The Dark Side of Shakespeare (A Trilogy by W. Ron Hess)
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Posted Sept 2009, Last Updated Oct 2011

Stabbing at ‘Shakespeare Cipher Systems’ and other Parasites

W. Ron Hess (,

assisted by Dr. Winston Chow (


Written May 2009


Introduction: This article examines a range of the "dead-end" distractions that once infested an earlier Anti-Stratfordian movement, particularly the claims that "Shakespeare Cipher Systems" reside inside the Bard's works and other places.  It distinguishes between "ciphers" and "codes," showing that simple types of codes were actually used by Elizabethans, including by Oxford and his circle. It debunks two recent Oxfordian cipher systems, and throws doubt on a third. But, most of all, it introduces Oxfordians to sound cipher principles, so that we can be inoculated against, and more suspicious of, future claims of discovered ciphers.


            A century and a quarter ago, Anti-Stratfordians were mostly Baconians. But by 1880 Baconianism had already begun to deteriorate. Spiritualists were starting to write that Sir Francis Bacon could be channeled; and Rosicrucian and Freemason secret societies were pointing to their variety of fabricated evidence, claiming that Bacon was a Grand or Ascendant Master in their orders -- heir to secret knowledge of antiquity.


            The disgraceful end was hastened 1884-88 when an American retired politician, Ignatius Donnelly, revealed a system that he claimed was a variation of the "bilateral cipher" Bacon had described (Friedmans 27-33). Serious cryptologists criticized Donnelly's system as not what Bacon described (33-35), saying that although Bacon's simple system was valid (247, 287), Donnelly's was not valid (35-36), and that only Donnelly himself could make sense of his system (36-37).


            Still, Donnelly made a fortune from his The Great Cryptogram best seller, so other Baconians spawned many systems which they fervently claimed Bacon had put into Shakespeare's works. A few amateur cryptologists had even earned a patina of semi-veracity. This continued until in 1957 a range of Baconian systems were debunked by the Friedmans' book.


            Perhaps the worst damage from Donnelly and his ilk came from their contrived reasoning about why Bacon needed to be so cryptic. Baconian systems yielded results in which Bacon allegedly confessed incest in his family (157, 163). And Bacon supposedly claimed to be Prince Tudor, the eldest of several brothers who were fathered by the Earl of Leicester upon Queen Elizabeth (63, 131, 178, 194, 202), and then left in the nests of prominent Elizabethans (157, 166, 194).


Parasites infect Oxfordianism:  Eaten from within by parasitical pet theories, fanatical Baconianism became hostile to serious research, favoring the weird -- such as summoning Bacon's ghost (9, 14, 282). The Baconian cause became odder with each passing decade, losing members to emerging theories – such as to Oxfordianism.


            Nevertheless, the parasites were adept at jumping from host to host. Almost as soon as Oxfordianism was founded, ex-Baconians tried to transfer fanaticisms mentioned above -- including Spiritualists holding séances in which they channeled Oxford and others of his time to learn that Oxford was the father of Prince Tudor (as with Percy Allen in Talks with Elizabethans).


            In addition to Allen, other Oxfordians adopting pseudo-Baconian pet theories included Dorothy Ogburn and B.M. Ward, although they produced creditable works as well. Ogburn's This Star is still a font of information, but it eagerly tipped its hat to an Oxfordian version of Prince Tudor. Ward wrote the original biography of Oxford, and yet in 1926 he had decided to emulate Baconian cipher systems. He contrived an alleged string-cipher in the "L'Escu d'Amour" poem of 1573 A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, claiming Oxford's name was spelled out. The Friedmans debunked the cipher by showing "Lewis Carroll" was an alternative solution (132-36). Still, I argue that the Friedmans erred somewhat by not citing more and better objections. Such as:

·         the cipher's selective decision-making about which lines to choose from,

·         variability about choices for how many letters to choose per line, and

·         variability about lines-up using the same choices as lines-down.

Unfortunately, despite all these objections, Ward's invalid string-cipher has remained a staple Oxfordian myth which we really should discard.


The Friedmans’ rules for valid ciphers:  The Friedmans were two of the best-respected cryptologists from World War II and the Cold War. Yet, even after their book refuted Ward's and other ciphers, intelligent but misguided enthusiasts have persisted in proposing new ones.


            Enthusiasts have often given lip-service to the Friedmans, but have never really adhered to principles the book espoused. A valid cipher system must meet requirements in various categories, such as these (from the index, 292):

1. results should be within an allowable percentage of error,

2. a correct solution mustn't be a matter of a decoder's opinion,

3. the certainty of a solution should not be in doubt,

4. the law of probability should not be extreme in a solution,

5. length of results need to be long enough to constitute a deliberate vs. random result (pg. 23 suggests "about 25 letters"),

6. the result must be unambiguous and unique,

7. there must be a credible relationship between plain and cryptic versions whereby the decoder is tipped off that a cipher resides within,

8. two or more valid solutions to a cipher constitute an absurdity (as with their dismissing of anagrams on pg. 113), and

9. the Friedmans specially denounced selective decision-making (pp. 18-20), or what many call cherry-picking.


            Since we amateurs aren't familiar with valid cipher principles, enthusiasts may convince us with convoluted excuses for why Elizabethan decoders would logically make one choice versus another in order to proceed to directed conclusions from their own pet theories. Although their systems inevitably have intrinsic flaws, enthusiasts can be adept at hiding their flaws beneath jargon, overwhelming detail, and/or deflection. Worst of all, enthusiasts' dead-ends may distract us from more promising research.


Systems based on Equidistant Letter Sequencing (ELS):  Over the past dozen years, Oxfordian systems have been proposed by Dr. John Rollett (who is now an outspoken critic of our Oxfordian theory, so presumably he no longer believes in his system) and Cornwall's David Roper. Both systems use a methodology of putting texts into matrices, shuffling each matrix in ways that make allegedly plausible codes pop out, and rationalizing that the results were deliberately encoded there -- essentially by resorting to claims that the results were otherwise statistically improbable. But, in the hands of clumsy amateurs or malevolent deceivers, statistics can be abused (my friend Dr. Winston Chow has prepared a side bar at the end below for discussing this point). As one proverb says, "Statistics never lie, but Statisticians do!" Or the saying attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Mark Twain, and others, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." Our problem is telling the distortions from those that may be sound.


            Rollett, who began writing on the topic circa 1997, apparently never admitted that his system was quite similar to a 1994 so-called discovery by Jewish occultists which was dubbed Equidistant Letter Sequencing (ELS). In contrast, Roper openly used ELS as his methodology. Yet, ELS has been dismissed by cryptologists as deeply flawed when used for systems which occultists dub "the Bible Code" or "Torah Code." Occultists claim that God wrote the Old Testament and the Cabala book of demons, inserting prophesies for ELS users to detect. Yet, their prophesies are generally discovered only after the prophesied events. A serious evaluation of these systems is at the Religious Tolerance website.


            When cryptology journal editors refuse to consider reviewing Shakespearean ciphers, particularly when ELS is used, they are not just displaying prejudice against Oxfordians. The editors rightly believe that such systems were already debunked by either the Friedmans or more recent cryptologists. So, the only way enthusiasts can get their systems adequately peer reviewed is to first cultivate the interest and intercession of genuinely well-respected cryptologists. To appeal to amateurs like us, instead of to experts, is the same flaw as that used by advocates of "Cold Fusion," where they were already claiming to the press that they had solved the world's energy crisis before any peer reviews had been done. Un-validated self-promotion is frowned on. Especially when claims are made -- as Roper does -- that his work is mathematically proven, or otherwise substantiated, without having adequately obtained proper peer review.


Improbable Claims of Esoteric Knowledge from Antiquity:  A flaw in many of the irregular approaches above has been claims of present legitimacy from past secret knowledge stretching to sages from the renaissance, middle ages, and antiquity. The implication is that those who don't recognize their wisdom do so out ignorance of that esoteric knowledge. We who are properly skeptical may be accused of "closed mindedness" or "bigotry." Just as there's no solid evidence the Freemasons existed prior to the 1720s, or the Rosicrucians prior to 1610 (see the Catholic Encyclopedia websites), there's no good evidence that anybody used ELS prior to modern times. Except where amateurs and occultists warp the facts to purportedly find ELS almost everywhere they look.


            No one ever mentioned or claimed the existence of ELS, or anything like it, before Jewish occultists did so in modern times. When later enthusiasts tried to use ELS for their own contrived systems, they encountered the problem that they had to accept the “Bible Code" as valid, or risk undermining their own pet theories. So, they searched for ELS in Elizabethan and earlier texts, and not surprisingly, claimed to find it. That's because ELS is an invalid methodology which can be misused to find instances almost anywhere one looks. Authentic cryptologists derisively find ELS in Melville's Moby Dick, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and on cereal boxes (as described in the AWitness website).


            From these contrivances, enthusiasts claim that ELS was well known and often used in earlier times, because they allegedly found it there. For example, they claim that Sir Francis Bacon used ELS, but they don't show that Bacon ever wrote about ELS, even though he wrote about another cipher. They circularly reason that because ELS was allegedly used in antiquity, this substantiates their methodology. They want us to believe ELS was used in the 1609 Sonnets dedication or 1623 Shaxpere effigy text, similar to "Bible Code" claims that God used ELS in the Cabala.


Simple, easily detected, "Codes" were actually used:  So, beware of parasites, occultists, and ELS-based systems. Yet, Oxford's circle apparently loved simple codes, and to play upon his name, Edward de Vere (where, for a multi-lingual audience, Vere = Spring, green, truth, youth, etc.; and with Oxford's "E" in front, it could be invoked in English as "ever" or "never").  Here are a few examples of what Oxfordians like me believe were used:

·         Alan Tarica and I wrote in the 2006 Summer & Fall Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter that a young Oxford apparently encoded his own name, reading "iptsubion Edward," scribbled into a margin of Halles Chronicles.

·         I've repeatedly pointed out in e-mails that Oxford was the probable author of 1584 Pandora (where in Middle English "Soowthern" or "Soothern" = of Truth = de Vere = Oxford's name).

·         We know of "Ever or Never" from the end of 1594 Willobie His Avisa.

·         We know of "A Never Writer to an Ever Reader" from the preamble to 1609 Troilus & Cressida.

·         We know "that everie word doth almost tell my name" from Sonnet # 76.

·         In Vol. II, pg. 426, of my Dark Side trilogy, I showed that the title of Oxford's ex-servant Anthony Munday's 1600 Bel-vedére (= beautiful to view), which claimed to have poetry by both Oxford and Sh., was a perfect anagram for "Bel-DeVere" (= fair or warlike Oxford).

·         We know that while he was Oxford's servant, Munday richly used simple acrostic codes in his 1579 Mirrour of Mutabilitie, lavishly dedicated to Oxford.

·         My website article about two Latin poems dedicated to Oxford by Munday and Robert Greene shows a Latin acrostic I discovered in one of them, and double entendre on VERE, the Beloved Youth (or Cupid), and other themes.

·         My website article about Tempest opposed Stratfordian claims that "Caliban" is an imperfect anagram of "cannibal"; I showed it is in fact a perfect anagram for "in Cabal," an alternative name of the Cabala occult book of demons.

·         Prof. Alan Nelson identified an acrostic poem dedicated to Oxford's daughter in 1606 Ourania, composed by Oxford's one-time servant Nathaniel Baxter.

·         And we Oxfordians typically accept all of the poetry signed "EOX" as written by Oxford, even though Prof. Steven May rejects some of the best of those.


            The fact is, even Stratfordians occasionally look into Shakespeare's works for simple, silly code systems, such as anagrams.  For example, as reported on "Hardy's List," Dr. Roy Winnick has proposed anagrams in some of the Sonnets (see the oxford journals website). He cites sonnet # 17's "should liue twise in it, and in my rime" as containing all letters to spell "Wriothesley-twise."  He cites # 58's "Be where you list" as an anagram for "Be U Wriothesley." And of course we know that Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, was the dedicatee of Shakespeare's 1593 V&A and 1594 RofL poems. Which opens the questions of why Southampton couldn't be openly acknowledged in the 1609 Sonnets, and if a poetical mind really would be concerned with injecting codes rather than beauty?


            Although the Friedmans admitted some valid use of simple systems, like short anagrams (93-4, 111), they also decried these in general as abused by amateurs (212-13) through selective decision-making to derive a message from large swathes of text. So, I doubt that Winnick's weak anagrams would meet their approval, if only for the silly results and loose context (e.g., in sonnet #17, a selection of 16 letters out of 30 hardly constituted an intentional solid system).


            Certainly, we Oxfordians generally believe that Oxford loved to pun by using simple codes and pseudonyms, for reasons which often we can only guess at.  I go a bit farther and feel it's possible that as a studious youth, Oxford may have drilled himself in certain tricks or habits related to his name and to fanciful identities of the "pulp fiction" of his time (such as the internationally celebrated knights-errant "Astolfo" or "Palladine" [= "of the Spear-shaker"]), both of them invincible English paladins. I believe that he appears to have used them later as an adult, and so did his circle. So, am I a codes enthusiast myself to some extent?


Distinction between "ciphers" and "codes":  Actually, the Friedmans (15) made a careful distinction between flexible "codes" and far more exacting "ciphers":

"...we shall not discuss codes in this book, but since the word 'code' is often used by laymen... in contexts where they clearly mean 'cipher,' it is worth drawing the technical distinction between the two... In code systems, the units or symbols to be translated can be of different lengths: a letter, a syllable, a word, a sentence, or just a string of letter or numbers is agreed to stand for a particular word or a whole phrase in the message... In contrast, the units in cipher systems are of uniform length and bear a uniform relationship to the units of the plain text.... we shall be discussing the conditions which any cipher has to satisfy if it is to count as a valid cryptogram.... based on common sense..."


            So, what's to keep enthusiasts from arguing that their systems aren't ciphers, and should be accepted as more flexible codes instead? My interpretation is that, for complex systems to be taken seriously, they must be subjected to the strict regime laid out for ciphers. But simpler, less pretentious systems, like acrostics, short perfect anagrams, and word play, were actually used, without doubt, and can be accepted to some extent without rigorous validation, within bounds of "common sense." 


            For example, Roper begins defense of his system by pointing to a code system written about in the mid-1500s by Girolamo Cardano, dubbed "Cardano Grilles" (CG). Because Oxford wrote a preface to a 1573 Cardanus Comforte translation, Roper implies that Oxford used CG, even though if we look carefully, Roper's ELS-based system actually does not use CG at all (he apparently mentions CG only as a deflection from his own system's flaws, or to prop up his system by showing that real codes did exist in the 16th century). In my opinion, Roper's system would have been stronger if he had demonstrated its reliance on CG, rather than on invalid ELS, because CG as Cardano described it was definitely used. And CG constituted a simple code system. Basically, two conspirators meet and agree on a popular book they will both have, and they each carry with them cards with holes in them. They then pass messages to each other in which they secretly tell very simple things, such as which page of the common book and which card to use. Then the card is placed over the page, and the holes yield a text with a secret message. But CG is a "private code," completely inadequate for Roper's complex system, where every visitor to the Shaxper effigy must be expected to divine that a code was used, that it was a "Cardano Grille," magically conjure up the exact card to be used, and then apply it to the text on the effigy. That absurd complexity certainly violates the Friedmans' "common sense."


            To me, the distinction between ciphers and codes means that we should be able to recognize simple, common sense codes, while rejecting purported complex codes or un-validated ciphers. Thus, although I believe there aren't yet any valid Shakespeare ciphers, what were just listed above for Oxford and his circle constitute simple codes. And those can occur often enough in relevant texts for a pattern worth study, possibly for identifying anonymous or pseudonymous works as authored by Oxford (as I would do for 1584 Pandora and 1594 Willobie).


"Diagonal Vere Acrostics":  For the past 7 years, I've been intrigued by an unpublished system proposed by Prof. Albert Burgstahler (, called "Diagonal Vere Acrostics" (or DVAs, with "Alignments" often substituted for the last word). Initially, it appears to be a simple code system, finding VERE, EVER, VEER, etc. diagonally and equi-spaced across texts of printed poetry, both upwards and downwards. Given my belief that in his boyhood Oxford might have developed such simple codes, and given that these DVAs constitute a simple acrostics innovation (which Burgstahler credits to the late Oxfordian Ralph Tweedale), I was inclined to study further, even though I saw problems. For one thing, there was an obvious need to involve printers, compositors, etc. into the scheme (for which I nominated Munday, since he was apprenticed as a printer in 1576 to c. 1584).


            But, worse problems arose when it turned out DVAs, which Burgstahler admits often occur randomly, are not an end in themselves. Rather, they are a means for deriving "block-letters" inside the poems, spelling out "E-O-X," "O-X," and a few other figures. This second phase adds layers of subjectivity, complexity, and even improbability. I believe that its complexity requires Burgstahler to subject it to cipher validation. And that's an uphill battle that I fear his system can't win.


            Let's close on a more positive note for Burgstahler. If his DVAs cipher can be validated by a peer reviewed cryptology journal, we may then be able to use it to identify anonymous or pseudonymous works that were by Oxford. His hope is that if his system is validated, it will tip the authorship question toward Oxford. For, while interpretations of history and literature are often debated, the Friedmans (286-88) noted that a properly validated cipher system may be undeniable in terms of the information it conveys.


            But, until any cipher system is validated, it's more likely that it will be a hopeless dead-end, distracting quick minds from more valuable pursuits. Simply speaking, complex ciphers are not likely worth the trouble -- for their discoverers, or for us!



Allen, Percy & Dowden, Hester,Talks with Elizabethans revealing the mystery of William Shakespeare, London, 1947, Rider.

Friedman, William and Elizabeth, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, 1957, Cambridge U. Press; at it is free online for a trial use.

Hess, W. Ron and Tarica, Alan, "Did Shakespeare read from the 17th Oxford's Personal Library," Pt. 1 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, 42:2, Sum 2006, 1+; Pt. 2 42:3, Fall, 25-28.  Also see review "Annotated Chronicle?," Sh. Matters 6:2, 6 &32 and "Letter to Editor" SOS News, Sum 2007, 43:2.

Hess, W. Ron, The Dark Side of Shakespeare, Vol. II of III: An Elizabethan Courtier, Diplomat, Spymaster, & Epic Hero, Lincoln, NE, 2003, Writers Club Press, ISBN # 0-595-29390-5.

Hess, W. Ron, "Tempest's Red Herrings," 2003, at website

Hess, W. Ron, "Translations and examination of two mysterious Latin poems dedicated to the 17th Earl of Oxford," 2009, at website

Ogburn Sr., Dorothy & Charlton, This Star of England: William Shakespeare, Man of the Renaissance, NY, 1952, Coward-McCann.

Roper, David, Proving Shakespeare, self-published, ISBN 978-0557012619, see

Ward, B.M., The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. . . From Contemporary Documents, London, 1928, Murray.

Winnick, Roy, "'Loe, here in one line is his name twice writ': Anagrams, Shakespeare's Sonnets, and the Identity of the Fair Friend," at website
 (click on "Advance Access")  10/16/09.

The Bible Code in War & Peace and Moby Dick,

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia/ Freemasonry,

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia/ Rosicrucians,

Religious Tolerence/ Bible Code,



Potential Misuse of Mathematical,

Statistical, and Probability theory

Winston C. Whow, PhD


            I do not believe that statistics lies. Statistics is a branch of mathematics science whose foundation is probability theory. Statistics is science because it uses empirically observed data; it is mathematics because analysis performed on the data is solidly mathematical; and it is an art because there are tools and disciplines that a practitioner can master. So, as with any branch of mathematics, statistics is based on definitions, assumptions, and laws known as theorems that can be deductively proved and cannot lie.


            However, true to its art side, statistics can be misused by practitioners, as among definitions, assumptions, and theorems, one can make incorrect assumptions or misinterpret mathematical principles. One  concern is that data upon which statistics is to be performed must be collected properly, or else the proverbial "garbage-in, garbage-out" will occur, which is a form of bad mathematical assumption, as data is “assumed” to be good. Also, improper analysis of data is a form of misinterpreting mathematical ideas, as a mathematical principle is broken. Even in these cases, it is not often due to intentional lies. Two examples from Mr. Hess' commentaries and attached paper illustrate my idea. The first is due to misinterpreting a mathematical principle and the second is due to incorrect assumption(s).


            Mr. Hess originally wanted to use his own made-up example of how statistics can be misused. He said,

"There are 7 billion people on planet Earth, and only a one in 7 billion chance that Hess wrote his paper. The chances are astronomically slim that Hess was the author. Ergo, it is statistically proven that Hess was not the author."

Advised by friends that his example was weak, he consulted me to see if better examples could be suggested. To say that someone did not write an article because there are 7 billion people in the world, and the chance of a particular person writing the article is almost nil, is a misinterpretation of a mathematical idea called conditional probability. Unless some deception is afoot (e.g., Ron Hess is a pseudonym used by Prof. Stephen Hawking, an incorrect mathematical assumption), it is already given that the author wrote the article. So one can only make inferences of uncertainty based on the hypothesis that the author already wrote it. The probability that the author already wrote the article given (conditioned on) that he wrote it is 100-percent. Thus, weak as this 7 billion example may be, it successfully illustrates a misuse of statistics and probability theory.


            Another illustration of misuse, in principle similar to the above paragraph, is to say a coin will be heads if flipped twice because there is a 50% chance of getting heads each time. The fact is that there is a 25% chance of two heads in two flips, 25% of two tails, 25% of a heads and a tails, and 25% of a tails and a heads. Thus, there is a 75% chance of at least one heads, but also a 25% chance that no heads will occur at all. This is probability at its simplest.


            Another mistake is committed by some proponents of secret coding in literature, or ciphers, where a conclusion is claimed to be proven by statistical analysis of the written lines or text. Thus, the statistical input data are perceived to have peculiar patterns in written lines of the work of the literature in question. Yet, interpreting certain words or phrases as an idiosyncrasy can be very subjective, and the analyst may perceive patterns that are in fact non-existent. Thus, the data is perhaps unintentionally contrived by the wishful thinking of the analyst, and selective decision-making (or cherry picking) occurs in order to arrive at a directed conclusion. Thus, the "mathematical assumption that the data is objective" can be a wrong assumption, and results of the study are flawed. This example illustrates the misuse of statistics by incorrect assumptions.


            Another illustration of the same use of non-objective data, and thus misuse of statistics by bad assumptions, is where a conclusion is made that all mountains are over 10,000 feet above sea level. Data: Pike's Peak, Mount Rainer, Mount McKinley, and Mount Everest. Measurement: all over 10,000 feet. Analysis and Conclusion: all mountains are over 10,000 feet. This is wrong due to a bad assumption that good data has been harvested. In fact, anyone can easily see that the data in this case was cherry-picked,  eliminating examples contradicting the conclusion, and  arriving at a bogus conclusion. So, the science and art of data selection has prejudiced the statistical outcome.


            This short commentary focused on simple, readily understood examples. Still, a bungling amateur or skillful expert can purposefully or accidentally produce such  errors, and only an expert can uncover them, sometimes with difficulty. This often happens when selected data, abstruse formulae, expert tools, or copious tables and graphs have been employed. In scientific publications for peer-reviewed journals, such data, formulae, tools, tables, and graphs are expected. But in publications for scientific amateurs, for non-scientists, or even scientists in very unrelated fields, this can lead readers down the wrong path!


Winston C. Chow received a B.S. and M.S. in mathematics from West Virginia Wesleyan College and the University of Cincinnati, respectively. He received a Ph.D. in information technology, specializing in statistical sciences with emphasis on stochastic processes from George Mason University, located in Virginia. His interests are in the statistical analysis and applications of random processes. He has published articles on subjects related to Brownian Motion. He is a member of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society.

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The Dark Side of Shakespeare (a Trilogy by W. Ron Hess)