το Ισον (The Equilibrium – 700)

51

702 . . . when from thee I speed,
703 From where thou art, why shoulld I hast me thence,
704 Till I returne of posting is noe need

707 Then should I spurre though mounted on the wind,

708 In winged speed no motion shall I know,

710 Therefore desire (of perfects loue being made)
711 Shall naigh noe dull flesh in his fiery race,

714 Towards thee ile run, and giue him leaue to goe

 

 

Πλαγκτος (Wandering, Mad – 704)

Ο Θεος Ερμης (The God Hermes 707)

Πτηνος (Winged – 708)

Προθυμια (Desire – 710)
* (Nothing, The Void of Pure Spirit – 711)

Προδρομος (Running forward – 714)

52 728 Being had to tryumph, being lackt to hope. Διδυμος (Double, Twofold – 728)
53 734 Is poorely immitated after you, Ο Εμπαικτης (The Mimic – 734)
54

748 As the perfumed tincture of the Roses,

753 Die to themselues. Sweet Roses doe not so,
754 Of their sweet deathes, are sweetest odors made:

755 And so of you, beautious and louely youth,
756 When that shall vade, by verse distils your truth.

Μουσικη (Of the Muses – 748)

Το Θερος (The Harvest – 754)

Η Μουσικη (The 'product' of the Muses – 756)
Απαραβατος (Imperishable – 756)

55

759 But you shall shine more bright in these contents
760 Then vnswept stone, besmeer'd with sluttish time.

Φανης (Phanes 'The Light' – 759)
Αφανης (Dull, obscure – 760)
56

775 So loue be thou, although too daie thou fill

780 Which parts the shore, where two contracted new,

Love (775)

Ποντιος (Lord of the Sea – 780)

57

790 Whilst I (my soueraine) watch the clock for you,

801 Or at your hand th' account of houres to craue,

Κυρος (Supreme Authority – 790)

Saturnus (Chronos – 801)

59

815 Which laboring for inuention beare amisse

819 Show me your image in some antique booke,

825 Oh sure I am the wits of former daies,

Ζωη (Life, 'Eve' – 815)

Ρυθμος (Shape, Pattern - 819)

Virgil (825)

60

832 Crawles to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
833 Crooked eclipses gainst his glory fight,
834 And time that gaue, doth now his gift confound.
835 Time doth transfixe the florish set on youth,
836 And delues the paralels in beauties brow,

837 Feedes on the rarities of natures truth,

839 And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand

Στεφανος (Crown – 832)

Κεραστης (Horned – 834)

 

Τα Τερπνα (Delightful Things - 837)

*Η Πυραμις (The Pyramid – 839)

63

872 With lines and wrincles, when his youthfull morne

877 For such a time do I now fortifie
878 Against confounding Ages cruell knife

880 My sweet loues beauty, though my louers life.

882 And they shall liue, and he in them still greene.

Ηωθεν (From Morning – 872)

Ο Απεραντος (The Infinite - 877)

Ο Φιλος (The Lover – 880)

Βιοω (To Live – 882)

64

885 When sometime loftie towers I see downe rased,

886 And brasse eternall slaue to mortall rage.

892 Or state it selfe confounded, to decay

895 This thought is as a death which cannot choose

* Pompey's Pillar (885)

Η Πτοιησις (Violent passion – 886)

Αναλυσις (Dissolution, End - 892)

Νεμω (To choose – 895)

65

901 O how shall summers hunny breath hold out,

905 O fearefull meditation, where alack,
906 Shall times best Iewell from times chest lie hid?

Ωρα (Season, Prime of Life – 901)

The Grave (906)

66 911 TYr'd with all these for restfull death I cry,

923 Tyr'd with all these, from these would I be gone,
924 Saue that to dye, I leaue my loue alone.

Σακκους (Sack-cloth - 911)
* Μιαινω (To dye, stain - 911)

* Το Στιγμα (The Stain, Mark – 924)

67 931 Why should poore beautie indirectly seeke,
932 Roses of shaddow, since his Rose is true?
Καλυπτρα (Covering, Veil – 932)
69

956 Vttring bare truth, euen so as foes Commend.

960 By seeing farther then the eye hath showne.

965 But why thy odor matcheth not thy show,

Ανειμων (Naked, Bare – 956)

Το Κυκλον (The Eye – 960)

Ειρων (A Dissembler – 965)

70

968 For slanders marke was euer yet the faire,
969 The ornament of beauty is suspect,

973 For Canker vice the sweetest buds doth loue,

979 If some suspect of ill maskt not thy show,

Vitriol (968)
Ειδωλον (Idol, Image – 969)

* Αρρενοθηλυς (Effeminate,
Bisexual man – 973)

* Ο Παιδεραστης (The Lover of Boys - 979)

71

984 From this vile world with vildest wormes to dwell:

988 If thinking on me then should make you woe.

Εχθρος (Hateful - 984)

Η Εκλειψις (The Eclipse, Loss – 988)

73

1009 THat time of yeeare thou maist in me behold

1010 When yellow leaues, or none, or few doe hange

1015 Which by and by blacke night doth take away
1016 Deaths second selfe that seals vp all in rest.

Ποδεων (End – 1009)
Αμφιλυκη (Twilight – 1009)

Ψιλος (Bare, Naked – 1010)

Ο Θανατος και ο Αδης (Death and Hell – 1015)

75

1045 Some-time all ful with feasting on your sight,
1046 And by and by cleane starued for a looke,

1049 Thus do I pine and surfet day by day,
1050 Or gluttoning on all, or all away,

Η Οπωπη (The Faculty of Sight – 1046)

* Ο Θυρσος (The Thyrsus – 1049)
Χοιρος (Pig – 1050)
Τρυπανον (Awl – 1051)

76 1059 O know sweet loue I alwaies write of you,
1060 And you and loue are still my argument:
Επιθυμητης (Lover, Desirous – 1060)
77 1072 Times theeuish progresse to eternitie. Αφανισμος (Melting Away – 1072)
78 1083 Thine eyes, that taught the dumbe on high to sing,
1084 And heauie ignorance aloft to flie,
Wisdom (1083)
80 1111 But since your worth (wide as the Ocean is)
1112 The humble as the proudest saile doth beare,
1113 My sawsie barke (inferior farre to his)
* Ζωδιακος (Zodiac – 1112)
84

1165 In whose confine immured is the store,

1173 And such a counter-part shall fame his wit
1174 Making his stile admired euery where.

* Ο Παρθενων (The Parthenon – 1165)

* Δωρος (Doros – 1174)

85

1181 I thinke good thoughts, whilst other write good wordes,

1182 And like vnlettered clarke still crie Amen,

* Γεωργος ('George' – 1181)
* The Amorous Zodiac (1181)
* Ο Ζωδιακος (The Zodiac – 1182)

Ο Βωμος (The Altar – 1182)

86 1195 Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write,
1196 Aboue a mortall pitch, that struck me dead ?
* Γοητευσις (Sorcery – 1196)
88 1220 And place my merrit in the eie of skorne, Μωριος (With the Foolish – 1220)
89

1234 And I will comment vpon that offence,

1241 Be absent from thy walkes and in my tongue,
1242 Thy sweet beloued name no more shall dwell,

Γλωσσα (Gloss, Comment – 1234)

Η Γλωσσα (The Tongue – 1242)

90 1258 At first the very worst of fortunes might. Ησσων (Worse, Defeated – 1258)
91 1266 Wherein it findes a ioy aboue the rest, Ευαιων (Joyful – 1266)
92

1281 I see, a better state to me belongs

1283 Thou canst not vex me with inconstant minde,

Παχυς (Wealthy – 1281)

Το Ελεγχος (The Reproach – 1283)

93 1297 But heauen in thy creation did decree, Το Ζωον (The Creature – 1297)
95 1317 HOw sweet and louely dost thou make the shame, Ψευδης (False, Sham – 1317)
96 1339 How many Lambs might the sterne Wolfe betray,
1340 If like a Lambe he could his lookes translate.

Πυθων (Ventriloquist – 1339)

Το Ειδωλον (The Phantom – 1339)

97

1353 Yet this aboundant issue seem'd to me,

1358 That leaues looke pale, dreading the Winters neere.

Την Αμπελον Της Γης (The vine of the Earth – 1353 Rev. 14, 18)

The Autumn Equinox (1358)

100 1391 Darkning thy powre to lend base subiects light Φιλοσοφια (Love of Wisdom – 1391)
101 1415 To make him seeme long hence, as he showes now. Ζηλωτος (Admired – 1415)
104 1450 Three Aprill perfumes in three hot Iunes burn'd, Μονας Δυο Τρεις (One, Two, Three)
Πυροω (To Burn – 1450)
105

1461 To one, of one, still such, and euer so.

1463 Still constant in a wondrous excellence,

1469 Three theams in one, which wondrous scope affords.

Υποστασις (Foundation, Reality – 1461)

Συνεχης (Constant – 1463)

Η Υποστασις (The Foundation–1469)
Ο Λογος Σπερματικος (The Spermatic Logos – 1469)

110

1530 Gor'd mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most deare,

1532 Most true it is, that I haue lookt on truth

Ευκερως (Well-horned – 1530)

The True Word (1532)

112 1556 YOur loue and pittie doth th'impression fill,
1557 Which vulgar scandall stampt vpon my brow,
δεσμωτης (Prisoner – 1557)
120

1664 And ruin'd loue when it is built anew

1668 THat you were once vnkind be-friends mee now,
1669 And for that sorrow , which I then didde feele,
1670 Needes must I vnder my transgression bow,

Ευθυμω (To Make Straight, Rectify – 1664)

Το Τιμωρημα (The Punishment – 1669)

122

1700 Or at the least, so long as braine and heart
1701 Haue facultie by nature to subsist,

1705 Nor need I tallies thy deare loue to skore,

Χρως(Body – 1700)

Χρεως (Debt – 1705)

124 1728 No it was buylded far from accident Το Θυσιαστηριον (The Altar – 1728)
Αγιων Ιερουσαλημ (New Jerusalem - 1728)
(12 x 12 x 12 = 1728)
127 1772 Therefore my Mistersse eyes are Rauen blacke,
1773 Her eyes so suted, and they mourners seeme,
* 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 dying then.
* 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 Well by, Τυχων (Fortunate - An epithet of
Hermes and Priapus – 2150)

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Commentary

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.

 

 
Shakespeare's Sonnets
(1 - 108)
Shakespeare's Sonnets
(1 - 108) + 100
Astrophel and Stella
(complete)
Don Juan
(lines 1 - 1512)
No. of Matches
137
52
54
38

 

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 *)
711 –
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:

VII
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.

Conclusion


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.

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Appendix 1 - Hebrew Gematria
Appendix 2 - Greek Gematria

 

 

 

Notes
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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