Codes and Ciphers from the Renaissance to Today

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Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 14

"When sorrows come, they come not single spies,
But in battalions..." —Hamlet (4.5.83)

It's a striking comment that occurs late in this podcast—and by the time you hear it, you may well agree: "Without Bacon and Shakespeare, we might not have won the war in the Pacific," says Bill Sherman, head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum and professor of Renaissance studies at the University of York.

Rebecca Sheir, host of our Shakespeare Unlimited series, talks with Sherman about the flowering of codes, ciphers, and secret message systems during the Renaissance—including a brilliant cipher devised by Francis Bacon—and their surprising influence on modern cryptography.

As Sherman explains, William Friedman, the top US cryptographer whose team broke the Japanese diplomatic code before World War II, had once been a junior staffer on a team that sought to find Bacon's real-life cipher embedded in the plays of Shakespeare (a once-popular notion that he and his wife and fellow cryptographer Elizebeth later debunked).

That early exposure to Renaissance cryptography shaped Friedman's career, as he soon became the founder of modern American cryptography. Listen to learn more about why you might say that Bacon and Shakespeare—through their influence on Friedman—did indeed help to win the war.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © November 5, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved.

Produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Recorded by Toby Schreiner.

 

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Want more? Browse our full list of Shakespeare Unlimited episodes. Listen on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, and NPR One.