The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

TOP SECRET: From Shakespeare to the NSA


Or, to put it plainly: “Calling all codebreakers.”

If you’re ready for something more challenging — much more challenging — than sudokus and crossword puzzles, check out “Decoding the Renaissance,” the new exhibit that opens Tuesday at the Folger Library.

Shakespeare noted that uneducated folks “know not how/ To cipher what is writ in learned books,” but these learned books are a cipher to everybody.

Among the unfathomable mysteries on display is the Voynich Manuscript. This magically illustrated book, on loan from Yale University for the first time, is written in a language that scholars have failed to decipher since the 15th century. Perhaps the thousands of spies slinking around Washington, D.C., can finally crack the code.

Strange as it might seem among the antique manuscripts at the Shakespeare library, you’ll also find a SIGABA code machine from the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum. The basic principle of that device — wheels within wheels! — stems from the first text written in the West in the late 1400s on the subject of ciphers.

In fact, it’s the curious connection between the Folger and the NSA that inspired curator Bill Sherman to create this show. Sherman, who wrote his dissertation on John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s wizardly adviser, was a fellow at the Folger from 2011-12 when he began studying intelligence in the intellectual sense and the military sense during the Renaissance.

He couldn’t have found more fertile ground. “The Folger and the Library of Congress,” he said, “offer the biggest concentration of rare books on this particular field of codes and ciphers. That was when I knew we had a show: Without going outside a single block, I could get most of the material I needed.”

The lynchpin of the new exhibit is William Friedman, whose unlikely career links Shakespeare scholarship to Cold War cryptography. Friedman and his wife got their start in the early 20th century working for an eccentric millionaire who was determined to prove that Francis Bacon was the secret author of the Bard’s plays.

That futile project failed, but in the process, Friedman became an expert in codes and ciphers. When World War I began, the U.S. military realized he had the skills they needed. He remained in the field for decades, and he and his colleagues eventually broke Japan’s Purple cipher during the war.

“Without this crazy argument about Bacon writing Shakespeare’s plays,” Sherman says, “we might not have won the war in the Pacific!”

That connection between old and new methods of communicating secretly is the heart of “Decoding the Renaissance.” “We think of this as such a modern area,” Sherman says, “and yet almost every technique or principle that Friedman and others helped to invent is really something of a reinvention from something in the Renaissance.”

The Renaissance created a matrix of unique conditions that caused codes and ciphers to flourish. A network of diplomats peppered around Europe needed to be able to transmit news and advice confidentially. And the tremendous increase in printing spawned a reactionary need to control information.

The Folger exhibit offers rich background on Friedman, along with a fascinating range of ingenious methods of encryption. You can see messages encoded in both texts and illustrations, along with 16th and 17th-century instructions on how to hide communications from enemy eyes.

But Sherman’s favorite object in the exhibit is something more recent and whimsical: a photograph of Friedman standing with a group of military officers in 1918. The subtle way the men are positioned encodes Bacon’s famous phrase “Knowledge is power.” (Sherman explained the method to me, and I pretended to understand.…)

Alas, age is not an advantage in this confounding field. A 6-year-old girl at a preview showing last week was entranced. “She was being held up to a case,” Sherman says, “and you could tell that she got it.” And why not? After all, kids are busy decoding a bewildering new world every day.

“Decoding the Renaissance” runs till Feb. 26, 2015 at the Folger Library, 201 East Capitol St SE, Washington. Admission is free.