The Puzzle of the Bard

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William Shakespeare is a name we all know well. We’ve studied his works in school, used words and phrases he coined or popularized, and we’ve seen numerous films, TV shows, and other adaptations inspired by his writing.

But for more than two centuries, there has been a great deal of debate over whether the man known as William Shakespeare actually wrote all of the brilliant works for which he is acclaimed.

There are whole societies dedicated to either rooting out the truth or proffering their candidate for who really wrote the works of Shakespeare. Many names are bandied about, including a who’s who of luminaries at the time, like Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth I, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, Anne Hathaway, Sir Walter Raleigh, and perhaps most ardently, Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford.

[Image courtesy of The Truth About Shakespeare.]

Now, granted, there’s plenty to suggest Shakespeare collaborated with other writers on some of his works, but we’re not talking about collaboration here. We’re talking about ghostwriting some of the most famous works in human history.

But, you may be asking, other than a shared love of wordplay, what does the Shakespearean authorship question have to do with puzzles?

I’m glad you asked.

Over the years, several theorists have reported finding secret codes or ciphers in the text of Shakespeare’s works which hinted toward the true author.

Samuel Morse, a man who knows one or two things about codes, discussed how Sir Francis Bacon had created such codes, probably as part of his spy work, perhaps even going so far as to create an encrypted signature of sorts that appears in multiple Shakespeare works.

According to a BBC America article on the subject:

One scholar at the time went so far as to produce an enormous “cipher wheel” composed of a 1000-foot piece of cloth that contained the texts of Shakespeare and others for easy comparison and decryption. He claimed that by deciphering codes, he’d discovered the location of a box, buried under the Wye River, that contained documents that would prove Sir Francis’s authorship. But a dredging of the area came up with nothing.

[Orville Ward Owen’s cipher wheel. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Now, there’s little doubt that Bacon was a code master, but there’s equally little evidence that he wrote the works of Shakespeare.

Of course, if there are codes in those works, perhaps Shakespeare placed them there himself.

According to a theory by scholar Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, Shakespeare’s careful and curious word choices were intended to foment subversive political messages and advance his own agenda of strong Catholic beliefs.

Constancy in love was Shakespeare’s way of alluding to the importance of a true faith in the ‘old religion’, she says. More specifically, his puns and metaphors often circled around certain key phrases. For instance, to be ‘sunburned’ or ‘tanned’, as are his heroines Viola, Imogen and Portia, was to be close to God and so understood as a true Catholic.

[Image courtesy of Amazon.com.]

It’s amazing that we know so little about someone so influential. And it’s only natural that we try to fill in the blanks with our own theorists, be they explanations of Shakespeare’s impressive knowledge or possibilities of alternative authorship.

The man himself is a puzzle, and that is irresistible to some, myself included. Are Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the bard one and the same?

As it turns out, that question might finally have an answer, thanks to the sleuthing of Dr. Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The story begins with Shakespeare’s father:

John Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon, was ambitious to rise in the world. He was certainly not the first Englishman keen to put his origins as a provincial tradesman behind him. Among his contemporaries in Stratford, he was a figure of fun for his social climbing. English class snobbery has a long pedigree.

His son, who would continue the quest for official recognition after his father’s death, also attracted metropolitan disdain as “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers”. In 1601, after his father’s death, Shakespeare the upstart returned to the college of arms to renew the family application for a coat of arms.

He had made a small fortune in the theatre, and was buying property in and around Stratford. Now he set out to consolidate his reputation as a “Gentleman”. Under the rules that governed life at the court of Elizabeth I, only the Queen’s heralds could grant this wish.

[Image courtesy of The Shakespeare Blog.]

And it’s this application for a family coat of arms that provides the connective tissue between the man and the bard. “They point to someone actively involved in defining and defending his legacy in 1602, shortly after his father’s death,” according to Wolfe.

But whether there are codes lurking in the Bard’s works or not, the mystery of the man himself might be the greatest puzzle of all.


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Bringing Home an Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript

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[Image courtesy of BBC.com.]

If you scour the Internet for great unsolved mysteries of this or any era, the Voynich Manuscript is always one of the top results, and with good reason.

A small hand-written volume, the Voynich Manuscript is believed to have originated in the 15th century (thanks to carbon-dating), and it’s written in an as-yet-undeciphered language.

Both amateur and professional cryptographers have attempted to unravel the mysteries of the unknown language, but all have thus far failed. (Oh sure, some people have claimed in the past that they’ve cracked the code, but none of these efforts have held up to scrutiny.)

Some theorize that instead of an encryption, it’s an invented language or a previously unseen invented written form for an established language.

vmsample

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

A few cryptographers have gone so far as to call it unsolvable, while others believe it to be an elaborate hoax or the work of someone afflicted with glossolalia, a written equivalent of speaking in tongues.

And ever since the only known copy was donated to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, aspiring solvers have had to rely on online scans of the manuscript in their attempts to crack it.

Until recently, that is.

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[One of several fold-out pages in the manuscript.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

A Spanish publishing house is currently working on a limited run of exacting replicas of the Voynich Manuscript, purportedly including “every stain, hole, [and] sewn-up tear in the parchment.”

Of course, such meticulous work is reflected in the price of each book, which runs roughly $8000 to $9000 a copy. A third of the 898 copies being offered for sale have already been snatched up in pre-orders.

If you’re still hoping for a chance to tackle the mystery but you’re not looking to break the bank, thankfully Yale University Press is offering a $50 trade hardcover edition of the manuscript for sale later this year.

Whether this finally leads to a solution or simply adds new members to the ever-growing list of disappointed or frustrated aspiring solvers, I can’t say. But it’s exciting to see the mystery is alive and well.


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The Great Puzzle Pursuit: Puzzle Hunting Across the U.S.!

Puzzle hunts are interactive solving experiences that often have you wandering around a certain area as you crack codes, unravel riddles, and conquer puzzles.

Whether you’re working alone or you’ve recruited a team to help with the hunt — perhaps solvers whose skills complement your own or fill a gap in your puzzling ability — it takes puzzles a step further, often making for a memorable puzzle experience, akin to Escape the Room challenges.

We’ve covered some puzzle hunts in the past, like BAPHL or the Trials Evolution hunt. We’ve also explored puzzle hunts that combine aspects of scavenger hunts and physical challenges to create a more physically demanding solving experience, like the Great Urban Race.

But I don’t know that we’ve ever covered something quite on the scale of The Great Puzzle Pursuit.

Instead of one city, you have 15 possible cities to test you. Instead of racing other teams over the course of a day or a weekend, you have a seven-month window of opportunity to test your puzzly mettle.

Intrigued yet? I certainly was, so I reached out to the team behind The Great Puzzle Pursuit to find out more about this ambitious solving experience. Co-creator Jason was kind enough to answer my questions about the event.


What inspired the Great Puzzle Pursuit?

A little background about us first. My wife Amy and I have been frequent participants in events like Warrior Dash, Urban Dare, and various scavenger hunts for the last 10 years. Now that I am older I can tell you that breaking both of my ankles previously ensured that I just cannot run like I used to.

So my wife and I, who are enormous fans of puzzles and the outdoors, tried various geocaching activities. Which we loved, but that is more just hide and seek. Then we went on to try various scavenger hunts and found the challenges to generally be silly tasks as opposed to actual puzzles.

After much research, we just couldn’t find exactly what we were looking for so we decided to make it ourselves, launching in Pittsburgh, PA.

You have 15 cities listed as possible points of entry into this puzzle hunt. What are the logistics involved in creating something of this scope? How many team members do you have running GPP?

The logistics in running multiple simultaneous hunts is somewhat of a challenge. In each city, we choose 7 locations — generally monuments, statues, or unique features — and then weave puzzle elements into these locations. Essentially you will need to solve 7 location puzzles and 7 on-site puzzles to complete your city.

[Glenn’s note: Location puzzles lead you to a location, while on-site puzzles can only be solved once you reach a given location.]

The locations are different but the puzzle elements are identical between cities so we can ensure it is a fair competition. Assuming a team bests their city challenge, all teams across the country share one last Meta puzzle. To date only 4 teams have unlocked this final challenge and now qualify for the cash prize nearing $1,200.

My wife and I are the owners and operators and we have a team of 8 that helps us create the challenges, scope out future locations, etc.

How many groups/competitors are involved right now?

We are nearing 300 teams now, with 4 total finishers [people who have completed a city challenge and the meta puzzle]. Two for Pittsburgh, one from Buffalo, and one from Hartford. All teams have until September 15 to finish so we expect to see a few more by then.

What lessons did you learn from season 1 that have informed this season’s event?

What we learned from season 1 is that people want to be challenged. In season 1 we made a puzzle hunt that was difficult but 50% of all teams completed it.

The vast majority said they wanted it to be even harder! So this year we added that 15th and final national puzzle that only the best of the best will be able to unlock.


Thank you to Jason and Amy for taking the time out to talk to us today! You can find out more about the Great Puzzle Pursuit on their website here and on Twitter here!

And remember, there are 15 possible cities to conquer:

  • Austin, Texas
  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Boise, Idaho
  • Buffalo, New York
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Columbus, Ohio
  • Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
  • Hartford, Connecticut
  • Indianapolis, Indiana
  • New York, New York
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • St. Augustine, Florida
  • Springfield, Massachusetts
  • Washington, D.C.

Let us know if you’re going to accept the Great Puzzle Pursuit challenge in the comments below!


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5 Questions with Author Elizabeth Singer Hunt!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Elizabeth Singer Hunt as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Elizabeth Singer Hunt is the author behind the globe-spanning Jack Stalwart books, a young adult series featuring a nine-year-old secret agent, with over two million books sold to her credit! She’s recently expanded into the world of puzzles with the publication of the Secret Agent Training Manual, a terrific introductory guide to codecracking and concealment.

Anagrams, ciphers, scytales, and encoding with other letters, numbers, or symbols are all explained with easy-to-understand instructions and plenty of examples. She even provides sample encryptions to crack, letting readers practice their newfound skills and techniques, giving young readers the chance to become their own Jack Stalwart-style secret agents!

Elizabeth was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Elizabeth Singer Hunt

1. What inspired the adventures of Jack Stalwart?

As a young girl, I struggled to read. It wasn’t so much that reading was a problem for me. I couldn’t find any books that I identified with. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana, and spent most of my weekends fishing, crabbing, playing with frogs and tossing around footballs. Basically, I was a tomboy. It was difficult to find books that I could relate to since most of the ‘girl’ books were about friendship issues, horses and fairies.

At around that same time, Raiders of the Lost Ark opened in theatres. That movie introduced me to archaeology and adventure, and showed me that there was a world outside of Louisiana. As a southern girl, I had no idea that places like ‘Nepal’ and ‘Peru’ even existed!

When I was in my late twenties, I decided to take a crack at writing a children’s book series. I drew upon my childhood experiences and inspirations to create the series’ main character, nine-year-old Jack Stalwart. Jack moonlights as a junior secret agent for the Global Protection Force, or GPF. In every book, he’s sent on a mission to an exotic locale in order to protect one of the world’s most precious treasures.

Millions of children around the world have fallen in love with Jack, largely because they identify with him and want to be like him. He’s like a pint-size Indiana Jones, sprinkled with a bit of James Bond and written for the nine-year-old ‘reluctant reader’ me.

Did they, in turn, inspire the Secret Agent Training Manual, or was that meant to be a standalone creation?

Over the years, I have received thousands of emails from children asking how they can become a secret agent like Jack. So I thought it would be fun to create a series that introduced them to basic secret agent/spy skills. Code-breaking seemed a natural place to start! The first book in the series is called How to Make and Break Top Secret Messages. Subsequent books will discuss basic spy craft and the history of intelligence gathering.

2. Are you a puzzle fan yourself, or did your aptitude with encryption and codebreaking puzzles come out of your research and work as a writer?

A little bit of both! I have always had an affinity and aptitude for word puzzles. My favorite game growing up was Boggle and to this day, I am the family Boggle Champion! Recently, my children and I discovered Bananagrams.

It’s right up my alley, since it relies on the ability to quickly arrange and re-arrange letter tiles into words. That being said, I didn’t know too much about the world of cryptography (except for some of the basics) until I began researching for this book.

Do you have a favorite method of encryption or one that didn’t make it into the SATM?

I am fascinated by all of the methods of encryption featured in the book because each has its use depending upon the situation. I suppose my favorite is the ‘cipher’ because it’s ever-changing and difficult for the average person to solve without a key.

3. Let’s talk a little bit about your writing process, since composing a novel is a puzzle in itself. Do you start with characters, plot, certain scenes in your head already? How do you approach the process of writing a book?

Good question! It depends upon the type of book that I am writing.

For my (fiction) Jack Stalwart chapter book series, I have a fairly unorthodox way of writing. I establish the setting, mission and villain and then I start writing! Everything is free-flowing, and little is planned. I love movies and am extremely influenced by film, so in a way I am writing as though I am watching a film play out before my eyes.

For the (non-fiction) Secret Agent Training Manual book, things needed to be a lot more structured. Research was done, notes were taken and the book was organized from the most basic cryptographic methods to those that took a bit more time and thought to decode. Most of this book was handwritten, while many of my fiction books are typed onto a computer screen from the get-go.

4. What’s next for Elizabeth Singer Hunt?

I’m excited to say that Costco is planning an exclusive nationwide launch of the Jack Stalwart series in volume form next month, i.e. in April of 2016. That means that children across the country will be able to enjoy the Jack Stalwart series four books at a time in a specially produced keepsake volume.

Besides this news and the launch of the Secret Agent Training Manual book, I’ve also recently published the first book in a new middle grade series called Swamp Mysteries: The Treasure of Jean Lafitte. The series chronicles the adventures of four twelve-year-old friends as they solve paranormal mysteries in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. It’s a bit like Scooby-Doo with a southern twist.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

As my mother always says, “There’s always a solution to everything. Persevere!”

When I first had the idea for the Jack Stalwart series, I shopped it around to various agents and publishers and they promptly rejected it. I could have felt sorry for myself and given up. But I believed in the idea and in myself. So, I found a solution to the problem. I published it myself, i.e. hired an editor, illustrator, designer and found a local printer to produce the books. I printed thousands of Jack Stalwart books, and sold them personally to as many booksellers as I could find.

After five months of hard work, the series caught the attention of an agent and the head of children’s fiction at Random House UK. (I was living in England at the time). Random House acquired the Jack Stalwart series, and commissioned me to write a total of fourteen books.

The rest as they say is history. Had I listened to the naysayers, Jack Stalwart never would have existed and I never would have had a career as an author. Thankfully, I took my mother’s advice. It’s the same advice that I would give to anyone with a dream. Never give up. Be resourceful, and persevere.


A huge thank you to Elizabeth for her time. Be sure to visit her website for updates on her latest projects. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next!

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Puzzles in Plain Sight: Coded Puzzles!

Given the nature of my line of work, I think about puzzles a lot. But, as it turns out, even when I’m not thinking about puzzles, puzzles seem to find me anyway.

As followers of our Instagram account know, last night I was reading a collection of supernatural short stories, Dark Detectives, edited by Stephen Jones. Partway through a story titled “Vultures Gather,” I encountered the following passage:

That’s right, an encrypted passage smack dab in the middle of my supernatural mystery story!

As it turns out, our investigators uncover a message left behind by the deceased, indicating that he was murdered! Not only that, but he makes a cagey reference to one of my favorite horror movies in order to provide a method for both exposing and punishing his duplicitous attackers.

It all starts with a letter and two pieces of parchment with Greek lettering. The letter entrusts the paper and their secret contents to the two men, in case anything suspicious should happen. (Fortuitous!)

The investigators, with the help of two of their friend’s books — The Boy’s Book of General Knowledge and The Boy’s Book of Puzzles and Brain Teasers — try to crack it with a simple transposition code, meaning one letter or number represents another. This is the basis of standard cryptograms and many other crypto-puzzles.

[Leela tackling an alien code in Futurama.]

But this only yields gibberish. That is, until they remember something from the letter he left them: “The locks are my favorite books, the key is seven.”

The seventh letter is G, meaning that should be the starting letter of their transposition pattern.

Unraveling the encryption reveals some sinister-sounding magical incantations, which they put aside for the moment.

Then they turn their attention to the remaining bits of code in the letter: the strings (5,2,2,5) and 831214926142252425798. Assuming their friend would want these codes cracked quickly, they employ a simple alphanumeric cipher.

Now, alphanumerics can work several ways.

  • Sometimes, the numbers coincide with those of a push-button telephone, meaning 5 can be J, K, or L.
  • Other times, the numbers represent that letter’s position in the alphabet. A is 1, B is 2, Z is 26, etc.
  • They can also be transposition codes, where each letter corresponds to a random number. This is the case in Codewords.

8312149261422524225798 uses the second style of alphanumeric code. So 8 would be H, 3 would be C…

Wait, that doesn’t work! Unless you remember that “the key is seven,” as mentioned above. Which means that G would be 1, H would be 2, etc.

So now, with some trial and error, 831214926142252425798 becomes 8/3/1/2/14/9/26/14/2/25/24/25/7/9/8, or NIGHTOFTHEDEMON. As it turns out, (5,2,2,5) is a hint to breaking up your answer into words, like the indicator of word length that follows a British-style crossword clue or cryptic crossword clue. This makes the answer NIGHT OF THE DEMON.

[Unfortunately, no one in the story seems to notice that THE is 3 letters, and the clue should’ve read (5,2,3,5). Oops.]


So, in the end, not only did I get a great supernatural detective story (with mystical revenge to boot!), I got a brief refresher on some of the most popular encryption styles employed by puzzlers today.

Not too shabby at all.

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On the hunt… for treasure!

We’re well into summer, and you’re probably looking for great puzzly summer activities to share with the kids. And I have just the thing for you. Have you considered a treasure hunt? (And I’m not talking about spotting a chest at the bottom of your fish tank.)

You could organize one yourself! My friend told me a story about a treasure hunt her uncle masterminded for her and her siblings one year. He went out at low tide with a small chest of fake jewels (plus her mother’s actual pearl necklace, which she tossed in for fun), and buried it, prepared to bring the kids back a day or two later with a treasure map and let them “discover” it.

Naturally, a storm came through the next day, so they couldn’t dig it up. It was a few days before they could organize the treasure hunt, and when low tide came, the storm had so changed the landmarks and sandbars that they never found the treasure chest.

I don’t want to discourage you from embarking on your own treasure hunt adventures… just make sure it’s a place you have maximum control over.

Of course, you could always pursue one of the real-life treasure hunts lurking out there for the industrious amateur adventurer. We’ve written about a few of them in the past, but they’re hardly the only examples. For an aspiring Indiana Jones or lost member of the Goonies, real treasure awaits you.

One, surrounding a bronze statue of an owl, requires a trip to France, though. A man named Max Valentin buried it, and whomever unravels eleven clues and finds it can exchange it for a second statue valued at one million francs. (As long as you don’t get too overzealous and blow up a chapel in your quest to find it, as one amateur treasure hunter did.)

For one with an American twist, you could try to solve the mystery of the Beale ciphers. Three encrypted texts from the 1800s detail the location of a hidden cache of gold, silver, and jewels, and astonishingly enough, The Declaration of Independence is supposed to be the key to cracking the code!

While the ciphers and the story might be a hoax, you could still be the one to solve the mystery! (One group of treasure hunters stumbled upon Civil War artifacts while digging in the wrong place.)

Whether it’s a Dead Sea Scroll or the last missing treasure from a brilliant tie-in to a book, treasure could be yours this summer, even in your own backyard.

[Thanks to IO9 for inspiring this post.]

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