If anyone knows what it's like to match wits with William Shakespeare, it's Roy Neil Graves. An English professor at the University of Tennessee at Martin, Graves holds a master's in English from Duke and a Ph.D. in American literature from the University of Mississippi, and is an avid poet and writer.
His poetry has appeared in a variety of publications, including Out of Tennessee: a Book of Poems, Always at Home Here: Poems and Insights from Six Tennessee Poets, and the Tennessee Philological Bulletin. "My claim to fame is that I'm next to Alex Haley [author of Roots] in an anthology of Tennessee writers," Graves jokingly remarks.
On top of all this, he's spent countless spare hours over nearly three decades seeking to prove that one of the world's greatest playwrights was also a master of concealment, hiding messages in the midst of some of his most popular and studied works.
Graves' quest began in 1979, during a seminar on medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the University of Mississippi. "I found what I thought was another poem embedded within the text of a poem called 'The Pearl,' " says Graves. Intrigued, he began combing Shakespeare's sonnets for other concealed messages.
What he discovered was unforeseeably vast and potentially revolutionary, he says. "It became evident to me that the whole cycle of sonnets is an elaborate numerological game." He says he believes he's discovered a complete set of 154 hidden sonnets encoded within the 154 known sonnets. Labeling these sonnets "the runes" to denote their secretive quality, Graves has since devoted himself to piecing them together, paraphrasing them, and divining their meaning.
Essentially, the runes are produced by dividing the original sonnets into eleven consecutive groups of fourteen poems each, then matching up individual lines in each sonnet with the corresponding line in the next within these groups (first line to first line, second to second, and so forth) creating new fourteen-line poems.
The results are often highly compelling, revealing coherent sonnets that, as Graves puts it, seem to be "far more than just cloud shapes I've conjured up."
Graves suggests a number of explanations for why Shakespeare might have hidden the runes in this way. The coded sonnets could have been intended for a private audience, privy to the secret, or they could have been used to convey certain messages at a time when free speech was restricted. To Graves, however, the most plausible explanation is the one his skeptics most vehemently reject: Shakespeare simply liked playing games.
"Shakespeare would have been much closer to the tradition of literature as private game play" that was common in the Elizabethan era, says Graves. "Among Shakespeare scholars, there's a resistance to this idea. They don't want to see Shakespeare as a player of games, as if this somehow undercuts the quality of his poetry."
After a flurry of recognition in the mid-1980s, including a front-page article in the Boston Globe and a paper published in the Shakespeare journal Upstart Crow, awareness of Graves' project has waned, and serious acknowledgment from academe remains elusive.
Despite numerous disappointments, Graves has achieved a certain measure of peace concerning his project. He remains grateful for the simple pleasure of delving into Shakespeare's writings, calling his work with the sonnets "a delightful game to play." In 2004, he completed a four-year effort to transfer all 154 runes, along with exhaustive commentary and analysis, onto a website hosted by the University of Tennessee. For now, Graves says he is satisfied with bringing his runes online and hopes they eventually find a receptive audience.
"I can understand why no one outside this project would touch it with a ten-foot pole," Graves states wryly. "It's easy to get lumped in with the lunatics that Shakespeare pulls out of the woodwork. But the texts are real. If they make sense, I didn't produce them. I'm not that smart."