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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It’s Follow-Up Friday: The Puzzle’s The Thing! edition

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’m posting the results of our #PennyDellShakespearePuzzles hashtag game!

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or @midnight’s Hashtag Wars segment on Comedy Central.

For the last few months, we’re been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny/Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was Penny/Dell Shakespeare Puzzles!

Examples for plays might be “Hamlet-terboxes” and examples for quotes might be “The Stars and Arrows of outrageous fortune.” Anything Shakespearean is up for grabs here!

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny/Dell Puzzles came up with!


Puzzly Plays

The Merry Wives of Wizard Words

The Two at a Time Noble Kinsmen / Two by Two Noble Kinsmen

Cymbeline ’Em Up

Timed Framework of Athens

As You Like It Figures

Romeo and Julietterboxes

The Taming of the Shrudoku

Love’s Labour’s Missing List

The Tempest of Sudoku

Romeo and Juliet’s Double Trouble Love Affair

Quotes that Fall into a Winter’s Tale


Puzzly Quotes

“Suit the action to the crossword, the crossword to the action.” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2)

From sonnet 130: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the Sunrays.”

“The very substance of the ambitious is merely THE SHADOW of a dream.” (Hamlet)

“Off with their Heads and Tails!” (Richard III)

“To Beat, or not to Beat, the Clock: that is the question.” (Hamlet)

“All Four One, he kissed me. I loved my Blips the better A Perfect Ten days after.”

“But, soft! What light through yonder Window Boxes? It is the east and Juliet is the Sunrays.”

“Frailty, thy name is Word Games.”

“Crosswords do shake the darling buds of May.”

“Alas poor Brick by Brick, I knew him Horatio.”

“Word Play’s the thing to catch the conscience of the king.”

Exit What’s Left, pursued by a bear.

“What a piece of Framework is a man.”

“Bull’s-Eye Spiral of newt.”

“To be or not to be, that is the Big Question.”

“Crosswords pay no debts.”

“A pair of star-Crossword lovers take their life.” (Romeo & Juliet)

From Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a Right of Way?”

“Double, Double, Toil & Double Trouble.” (Macbeth)

“Where Plus Fours art thou, Romeo?” (Romeo & Juliet)

“To be or not to be…that is the Quotefall.”


Someone even offered up a puzzly version of one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters, Quotefallstaff.

Plus our fellow puzzlers on Twitter offered up some terrific entries themselves! @CheriPalmisano submitted a quote — “My cherry lips have often kissed your bricks…(by brick) which are stuck together with cement” — and hashtag warriors @HereLetty and @aLICIaR802 joined in the fun with “In my mind’s Bull’s Eye Spiral” and “The Comedy of Errors: Me when I do a logic problem” respectively!

Have you come up with any Penny/Dell Shakespeare Puzzles of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!