The Roland Emmerich of the '20s

The release of Anonymous brings to mind this passage from P.G. Wodehouse’s 1928 story “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald.” The title character is trying to impress a beautiful, classy, imperious girl by trying to prove that he is intelligent and high-minded (as in the many other stories Wodehouse did with this plot, it turns out she really wants a regular idiot who can amuse her), and also tries to ingratiate himself with her aunt. The aunt, never named, is a devout believer that Shakespeare did not write his plays, and that the real author, Francis Bacon, can be proven through a code system. A system that not only applies to the plays, but to things that other people wrote about Shakespeare.

Scooping him up and bearing him off into the recesses of the west wing, she wedged him into a corner of a settee and begann to tell him all about the remarkable discovery which had been made by applying the Plain Cipher to Milton’s well-known Epitaph on Shakespeare.

“The one beginning ‘What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones,'” said the aunt.

“Oh, that one?” said Archibald.

“‘What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones? The labour of an Age in pilèd stones? Or that his hallowed Reliques should be hid under a starry- pointing Pyramid?'”

Archibald, who was not good at riddles, said he didn’t know.

“As in the Plays and Sonnets,” said the aunt, “we substitute the name equivalents of the figure totals.”

“We do what?”

“Substitute the name equivalents of the figure totals.”

“The which?”

“The figure totals.”

“All right,” said Archibald. “Let it go. I daresay you know best.”

The aunt inflated her lungs.

“These figure totals,” she said, “are always taken out in the Plain Cipher, A equalling one to Z equals twenty-four. The names are counted in the same way. A capital letter with the figures indicates an occasional variation in the Name Count. For instance, A equals twenty-seven, B twenty-eight, until K equals ten is reached, when K, instead of ten, becomes one, and T instead of nineteen, is one, and R or Reverse, and so on, until A equals twenty-four is reached. The short or single Digit is not used here. Reading the Epitaph in the light of the Cipher, it becomes: ‘What need Verulam for Shakespeare? Francis Bacon England’s King be hid under a W. Shakespeare? William Shakespeare. Fame, what needst Francis Tudor, King of England? Francis. Francis W. Shakespeare. For Francis thy William Shakespeare hath England’s King took W. Shakespeare. Then thou our W. Shakespeare Francis Tudor bereaving Francis Bacon Francis Tudor such a tomb William Shakespeare.'”

The speech to which he had been listening was unusually lucid and simple for a Baconian, yet Archibald, his eye catching a battle-axe that hung on the wall, could not but stifle a wistful sigh.

Of course, to a certain extent, all movies about great men who didn’t actually do the work they are credited with are topped by that Disney cartoon where we learn that the Declaration of Independence was plagiarized from a mouse, and that Ben Franklin was a fraud.

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