The Shakespeare Mangle

Start: 30 Mar 2010

Squeezing the truth out of the text

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There has for a long time been an eccentric minority who believe that Shakespeare was written by, well, almost anyone except Shakespeare. Sir Francis Bacon has often been put forward as a candidate; one of the best known exponents of this hypothesis was Delia Bacon (no relation) whose mental stability was definitely questionable. It is worth pointing out at once that mainstream opinion, supported by an overwhelming majority of Shakespearean academics, is that the great author "Shakespeare" really was the William Shakespeare born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564.

Doctor Orville Ward Owen (1854 1924) was an American physician, and an avid follower of the Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship. He was convinced that Shakespearean texts contained a code which would prove Bacon was the author, and built what he called a "cipher wheel" to speed up the decoding, though in more senses than one I think it more apt to call it The Shakespeare Mangle.
Owen's method appears to have been basically to cut and paste sections of text together until they made up what he considered to be the "correct" reading; the exact criteria he used are currently obscure, but are known to involve "key" words that he thought flagged up whole sentences on either side of the word; these were then joined together to make some sort of sense. The coded message from Bacon he claimed to have found was published in a book published in 1893: "Sir Francis Bacon's Cipher Story". (ISBN: 9781408672105) Copies of this are for sale on the Internet, or you can read it here.

Left: The Shakespeare Mangle ready for action

The Mangle consists of two large wooden cylinders, 36 inches in diameter and 48 inches long. On these was wound a thousand feet of what appears to have been oilcloth, and glued to that were pages cut from books; the complete works of Bacon, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Greene, Peele and Spenser, together with Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. The Mangle weighs about 400 pounds.

As Dr Owen read passages from the text on the wheel, his assistant would type them at left. There is no other mechanism involved.

The Owen method was examined by the eminent cryptologists William and Elizebeth Friedman (no, not spelt Elizabeth) who concluded that it had no cryptographic validity.

Left: The Shakespeare Mangle partially unrolled.

Remarkably, the Shakespeare Mangle still exists. Owen's cipher wheel was discovered in a warehouse in Detroit, Michigan by Virginia Fellows (1910-2006), a supporter of Owen's Bacon theory, who wrote a book on the subject called The Shakespeare Code, published in 2006. It appears to have been owned at the time by Alan and Elizabeth Hovhaness, who gave it to Fellows. She presented The Mangle to Summit University, which appears to be this organisation in Montana. In my view any organisation that talks about "ascended masters" needs to be treated with considerable caution, but maybe that's just me.

It will come as no surprise to hear that Dr Owen's findings are considered to be complete rubbish by almost everyone.

You can find out more on the Shakespeare Authorship Question here (This document was originally published in Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition, Volume XXIV. John George Robertson. Cambridge University Press, 1911. pp786-7)

There is also a long article in Wikipedia.

For more on the sad story of Delia Bacon see here.

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