Cheshire and the Shakespeare Code

PUBLISHED: 01:15 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:50 20 February 2013



Robert Nield has spent six years on the trail of the 'real' bard and discovers a Cheshire connection with our greatest playwright Words: Andrew Hobbs

FOR a rainy Saturday, it had turned out far better than Robert Nield had expected. His next-door neighbour in Northwich, Joan Robinson, had dragged him to a huge antiques fair at G-Mex in Manchester, where his eye was drawn to an Old Master. It was a portrait of a woman, possibly Elizabeth I.

That night, a thought struck him. Like many people, he had never been convinced that the writer of Hamlet, Macbeth and the sonnets was an obscure merchant from Stratford upon Avon. Surely such a poet and playwright had a more brilliant father, a more educated mother? And no one was more educated than the Queen herself, Elizabeth.

'Within hours of seeing this painting the idea occurred to me, in the middle of the night,' says Robert, who taught physics at Sir John Deane's College in Northwich for 20 years. 'I thought, suppose it was true, what would be the consequences?'

This was the beginning of a six-year quest to find Shakespeare's true identity, leading to his remarkable conclusion that the true writer was in fact the secret son of Elizabeth I and her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Mr Nield has published his findings in a new book, out this month, Breaking The Shakespeare Codes.

His starting point was not unusual, the belief that the Stratford businessman who struggled to write his own name was an unlikely author of the finest works in the English language. Many others, including Charles Dickens and Henry James, have been puzzled by the gap between the life and the work.

What is new about the Cheshire author's research is his claim that the real writer was Elizabeth's son, and the evidence he uses to back that claim, a series of twodimensional anagrams hidden for four centuries in books and monuments, the 'Shakespeare Codes'.

The first code to be cracked was the dedication at the front of Shakespeare's Sonnets, published in 1609. The first three lines read: 'To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr WH all happinesse.' At that time, says Robert, 'begetter' meant 'author', so the real writer must be Mr WH. An anagram of those three lines is: 'Bringe help to William Hastings the unseen poet of these sonnets.' And Hastings just happened to be the name of the sister of Robert Dudley, the possible father of the poet.

Catherine Hastings was the obvious foster mother of her brother's secret child, Mr Nield believes. 'Elizabeth couldn't admit to having a child, it was unthinkable, so it would be Robert Dudley's responsibility to bring the child up,' Mr Nield reasons. 'So he had to find someone who was a very close relative who could act as a foster parent.'

More anagrams followed, with words criss-crossing each other like a Scrabble board. The dedication to the First Folio collection of Shakespeare's plays, and written by fellow playwright Ben Jonson in 1623, yielded 16 anagrams alone.

'It felt astonishing' says Robert,' it was as though you had stepped out of the real world and into a film. That feeling lasted for several months. Then eventually you realise you've been conned about the whole Shakespeare business.'

The author, who is 50, believes that the name and identity of William Shakespeare of Stratford were used by the real playwright, William Hastings, as a 'mask'. This was a common way for aristocrats to distance themselves from their literary output, as play-writing was beneath their status.

Have Robert's years of research spoilt his pleasure in watching and reading Shakespeare's plays? Quite the opposite, he says. 'I get more out of it now than I did before. When you watch Hamlet knowing what's in the book, you see it from a new perspective.'

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