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August 29, 2005

Comments

dsquared

Mate, this is nothing like the Bible Code and doesn't have anything to do with "cryptography" in the mathematical sense. The claim is just that we know that there were plenty of authors in Elizabethan times who put hidden Catholic references into their works (just as there are plenty of Jacobite references in eighteenth century literature) and this woman thinks Shakespeare was one of them. There is certainly a lot of decent and reputable scholarship pulling these references out of Marlowe's work. I seem to remember that there's a passage in "As You Like It" which is usually taken to be a reference to Marlowe's murder so Shakespeare certainly did put in this sort of thing.

The Hertford College theory is much more speculative, but it's well known that Shakspear of Stratford came from a recusant family (and his daughter was prosecuted for recusancy) so it can't be ruled out either.

But I think you're got the wrong end of the stick here; this is all about codes, not ciphers.

Abiola Lapite

"Mate, this is nothing like the Bible Code and doesn't have anything to do with "cryptography" in the mathematical sense."

Actually, it *is* just like the Bible Code and has *everything* to do with cryptography. What, you think book codes are something unknown in the field or something?

The bottom line is that given enough motivation, creativity and intellectual sloppiness, one can always find "hidden" meanings in any text, even purely random text, and the statistical analyses published in the refutations I've linked to - and which I'm dead certain you haven't read - lay this out very rigorously and in some depth.

"There is certainly a lot of decent and reputable scholarship pulling these references out of Marlowe's work."

That just means said work doesn't deserve the good repute it enjoys.

"But I think you're got the wrong end of the stick here; this is all about codes, not ciphers."

Who said anything about it being a cipher? Do you really think cryptanalysts don't deal with codes on a regular basis? What exactly do you think "PURPLE" was? And for someone pointing out the obvious, you seem to forget your earlier insistence that this has nothing to do with the "Bible Code", which is ... ahem ... a code (or, to be precise, is *claimed* to be one by Michael Drosnin). The distinction between codes and ciphers is in any case irrelevant, as what is at issue here is whether one has discovered a statistically rigorous means of ferreting out hidden meaning from a text: simply knowing that there was a controversial issue in England during a time when a prolific author was alive isn't justification enough for jumping to any conclusions.

By the way, another revealing bit of evidence that you never bothered to read any of the links is that you apparently didn't register my mentioning that William F. Friedman - whose expertise in code-breaking was tested on the ultimate laboratory - had already looked into this possibility with Shakespeare in particular, and he and his wife ended up dismissing it in a work published after more than 40 years of investigation of the topic. If you're expecting me to buy that Shakespeare had cryptanalytic skills surpassing that of the former chief codebreaker of the NSA, and yet which could fall before some woman of leisure with zero track-record in the field, don't hold your breath.

dsquared

Abiola I have read those references and they confirm that you've got the wrong end of the stick here. The "coded messages" that are being talked about in this book aren't the sort of thing that you could establish anything about statistically or by using the sort of cryptanalysis that would help break Enigma codes. They're also nothing like the Bible Code. This isn't about skip-sequences, book codes or anything similar; it's just matters of Shakespeare scholarship along the lines of whether a particular reference to "the 6th of July" was intended to suggest the date of Thomas More's death. This has been the staple of William Blake scholarship for as long as there has been Blake scholarship; it would be a genuine naif who believed that there were no hidden meanings to something like "Tyger, Tyger".

What I think has happened here is that you've seen the word "code", knew about Friedman's (entirely different) work on looking for (an entirely different kind of) encrypted messages and assumed that this might be the same sort of thing. It isn't. It might or might not be good scholarship (John Guy likes it, apparently) but it really isn't what you're talking about here.

Abiola Lapite

"The "coded messages" that are being talked about in this book aren't the sort of thing that you could establish anything about statistically or by using the sort of cryptanalysis that would help break Enigma codes."

Again, you're simply wrong. There is more to Friedman's book than just a simple search for letter-by-letter ciphers (and Enigma was a polyaphabetic cipher, not a code) - it is in fact a demolition of all the popular "hidden meaning" theories about up until the time it was written - and codes *are* in fact broken by statistical analyses, just like ciphers are. I refer you to the following two articles.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JN-25
http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/08/08/reviews/990808.08staffot.html

Note that the Germans were readily able to crack the SIS's poem codes in a reliable manner, based on nothing more than statistics and a little knowledge of English literature.

It's unfortunate that details are so scarce online, but the fact is that codes in which whole words are replaced by other words are just as amenable to statistical attacks as any other codes; all that changes is that *codegroups* become the target of attack, rather than individual symbols.

"This isn't about skip-sequences, book codes or anything similar; it's just matters of Shakespeare scholarship along the lines of whether a particular reference to "the 6th of July" was intended to suggest the date of Thomas More's death."

If it's about "hidden meanings" being put into texts for the purposes of conveying messages to other parties who supposedly are in possession of means to reliably ferret them out, then traditional codebreaking techniques most certainly do apply. Language has regularities, and these can be ferreted out at the character, word, sentence or even paragraph level. Anyone with a fertile imagination can spin all sorts of allusions in the name of "scholarship", and wrt the notion that something with a long history of scholarship behind it must necessarily be rigorous, I need point no further than to the thousands of years of religious scholarship which have borne so little factual fruit to date. Even Kabbalah has been studied carefully over hundreds of years, and despite giving rise to incredibly creative minds like Isaac Luria I'm certainly not about to take the field the slightest bit seriously as a source of knowledge.

"This has been the staple of William Blake scholarship for as long as there has been Blake scholarship; it would be a genuine naif who believed that there were no hidden meanings to something like "Tyger, Tyger"."

If there is no rigorous way of ferreting out one interpretation of the "hidden" meaning from the rest as being more worthy of attention, then all one is doing is engaging in literary gematria. At the very least one would like to see some external documentary evidence that these secret meanings were indeed implied not merely by the life circumstances of the author, but by something he might have said or written to some other party; simply noting that Shakespeare's father might have been a Catholic is no more convincing to me than the suggestion that I'm secretly shilling for Anglicanism in my anti-religious posts because of my parents' faith. If I trawl through your website and start spinning crazy theories about your life based on creative interpretations of your words - say, that you're actually an aging black lesbian who's a paid-up member of the John Birch society- what is to set me apart from the average nut muttering prophecies on the sidewalk, no matter how copiously and eloquently I footnote it with references to various URLs and books by Deleuze, Bell Hooks or whoever?

"What I think has happened here is that you've seen the word "code", knew about Friedman's (entirely different) work on looking for (an entirely different kind of) encrypted messages and assumed that this might be the same sort of thing."

No, what's happened is that based on what I read in the Guardian, I knew that there could have been no way that this woman picked up secret messages in Shakespeare's work that no one had seen before, and based on what I've read in Yoder's article, I'm even more convinced that I'm right. You have a restricted vision of what cryptography is all about, and don't seem to grasp that at bottom it's really just applied information-theory, from which no means of communication whatsoever is exempt.

Ah, I've just tracked down a page which ought to make it clear to you that codes aren't something new in the field of cryptography.

http://www.vectorsite.net/ttcode1.html

Note the discussion in Part 1 of "jargon code", "one-part" vs. "two-part" codes, etc. Also note that the infamous "Zimmermann Telegram" was actually written in Germany's "Code 13040", and yet was broken by standard cryptographic techniques nonetheless.

http://www.nku.edu/~christensen/021hnr304introduction.doc

As I've said, what Clare Asquith is doing is amateur cryptanalysis with amateur rigor, and if her style is commonplace in the literary world, then that is a black mark for the field as whole, rather than some sign that she's on steady ground. If I haven't mentioned codes on here, it's because they're a dead-end, practically speaking, and besides, they're just not that mathematically interesting by comparison with today's sophisticated ciphers.

dsquared

no it's not cryptanalysis Abiola (amateur or professional); it's what's called scholarship. If there are phrases in Shakespeare's plays which (as a matter of fact) were used elsewhere at the same time as recusant codewords, then that's an interesting thing to know. As I say, there are some authors who are always talking in code (Spenser and Blake) and some who, so far as we know, never are (Victor Hugo) and some where they might or might not be (Shakespeare). If a passage like the "6th of July" on in AYLI makes sense as recusant dog-whistle-talk and not otherwise, that's decent evidence, and it doesn't rely on any of the words substituting for other words. It's just a subtext, rather like the homosexual subtext in some of Oscar Wilde's works.

Look at it this way; if you went into a time machine into the future, and all that survived of the early 21st century was the "Gene Expression" weblog, then you could perform the useful service of informing our alien overlords that phrases like "heritability of generalised cognitive ability", "criminal ethnic groups" plus lots of references to Ashkenazi Jews and "model minorities" were there because the authors were racists who didn't like the descendants of the African slave trade in the USA. This wouldn't be cryptanalysis on your part but it would certainly involve explaining that certain phrases are "code words" used to convey a certain message to the faithful without saying anything that you could be put on the hook for.

That's what this book "Shadowplay" is doing; I don't know how well-supported the scholarship is but John Guy is a good bloke and he thinks it's at least interesting.

dsquared

perhaps another way to put it would be that (if this theory is true), what Shakespeare would be doing would not be anything well described as "conveying information"; it's what the linguists call phatic communication. The message of the hidden references is not anything specific, it's just "I, like you, have recusant sympathies, keep the old faith brothers". It's not dissimilar from the Jacobite references that a few Scottish and Welsh authors stuck into their work toward the beginning of the nineteenth century; a reference to "across the water" or a "noble cause" didn't mean anything in particular, it just identified the author as "one with whom we share an interest".

Abiola Lapite

"no it's not cryptanalysis Abiola (amateur or professional); it's what's called scholarship."

"Scholarship" is whatever scholars do: can you point me to the glorious achievements of the astrologist, phrenologist, theological and eugenicist scholars of yesteryear? Just because something is heavily footnoted and written in a stereotyped style doesn't mean it has truths to disclose: again, kabbalistic studies have an even older pedigree than that of English literarature, but that doesn't mean they're about anything other than the fertile imaginations of those who engage in them.

"As I say, there are some authors who are always talking in code (Spenser and Blake) and some who, so far as we know, never are (Victor Hugo) and some where they might or might not be (Shakespeare)."

And the only ways to tell which is which are either by turning up some documents in which they or someone personally known to them says that they're sending messages, or by using what little external evidence remains *in combination* with hard mathematics, not by engaging in fanciful extrapolations.

"If a passage like the "6th of July" on in AYLI makes sense as recusant dog-whistle-talk and not otherwise, that's decent evidence, and it doesn't rely on any of the words substituting for other words."

1 - Do you realize that this is precisely what cryptographers do? They look for ways of interpreting symbols so that they make sense in context, they don't just swap words about at random. The British poem codes I pointed to actually made sense both as ordinary language poems *and* as means of sending secret messages.

2 - How do you rigorously determine that yours really is the only valid interpretation, rather than that it's just your limited imagination which prevents you from seeing others? This is precisely the problem with decrypting messages hidden using one-time pads: without a verified copy of the key, theoretically any such message can contain any meaning one may come up with. Cryptology again shows its relevance where you insist it doesn't have any.

"It's just a subtext, rather like the homosexual subtext in some of Oscar Wilde's works."

Oscar Wilde lived and wrote about his homosexuality and even went to jail for it; where is the corresponding third-party evidence in support of Clare Asquith's fanciful theorizing?

"Look at it this way; if you went into a time machine into the future, and all that survived of the early 21st century was the "Gene Expression" weblog, then you could perform the useful service of informing our alien overlords that phrases like "heritability of generalised cognitive ability", "criminal ethnic groups" plus lots of references to Ashkenazi Jews and "model minorities" were there because the authors were racists who didn't like the descendants of the African slave trade in the USA. This wouldn't be cryptanalysis on your part but it would certainly involve explaining that certain phrases are "code words" used to convey a certain message to the faithful without saying anything that you could be put on the hook for."

The difference would be that I'd actually have hard documentary evidence of racist utterances, the eager embrace of junk data and repeated dismissals of unfavorable research to back up my assertions, rather than merely leaning on my imagination. I could actually compile a corpus of such material and run statistical analyses on it to show that when a certain anonymous GNXP blogger is talking about XYZ, the evidence indicates he's really talking about ABC: computational linguistics has been tackling the problems of intentionality and connotation for a very long time.

What Clare Asquith is doing is purely subjective and fanciful attribution of ideas to others no longer around to speak for themselves, as is the great majority of "scholarship" done in her mode, and there's actual research to back my assertion.

http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/simonton/pubs/ShakespeareAuthorship.pdf

I quote:

["Humanistic methods rely almost exclusively on qualitative analyses of both internal and external evidence. The internal evidence includes stylistic changes during the course of the author’s career, whereas the external evidence involves supposed references to external events. However, from a scientific perspective such methods leave much to be desired. Several studies have shown that qualitative techniques are contradicted by quantitative techniques even when applied to the same fundamental database (e.g., Simonton, 1987b, 1998a). In the specific case of Shakespeare, for example, the stylistic trends purported to hold for Shakespeare’s canon have been seriously qualified by statistical analyses of the very data that scholars gathered to document those trends (Simonton, 1986b). These discrepancies emerge because the human mind is not very capable of intuiting accurate inferences from complex, multivariate, and probabilistic data (Faust, 1984; Meehl, 1954)."]

Couple research like the above with the criticisms levelled at Asquith even by otherwise approving reviewers like the WaPo's Cynthia L. Haven,

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/11/AR2005081101494_pf.html
["Asquith is no nitpicking professor. She's not afraid to wing it. By taking unscholarly chances, she may have unlocked a door ... That said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and some of Asquith's "markers" are farfetched"]

and I have every reason to remain certain of my judgement that her work is pure invention, however good a bloke this John Guy may be.

Abiola Lapite

Actually, going back to look at the contents of the Guardian review again, I come up with the following:

["It is now widely accepted that the era was not a period of political consensus, says Asquith. Instead, it was a time in which opposition voices were banished and censorship meant the burning of illegal pamphlets and printed works.

As a result the Catholic resistance, which had been going for 70 years by the time Shakespeare was writing, had already developed its own secret code words; a subversive communication system which the playwright developed further in his work."]

This quite explicitly says that Asquith believes she has indeed found a code of just the sort that is cryptanalysts' bread and butter, in contradiction of your claim to the contrary. Either journalist Vanessa Thorpe seriously misunderstood what she read and was told, or you're basically saying Asquith isn't making the actual claims she herself says she's making.

dsquared

Vanessa Thorpe has expressed herself unclearly; the "method of communication" here is just like the Jacobite code-words. Or the Masonic codes for that matter; it's well-known that Mozart put a few Masonic references into some of his operas, but it's unlikely that he was trying to communicate anything particular to Masons.

[How do you rigorously determine that yours really is the only valid interpretation]

If you really thought that Shakespeare's plays had only one valid interpretation, why would anyone care about them?

Abiola Lapite

"the "method of communication" here is just like the Jacobite code-words."

I've just been reading an NYT review which mentions Asquith's book and yet again suggests that she really does believe Shakespeare had encrypted (the actual word used) secret messages in his plays, the code to which she'd managed to crack.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/30/books/30shak.html
["Clare Asquith, an independent scholar, provides a key argument: Shakespeare encrypted Catholic propaganda in his plays and poems. Every time Shakespeare writes "high" and "fair," he means Catholic; by "low" and "dark," he means Protestant. A "tempest" refers to the Protestant Reformation, which Catholics saw as a frightening upheaval in their world. And so on.

All these books are provocative and have generally been well received. But in the end their reliance on coded writing or shaky circumstantial evidence raises doubts."]

So that's another reviewer who just isn't buying Mrs. Asquith's far-fetched theories.

"If you really thought that Shakespeare's plays had only one valid interpretation, why would anyone care about them?"

I never said I thought any such thing about Shakespeare, I was responding to your statements to the following effect:

["If a passage like the "6th of July" on in AYLI makes sense as recusant dog-whistle-talk and not otherwise, that's decent evidence, and it doesn't rely on any of the words substituting for other words."]

The "not otherwise" in there indicates a uniqueness of interpretation, which is what I was getting at: how do you know in such a scenario that it isn't just the limits of your imagination which hinder you from seeing other possibilities?

dsquared

[how do you know in such a scenario that it isn't just the limits of your imagination which hinder you from seeing other possibilities?]

you don't. Derrida would actually put it more strongly; you do in fact always know that it is just the limits of your imagination which hinder you from seeing other possibilities. In fact, Derrida would put it even stronger than that; he'd say that in most scenarios you are in this situation, even ones in which you would normally think that you can know for certain what a text is saying. Cryptography is the *un*usual case.

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Notes for Readers