SHAKESPEARE AND FREEMASONRY

by

Peter Dawkins 1997 FBRT

 

In July 1929 the Foundation Stone of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon was laid with full Masonic ritual by Lord Ampthill, pro-Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England, using an old Egyptian maul used at Sakhara four thousand years ago. Six hundred Masons were present at the ceremony, in full regalia. Why should Grand Lodge attach such primary importance to the memory of Shakespeare and the continuing performance of his plays? In fact, such attention has some noteworthy precedents that would seem to link Freemasonry strongly with Shakespeare.

For instance, in 1723 modern Freemasonry emerged into the light of the public eye with the publishing of The Book of Constitutions of the Free-Masons, written by Dr James Anderson under authority and by express request from the Grand Lodge. Before this Freemasonry, in its speculative form, had existed in comparative obscurity. Also in the same year Alexander Pope and Dr. Sewell published the Bedson Medley edition of Shake-speare's Sonnets, the title page headpiece of which depicts the symbols of the higher Templar and Christian degrees of Freemasonry that culminate in the 33rd degree. 1723 was the Centenary of the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare plays.

Seven years previous to this, in 1716, according to Anderson, the 'few Lodges in London....thought fit to cement under a Grand Master as the Centre of Union and Harmony'.1 These four old Lodges, plus some other 'old Brothers', meeting at the Apple-Tree Tavern, constituted themselves a Grand Lodge and revived the Quarterly Communication.2 1716 was the Centenary of William Shakespeare's death.

These historical facts alone should be intriguing to Freemasons. The birth of 'modern' Freemasonry is thereby subtly linked to Shakespeare, and it was in Shakespeare's time that the origins of modern speculative Freemasonry would seem to lie. Most importantly, the Shakespeare plays and poems bear abundant evidence of Masonic knowledge of Masonic customs, terms and teachings that could only have been known to a Mason of high degree. Indeed, the whole canon of Shakespeare plays and poems embodies both the philosophy and the degrees of initiation of Freemasonry, expressed in various allegories that are akin to and hint at the Masonic allegories.

By studying and experiencing the Shakespeare plays it can soon be discovered that the author, whoever he really was, expressed in drama everything a Freemason upholds and strives to be. The Bard was an ethical teacher, showing us ourselves by holding a mirror up to our natures, and urging us always to Charity. This sublime philosophy, which is the background to all the plays, is beautifully summed up by the character Berowne in one of the earliest Shakespeare plays, Love's Labour's Lost ("For charity itself fulfils the law, and who can sever love from charity"),3 whilst Portia in The Merchant of Venice expounds it in more poetic detail ('The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: it is twice blest...').4 Both speeches are examples of Freemasonic oratory and philosophy at their richest and best, expressing the very meaning and purpose of a Freemason builder of Love.

Freemasons are well taught that Freemasonry is a system of morality based on allegory and illustrated by symbol. The Shakespeare works are more than just a parallel to this. Bro. J. Anderson, in the second edition of his Book of Constitutions of the Freemasons, pointed out that 'an expert brother by the true light can readily find many useful hints on almost every page of the Book which others not initiated cannot discover '; and this helpful hint applies equally to the Book of Constitutions and to the Shakespeare Folio of Comedies, Histories and Tragedies which are separated by the all-embracing number of 100 (i.e. 10 x 10) years.

To begin with, look at the Dedication in the Shakespeare Folio, addressed

'To the Most Noble and Incomparable Pair of Brethren, William, Earle of Pembroke.... and Philip, Earle of Montgomery...'

This was not the normal way to address two noblemen, but it is a fitting address for two high-ranking Freemasons. Equally, the reference in this Dedication to Shakespeare as 'so worthy a Friend and Fellow', and that 'the most, though meanest, of things are made more precious, when they are dedicated to Temples', is a good hint at what is afoot. Three pages further on Ben Jonson pays a tribute 'To the memory of my beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare', with beautiful but cryptic verses printed under the headpiece of seven Masonic Squares. Seeing that seven is the 'perfect' Masonic number, and that 'all squares are true and proper signs to know a Mason by', and that when associated with a particular person the Square is 'the sign of the Master that rules by the Square', then this headpiece delivers a striking message. Even more so when we see it coupled with the term 'Beloved' by which Ben Jonson addresses 'The Author'.

Love's Labour's Lost was the first Shakespeare play to be published with the name of W. Shakespeare on its title page. This occurred in 1598, the same year in which The Mirror of Policie was published by Adam Islip, in which a Freemason with Square and Compasses correctly held is depicted. Five years earlier, in 1593, the 'first heir' of Shakespeare, the erotic epic poem Venus and Adonis, was published with the 'Double A' sign, emblematic of Solomon, as the headpiece over its dedication to the Earl of Southampton.

The Masonic references in the Shakespeare plays are numerous, some fairly obvious and others extremely subtle, but all woven into the text in such a way that they form a natural part of the magical garment. A Freemason is referred to several times and in several ways, as, for instance, referring to the higher degrees, 'a brother of gracious Order, late come from the Sea, in special business from his Holinesse.5 In Henry V the brethren are referred to as 'the singing masons building roofs of gold'; 6 in King John as 'a worshipful society'; 7 whilst Love's Labour's Lost not only mentions 'profound Solomon' 8 but also the Lodge and a password, suitably disguised:

Arm. I will visit thee at the Lodge.
Jaq. That's hereby.
Arm. I know where it is situate.
Jaq. Lord, how wise you are....
Arm. Come Jaquenetta....
9

In Coriolanus the brethren are referred to as 'apron men' ('You have made good work, you and your apron men'),10 the meaning of the lambskin apron being touched upon in Measure for Measure in the satirical jest, 'And furred with fox on lambskins too, to signify that craft, being richer than innocency, stands for the facing'.11

The opening lines of Julius Caesar 12 provide an interesting and cryptic description of the difference between an operative mason ('carpenter') and a speculative Freemason:

Flav. Speak, what trade art thou?
Carpenter. Why, sir, a carpenter.
Mar. Where is thy leather apron, and thy rule?
What dost thou with thy best apparel on?
You, sir, what trade are you?
Cobbler. Truly, sir, in respect of a fine workman, I am but, as you would say, a cobbler.
Mar. But what trade art thou? Answer me directly.
Cob. A trade, sir, that I hope I may use with a safe conscience; which is, indeed, sir, a mender of bad soules.

In Henry VI, Part 2, the death that the Third Degree teaches all brethren to face with equanimity is touchingly embraced by Peter: 'Here, Robin, and if I die, I give thee my apron; and Will, thou shalt have my hammer: and here, Tom, take all the money I have'. Having won through and 'prevailed in right', the King declares that 'God in justice hath revealed the truth and innocence of this poor fellow' and gives Peter the invitation, 'Come, fellow, follow us for thy reward'. 13

The early Freemasons were frequently known as Sam's Sons (i.e. Solomon's Sons), and Samson, who held up the two pillars of the temple, was used as their allegorical archetype. This reference especially occurs in Love's Labour's Lost, when speaking of great men who have been in love. 14 The initiate Hercules is given as an example, but 'more authority' is requested 'men of good repute and carriage'. Moth gives the approved answer: 'Samson, Master! He was a man of good carriage, great carriage, for he carried the town-gates on his back like a porter; and he was in love'. Armado, the Master who is catechising his pupil, makes a reply in which he points out his office as being higher than Samson's, who was the Porter or Tyler: 'O well-knit Samson! strong-jointed Samson! I do excell thee in my rapier as much as thou didst me in carrying gates. I am in love too'. Armado then continues the questions, going deeper into the Mystery of Freemasonry: 'Who was Samson's love, my dear Moth?' and Moth succinctly responds with the allegorical truth.

The Porter (or Tyler) is, of course, responsible for opening the door of the Lodge when the correct sign is given. A powerful tragi-comedy scene featuring the Porter in Macbeth parodies one instance, the required knocks occurring at the critical moment associated with the death of the King, or Master.15 Elsewhere another duty of the Porter is given, as performed in the early Lodges: that is, to mark out the floor of the Lodge with chalk. Chalk is a symbol of Freedom, and the Porter used to draw the symbolic teaching of the Degree on the black floor before the Candidate entered. Good old Gonzalo, in The Tempest, refers to this and to the Masonic Pillars: 'For it is you that hath chalk'd forth the way which brought us hither.... O, rejoice beyond a common joy! and set it down with gold on lasting Pillars'. 16

Interestingly, a mop and pail was used by the newly initiated brethren to wash the floor clean after the ceremony; and in the 'Exposures' after 1723 some of the writers poke fun at the Freemasons as being 'the Mop and Pail Brigade'. Ariel, in The Tempest, lightly alludes to this and to the candidates being slip-shod when he replies to Prospero's command, 'Before you can say "come" and "go", and breathe twice, and cry, "so, so," each one, tripping on his toe, will be here with mop and mow.' He concludes this with the key question to Prospero: 'Do you love me, Master? no?' 17 Prospero can only truly answer this by demonstrating it in action, which he ultimately does, setting Ariel free and then asking us, of our indulgence (i.e. mercy) to likewise set him free. In this Shakespeare hints at the ultimate mystery and degree of a Free-Mason.

Moments of jest in Shakespeare, serious like this or lighter in vein, often carry the deeper and more veiled allusions to the Mysteries, but this is not always so. The Tempest, for instance, gives many Masonic allusions quite openly, and indeed might be said to be a most complete Masonic play. For a start the play is based upon Virgil's Æneid, Books III and VI. Book VI in particular deals with the ancient Mysteries, whose degrees of initiation are echoed, howbeit with different allegories, by those of Freemasonry. Prospero is the Master who has reached a certain degree at the beginning of the play and rises through further degrees during the course of the play, raising others with him. He describes himself to his daughter, Miranda, as 'Prospero, Master of a full poor cell...Thy no greater Father'; and as 'Prospero the prime, reputed in dignity and for the Liberal Arts without a parallel.... having both the key of officer and office....all dedicated to closeness'. His eyes 'fall fellowly drops' as he learns the lessons of forgiveness and mercy, releasing by degrees his spirit of love, Ariel.

His name, Prospero, is an initiatic one, referring to a person who makes others happy, who gives joy and prosperity by enabling others to prosperthe mark of a true Master Mason. He is described as a man of goodwill, beloved by his people (1st Degree), and as having earnestly studied the Liberal Arts and Sciences (2nd Degree). He faced death by drowning and starvation, brought up his daughter with charitable care on the island on which he was cast (3rd Degree), and ultimately overcomes potential death by clubbing (cf Hiram Abif) by means of his skill. This intended murder of Prospero was planned by three ruffians, who intended to kill him with blows to the head with a wooden instrument after having first seized his books. The murder was to have taken place at noon, at the entrance to Prospero's cell.

Prospero owns a hat and rapier, symbols of the authority and justice respectively of a 16/17th century Master, which he dons when he wishes to reveal his true self to the others. He also possesses a staff and a book, the staff being the rod (or sceptre) of a Principal of the Royal Arch Degree, which he has to learn to 'break' and 'bury' in order to rise higher, and the book being a book of law which he has to 'drown' in order to receive (and utter) the Word of Love directly. At the end he achieves this sublime degree and is referred to as an Oracle ('And there is in this business more than Nature was ever conduct of: some Oracle must rectify our knowledge').

Many other Masonic allusions and mysteries lie in The Tempest and other plays. This article is just a brief introduction to what lies waiting to be discovered and brought to light. But a fitting ending might be to refer to the mystery of the Word itself, instructive substitutes for which are provided during the course of the Degrees. Shakespeare knew these Words, and the ultimate One; also the science of how to speak and share them, which teaches us so much. For instance:-

Ber. One word in secret....
Dum. Will you vouchsafe with me to change a word?
Mar. Name it....
Long. You have a double tongue within your mask,
And would afford my speechless visor half....
Let's part the word.

Kath. No! I'll not be your half....
Long. One word in private with you ere I die.
Kath. Bleat softly then; the butcher hears you cry.
Boyet. The tongues of mocking wenches are as keen
As the razor's edge invisible,
Cutting a smaller hair than may be seen;
Above the sense of sense: so sensible
Seemeth their conference....
Ros. Not one word more.... Break off....Break off....
19

In this 'mocking' dialogue the Word is provided cryptically through the use of the Capital Letter Code, beginning with the key 'One word' and continuing with the reference to the 'Bleat' of the sacrificial Lamb or Word of God. Furthermore, the Word 'BO-AS' is divided by 'CAT', descriptive of the Mocking Wench in the text and a creature associated with the Moon, the celestial sign associated with this particular Word and Pillar of Freemasonry. In this illustration the Word is not only 'parted' but 'halved and lettered', with Shakespeare showing his mastery of its meaning and usage. Moreover, the word 'Vouchsafe' is particularly known to the Board of Installed Masters, indicating that Shakespeare was, at the very least, a Past Master.

I will find where Truth is hid
though it were hid indeed
within the centre.
20
 

***

 Peter Dawkins and the Francis Bacon Research Trust

 Footnotes

1

James Anderson, MA, DD, Constitutions of the Free-Masons, 2nd edition (1739).

2

The following year, 1717, on St John the Baptist's Day, an Annual Assembly and Feast of Free and Accepted Masons was held, at which the new Grand Master, Antony Sayer, was elected.

3

Love's Labour's Lost, IV, iii.

4

The Merchant of Venice, IV, i.

5

Measure for Measure, III, ii.

6

Henry V, I, i.

7

King John, I, i.

8

Love's Labour's Lost, IV, iii.

9

Love's Labour's Lost, I, ii.

10

Coriolanus, IV, vi.

11

Measure for Measure, III, i.

12

Julius Caesar, I, i.

13

Henry VI, Pt 2, II, iii.

14

Love's Labour's Lost, I, ii.

15

Macbeth, II, iii.

16

The Tempest, V, i.

17

The Tempest, IV, i.

18

The Tempest, V, i.

19

Love's Labour's Lost, IV, iii.

20

Hamlet, II, ii.