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I was reading Shakespeare's third sonnet, and I noticed something funny. I am going to put in bold all the capital letters in the sonnet itself.

Sonnet III

When fortie Winters shall beseige thy brow,
And digge deep trenches in thy beauties field,
Thy youthes proud liuery so gaz’d on now,
Wil be a totter’d weed of smal worth held:
Then being askt, where all thy beautie lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty daies;
To say within thine owne deepe sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftlesse praise.
How much more praise deseru’d thy beauties vse,
If thou couldst answere this faire child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse
Proouing his beautie by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art ould,
And see thy blood warme when thou feel’st it could.

There is an odd letter out, namely, the second W from "Winters". Since this is not the beginning of a line, then the capitalised letter can only be a reference to a name.

If I look at "Winters shall" I can see "Winters shall" to make "Wi sha" for "William Shakespeare" which is the name of the author who wrote this sonnet.


Is this a coincidence? Did William Shakespeare hide things in his writings? (I hope he did, because that would be cool.)

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    By that logic, why wouldn't "shall" have been capitalized as well? – chepner Jul 3 at 20:55
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    @chepner well, I did find some other cool stuff in this, but only for fun (I can show you if you are interested); more importantly, however, I asked a friend about this and he told me that Shakespeare did hide an acrostic in the middle of Sonnet 115. See here :P – Mr Pie Jul 4 at 12:41
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    That's the kind of thing you can find in any lengthy piece of text with enough arbitrary rearrangement. – chepner Jul 4 at 14:37
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    @MrPie I'm struggling to find any other references to that acrostic in Sonnet 115, and given the contrived spacing required, and the fact that it consists of the seven most common letters in English text (ETAOINS), I'm inclined to believe it's an amusing coincidence rather than a message hidden by the author. – IMSoP Jul 4 at 16:08
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    @IMSoP yeah, me too, actually. The only other reference I can find is here, but with the point raised earlier, I suppose you are right. It's funny how the letters are quite close to the centre of the sonnet, but you know, 115 sonnets later, there is bound to be something like that happening! ;) – Mr Pie Jul 4 at 16:26
43

I think you're reading too much into this - Shakespeare was known to capitalize significant nouns fairly commonly in his writings (several examples can be seen here).

Remember that when Shakespeare was writing he was using very early Modern English and the style rules then were far looser as the language shifted from Middle English towards the more modern forms of the language.

We don't generally capitalize season names now but he was writing some ~400 years ago!

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    Also, the texts we're working from are, in many cases, combinations of multiple sources (the quartos & folios) and further edited by modern scholars to reconcile differences. – DukeZhou Jul 3 at 20:28
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    You can also see this sort of "weird capitalization" throughout the US Constitution. – Kevin Jul 4 at 20:52
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    Also, the text contains punctuation; it was my understand that Shakespeare did not use any punctuation in his writing, which would mean we are reading an edited version. – Matthieu M. Jul 5 at 8:25
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    See also the capitalization of "SHall I compare thee to a Summers day?" – A C Jul 6 at 0:05
  • @MatthieuM. I'm curious. Where did you get the idea that "Shakespeare did not use any punctuation in his writing"? We don't have any of his manuscripts, except possibly a contribution by him to Thomas More. – IkWeetHetOokNiet Jul 6 at 19:14
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It was common in Shakespeare's time for writers to capitalize nouns other than proper nouns. There is nothing particularly unusual about this.

Yes, it would be cool to find a hidden message in Shakespeare. But people have been looking for such hidden messages for centuries, and to the best of my knowledge no one's ever found one. At least, not one that isn't based on very strained theories of the mechanism for hiding the message.

It's just coincidence.

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    Plenty of people find hidden messages in Shakespeare every day! Those people are high-school students and the hidden messages are things like "Othello is motivated, in part, by insecurity" and "Hamlet takes place in Denmark" ;P – Please stop being evil Jul 3 at 20:29
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    Shakespeare never wrote an acrostic, or used any of the other common devices for hiding a message in a literary work? – Mark Jul 3 at 22:02
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    @Mark I am not aware of any such being found in Shakespeare. If someone knows of some such coded message, I'm happy to hear it. – Jay Jul 4 at 20:49
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+200

What does it mean to "hide things" in one's writings? Several centuries of criticism have unearthed "things" from Shakespeare's plays and poems that were not obvious to older generations. Those "things" are usually called "interpretations" and are often based on new approaches to literature (new literary theories etcetera). Another categories of "things" are allusions and citations from sources that had not been noticed before. I assume that is not what the question describes as "hiding things".

There is another category of "things" in Shakespeare's writing that has usually not been the subject of serious or academic literary criticism. The type of people who is most active in this area are the proponents of conspiracy theories that not William Shakespeare from Stratford but someone else actually wrote the plays attributed to him. There are roughly eighty such alternative candidates, very often from noble families, because, as we all know, only people from noble families can write great literature.

Let me give one example of the type of arguments that these conspiracy theorists use to support their claims. In Act V, scene 1 of Love's Labour's Lost Costard uses the Latin word "Honorificabilitudinitatibus", the longest word in Early Modern English. John Kerrigan (who edited the play for the Penguin Shakespeare) explains,

Considered the longest word in existence (a renaissance equivalent of 'disestablishmentarianism'); it is the dative-ablative plural of a medieval Latin word meaning, in the nominative, 'the state of being honoured'.

What do conspiracy theorists see in this word? They claim it is an anagram of "Hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi", roughly meaning, "These plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world", thereby proving beyond all reasonable doubt that Francis Bacon is the author of "Shakespeare's plays". (The anagram argument was put forward by Edwin Durning-Lawrence. Wikipedia adds that the Shakespeare scholar Samuel Schoenbaum pointed out that "the anagram overlooks the fact that Bacon would have written the genitive of his name as Baconi (from Baconus), never Baconis (which assumes his name was Baco)".)

Returning to the issue of capitalisation mentioned in the original question: Early Modern English spelling was not fixed. (See for example the quotes from Robert Greene and Thomas Deloney in some of my recent questions.) Even in the original 1609 edition of the Sonnets, scholars have been able to detect the hand of two typesetters based on variations in preferences in spelling. (See MacDonald P. Jackson: "Punctuation and the Compositors of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609", The Library, 1975.) This means that any attempt by Shakespeare to "hide" secret messages through variations in capitalisation would come to nothing due to personal preferences of typesetters. (And Shakespeare's poems were typeset more carefully than his plays.)

There is, of course, the additional irony that seeing "Winters shall**" as a hidden allusion to "William Shakespeare" fails as soon as one notices that "shall" is not capitalised and that the choice of words to read as "hidden message" is therefore arbitrary. Never mind that an allusion on Shakespeare's own name would add nothing to the poem's meaning. In the two annotated editions of Shakespeare's sonnets that I have consulted (one by John Kerrigan for the New Penguin Shakespeare, 1986, one by Colin Burrow for the Oxford Shakespeare, 2002), no mention is made of this type of hidden message.

Colin Burrow also writes in this introduction to The Complete Sonnets and Poems that

there is no reason to assume that the Sonnets are 'about' one relationship, that they are systematically organized on a numerological or biographical principle, or that [sonnets] 1-126 are addressed to one man (...).

P.S.: The sonnet quoted in the question is not sonnet 3 but sonnet 2.

2

As the other answers have pointed out, noun capitalization was fairly common in Shakespeare's time but as "Winter" is the only capitalized noun it may simply be that "Winter" is a personification of the season and therefore a proper noun.

2

Historically, capitalisation was the norm.

Until Charlemagne, basically everything was written in all-caps. He oversaw a system of small, standardised letters - Carolingian Minuscule.

So it was only after that, that capitalisation rules could even begin to be formed. The terms upper & lower case, of course, did not appear until we had the printing press.

Nouns tended to be capitalised - to this day German still does - though in Britain the practise slowly dropped to only Proper Nouns, of which the seasons were considered a part. A later resurgence of the practise led to such as the US Constitution using those older rules.

From Wikipedia - Capitalization in English

History of English capitalization

Old English did not have a distinction between uppercase and lowercase, and at best had embossed or decorated letters indicating sections. Middle English capitalization in manuscripts remained haphazard, and was often done for visual aesthetics more than grammar; in poetry, the first letter of each line of verse is often capitalized. With the development of the printing press in Europe and England capitalization of initial letters and proper nouns became more regularized, perhaps partly to distinguish new sentences in a time where punctuation remained sparse and irregularly used. The plays of Shakespeare show capitalization both of new lines and sentences, proper nouns, and some significant common nouns and verbs.

With the influence of continental printing practices after the English Restoration in 1688 printing began to favor more and more capitalization of nouns following German typography. The first lines of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 show major capitalization of most nouns: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." But by the end of the 18th century with the growth of prescriptive dictionaries and style manuals for English usage, the practice faded in Britain so that by the beginning of the 19th century common nouns were only occasionally capitalized, such as in advertisements. Yet the style lasted as late as the Civil War era in the United States, as some of Emily Dickinson's poems still capitalize many common nouns.

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