Quite a few people think that Ben Jonson’s sonnet ‘On POET-APE’ refers to Shakespeare as a play-broker, passing off the work of others as his own. If you arrange the thirty-nine letters on the upper part of the title page of the first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in a grid with five columns you can read the words ‘Poet’ and ‘Ape’ as equidistant letter sequences.
Those who search for such hidden sequences in Shakespeare may be derided and likened to exponents of the Bible Code but it is of course perfectly possible for someone to select certain words which yield such sequences. How can we know if they did or not? If someone deliberately concealed these words here the implications are considerable.
The first thing is to estimate the probability of such sequences arising. We could in fact find the word ‘Poet’ in any grid from two to twelve columns wide. The three-column grid is a natural arrangement as it would give a perfect rectangle of letters, but the hyphen also highlights the five-column grid, in which the first four rows are upper case letters. We estimate the probability of ‘Poet’ and ‘Ape’ appearing either vertically or diagonally in either the three- or five-column grids as less than one in four thousand, in any grid as less, perhaps substantially so, than one in a thousand.
Of course there may be other groups of seven letters yielding one or more words which might be relevant to ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Sonnets’ but how many can you think of which fit as well as this? It’s not just that Ben Jonson used the term ‘Poet-Ape’ but that he wrote a sonnet on the subject that make it relevant to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Of course there are many locations within Shakespeare’s Sonnets where it might be concealed but if someone wished to emphasise its significance where could be as good as the most prominent location of all, on the upper part of the title page? And yes there are other ways in which it can be concealed but what is simpler than equidistant letter sequences? It is the very simplicity of these which have led many people to search for them.
So although this may not demonstrate beyond all doubt that ‘Poet’ and ‘Ape’ are significant here, it may seem extremely likely that they are. And while most scholars may not want to devote their time to searching for such sequences they might want to take some note of the findings of those who do. And if Jonson is referring to Shakespeare in his sonnet we might wish to consider where this leads. Dr. Ros Barber has written an excellent article on the subject.
Rosemary Warner and Peter Nockolds