The Six Words



Using old photographs and more modern ones which are as clear as I have been able to find, this is near as I can make it to what the poem on Shakespeare's monument at Stratford probably said originally. Obviously, it is in capital letters, but some of those which begin the words are larger than the others, and appear to be the equivalent of the initial capitals in writings where lower case letters are used. In what follows, therefore, these larger letters are for convenience called 'initial capitals'.

Where one might have expected an initial capital in this poem, however, some are missing. There are also cases where one is included that might not have been expected. The words to which this applies, however, are precisely the ones which lead us to a hidden meaning for the poem. So we had better make absolutely sure that our assumptions about this are correct.

1. The poem consists of six lines of rhymed verse, and in three of those lines the first words (READ, WITH and QVICK) do not have an initial capital. This is unusual, as most lines of rhymed verse at that time did have them.

We can check out the validity of this by examining some of the rhymed verse texts, from the 30 or so years preceding 1616, on the internet at the time of writing this essay. The following, most of them from Richard Bear's site at the University of Oregon have been used. (

They are shown in descending order of the percentage of lines with an initial capital.

Lines% with init. cap.
Samuel DanielDelia / Complaint of Rosamond 1466100.00%
William ShakespeareVenus & Adonis 1194100.00%
Edmund SpenserColin Clout's Come Home 956100.00%
Edmund SpenserTears of the Muses 601100.00%
Edmund SpenserDaphnaida 568100.00%
Edmund SpenserMuiopotopmos 441100.00%
Thomas HeywoodA Funeral Elegy 376100.00%
William PercySonnets 280100.00%
Edmund SpenserVision of the Worlds Vanity 168100.00%
Edmund SpenserSonnets 55100.00%
Rachel SpeghtMortality's Memorandum 107299.91%
Philip SidneyAstrophel & Stella 208599.90%
Edmund SpenserAstrophel 103299.90%
Edmund SpenserMother Hubberd's Tale 138999.86%
Edmund SpenserFaerie Queen, Book 4 548499.85%
Edmund SpenserVirgil's Gnat 68999.85%
Edmund SpenserRuins of Time 68799.85%
Edmund SpenserFour Hymns 5599.83%
Edmund SpenserFaerie Queen, Book 5 523299.81%
Christopher MarloweHero and Leander 244899.80%
Edmund SpenserFaerie Queen, Book 2 624099.78%
Edmund SpenserFaerie Queen, Book 6 509799.78%
Edmund SpenserFaerie Queen, Book 3 619599.77%
Edmund SpenserFaerie Queen, Book 1 563799.75%
Edmund SpenserRuins of Rome 44899.55%
Edmund SpenserVision of Bellay 21099.52%
Edmund SpenserProthamalion 18099.44%
Edmund SpenserFaerie Queen, Mutability 104799.43%
Edmund SpenserVision of Petrarch 9898.98%
Edmund SpenserEpithalamion 43397.23%
Edmund SpenserThe Shepherds Calendar 226290.89%
Henry ConstableDiana 105041.24%
Edmund SpenserAmoretti 134230.25%

With the 'average' percentage (96.72%) falling so near to the end of the list, we can see that the overall mean percentage is unduly skewed by the last two works, which are quite unusual. Taking the median value (99.85%), however, we can see that fewer than one or two lines in a thousand usually had no initial capital.

2. The word SIEH is generally assumed to be a misprint for 'sith', in which case it has an initial capital where one would not usually be expected.

A check of all the above-mentioned works shows the word 'sith', or its equivalents 'sithence' or 'since', appearing 420 times in all. Of these, 165 have an initial capital, of which 164 start a line of verse. This leaves just the one. This is "And sayd, Sith then thou knowest" (The Faerie Queene, Book 3) which is the first word of a quotation, and this is certainly not the case with the word on the monument.

There are 38 other such quotations in The Faerie Queene, following "And said". All but 2 start with a capital.

3. The word HE has an initial capital where one would not usually be expected.

The number of times that the word appears in the above works is 6211, of which only 948 have initial capitals. Of these, 934 start a line of verse, leaving 14, and 9 of the 14 follow full stops. This leaves only 5, every one of which comes from Thomas Heywood's A Funeral Elegy. In this he deviates from what clearly is the usual practice, apparently to imply the 'deification' of the recently deceased Prince Henry, now "Thron'd" in Heaven.

It is therefore perfectly clear that the words READ, WITH, QVICK, SIEH and HE are unusual in their use (or failure to use) an initial capital.

4. The initial capital given to the word TOMBE could also be considered unusual.

It was quite common for nouns to be given initial capitals at that time, but only certain types of noun were favoured. Looking at our sample above, we find the words 'tomb' and 'monument' occurring 22 and 46 times respectively. Of these, only 1 'tomb' and 1 'monument' have an initial capital.

Although this is by no means as clear cut as the other words (and had we included some of the Shakespeare quartos - eg Romeo & Juliet and Titus Andronicus - it would have been even less so) the fact that the word MONVMENT does not have an initial capital - whereas TOMBE does - seems to be an indicator that the author wants us to include the word TOMBE among the 'unusual' words.

It is not sufficient to list only those which are unusual, however. We must also show why other cases are not.

Firstly, the others with initial capitals.


As confirmed above, it was the norm for the first word of a line of verse, as these are, to have one.


This is given an initial capital, where it would not have one today. Each time this word appears in the above works it is also given without an initial capital, but there are only 7 in all, which are really too few to provide a meaningful result.

Looking at the sort of nouns which are given initial capitals in them, however, we find 'people' well represented. Examples include:

Man, Paramour, Lover, Sutor, Bridegrome, Infant, Orphane, Parent, Father, Syre, Grandsyre, Knight, Squire, Page, Lord, Maister, Hero, Traitor, Giant, Dwarf, Victor, Champion, Courtier, Patron, Archdeacon, Curate, Novice, Psalmist, Chorister, Palmer, Pilgrim, Poet, Author, Painter, Minstrel, Architect, Apprentice, Merchant, Souldier, Archer, Clerke, Fisher, Shepheard, Porter, Vassall, Begger, Carle, Spectator and Looker-on.
To give PASSENGER a capital letter here is, therefore, most unlikely to have been thought unusual, especially as this passer-by is being directly addressed by the poet.


The latter is, of course, someone's name, and the former is obviously being treated as one, so initial capitals are not unexpected. Such personifications of death occur about 80 times in our sample, of which at least 10 (12.5%) have initial capitals. This excludes Rachel Speght's Mortalities Memorandum, however, which has the word 'Death' 114 times, 13 at the start of the line, and all of the remaining 101 with an initial capital.

Secondly, there are other words which could have had initial capitals, but which lack them. MONVMENT, as we have seen, for example, could have had one, but usually did not.


The word 'art' appears 75 times in the sample, of which only 10 have an initial capital not explained either by being at the start of a line of verse or by following a full stop. The equivalent numbers for 'nature' are 102 and 36 respectively. In neither case, therefore, would the lack of an initial capital have been thought unusual.

We may therefore state with a very high level of confidence that the five words READ, WITH, QVICK, SIEH and HE have an initial capitalization which would have been unusual for the literature of the time. There are also, as we have seen, good reasons for adding the word TOMBE to this group

Why Six Words?

But how can I be sure that there are six, and precisely six, words to be counted in each case?

When I first started to look into this - and this is reflected above - I tended to assume that it was an either/or question: the words were either 'unusually' capitalized or they were not. Similarly, words given special attention or emphasis either would be of help in solving the puzzle or they would not.

It gradually became clear to me, however, that this was not right. Each of the two dimensions is a continuum. In the one case, the capitalization of the word can be placed according to how unusual it would be considered. In the other, according to how much help it would be. We do not need to stipulate an actual cut-off point in either case.

If, therefore, I were to rank the first group in terms of how unusual the capitalization was, it would be in an order starting with 'read', 'with' and 'quick', continuing with 'He', 'Sieh' and 'Tombe', for the reasons I have given. After these would probably be 'page' (because of the 'Passenger'), 'monument' (instead of 'Tombe'), 'nature', and 'art'. I don't think there are any after that.

For the question of helpfulness, however, a different order would result. Again for reasons already given, I would go for 'read' first, then 'with' and 'Tombe' (all three of which are crucial), then 'Sieh' (a separate puzzle), 'quick', and 'He', essential for deciphering the background. My next choice would be 'but' and perhaps 'serve', but after that I would not find any special emphasis to be at all helpful.

Now, imagine two normal deck of cards, each of the 52 cards in each deck having one of the 52 words of the monument's poem written upon it. Having made sure that both decks have been adequately shuffled, we take turns to deal a card from each deck. This is what happens:

Turn      Deck 1      Deck 2

The chance of the first two cards from each deck being the same (ignoring the order) is (2 x1 ) / (49 x 48), or one chance in 1,326. Surprising but by no means impossible.

Neither the third, fourth, nor fifth turns, however, result in the same group of words, whereas the sixth turn does. At this point the same set of words has been dealt from each deck, at a probability of (6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1) / (52 x 51 x 50 x 49 x 48 x 47), or one chance in 20,358,520. This is extraordinary, and we must question how this could have happened. One possibility is that I have 'fixed' the result myself in some way. The other is that the designer of the experiment (i.e. of the monument) has done so.

After this, the words are not the same, and the odds against it happening again increase alarmingly, and reach a peak at turn number 26, after that decreasing until it gets back (at turns 51 and 52) to the same as they were at the start. This is why I say that the number of words is "six and precisely six". We don't need to eliminate any of the other words, only to show that in each case they come lower in the order than those six which match.

There are those who will nevertheless say that, even if only unconsciously, I am the one who did the 'fixing', but I reject this. For me, the solution is that the design must have been deliberately created as a 'clue' to finding the hidden meaning, and the possibility of this having arisen by pure chance is simply out of the question.

Peter Farey, 2001-4