Shakespeare's Sonnets and the Cabala
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):
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".
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.
Gematria equivalent Hebrew words are written in black, Greek in olive green and Latin or English words in blue:
(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.
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'.
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.
- '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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
Appendix 1 - Hebrew Gematria
Appendix 2 - Greek Gematria
Appendix 3 - Latin/English Gematria
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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