Its been debated in a sea of endless questions, was William Shakespeare a Freemason?
Well, this week (April 23rd -30th) is a celebration of all things William Shakespeare as Stratford’s Greatest son’s celebrates his 447th birthday.
For the non mason, its hard to really pick up on the clever word play that is so intricately woven into Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, and one is often left wondering “was it Shakespeare who applied Masonic ideas into his works, or the Freemasons who appropriated the ideas from the bard of Avon?” Most scholars suggest the latter, but Masons familiar with the wordplay might see otherwise.
Its been in debate for a long while, at least in Masonic circles, appearing in the Builder Magazine in 1919 with a score of quotes and lines to illustrate the point.
Some of my favorites include:
“What is he that builds stronger than either Mason?”
Henry V., I, 47.
“Here, Robin, an I die, I give thee my apron.”
2 Henry VI., II, 3:75.
“The nobility think scorn to go in leather aprons.”
2 Henry VI., II, 2:14.
“Hold up, you sluts, your aprons mountant.”
Timothy of Athens, IV, 3:135.
“To hold opinion with Pythagoras
That souls of animals infuse themselves
Into the trunks of men.”
Merchant of Venice, IV, 1.
“What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wild fowl?
That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird.”
Twelfth Night – IV, 2
Pythagoras is a bit of a Masonic patriarch, and aprons are in abundant supply throughout the fraternity.
And I found a few more from the Grand Lodge of British Coloumbia’s page on Shakespeare:
What! My old Worshipful Master!
Taming of the Shrew, Act V, s.1.
I have not kept my square,but that to come shall all be done by Rule.
Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, s.1.
I particularly like this one, which has so much in common with the Hermetic ideas of Know Thyself.
If circumstances lead me, I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the centre.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Act II, s.2
Much of this comes out of the work of Peter Dawkins “Shakespeare and Freemasonry” to which he suggests:
Moments of jest in Shakespeare…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.
How much of this is want to see the work of Masonry in Shakespeare’s plays or the real deeper mysteries artfully woven into them – this is the question!
Some suggest that Shakespeare’s work is a clever use of Gematria, the letter numerical interplay seen in the esoteric applications associated with the Kabbalah, which Shakespeare skillfully worked into illustrating his Mason Mark, the right-angle triangle. Its in this same discovery that some suggest that Kit Marlowe wrote the Sonnets because of the discovery of the Masons Mark.
Peter Bull, on his website Marlowe wrote Shakespeare, suggests:
Shakespeare seems to have been fully conversant with the Masonic symbolism of the Square – and thus the symbolism of Euclid’s 47th Proposition. We have seen in Anthony and Cleopatra (II, iii) reference to the lines:
Read not my blemishes in the world’s report;
I have not kept my square, but that to come
Shall all be done by the rule.
The Bard also makes a number of pointed references to a ‘mark’ in his Sonnets. An analysis of these, in my book reveals that their placement is not a casual matter but clearly predicated by Masonic considerations of a very exact and specific nature. They all refer to his own Masonic mark.
Marke how one string sweet husband to an other, (s8)
For slanders marke was euer yet the faire, (s70)
Marke how with my neglect I doe dispence. (s112)
O no, it is an euer fixed marke (s116)
Shakespeare’s mark turns out to be no different from that of Alexander Hamilton – the right-angle triangle. He uses it consistently throughout the Sonnets to encode his name.
The context of the first Marke actually has a clear association with a right-angled triangle. In this sonnet the discussion concerns the three-way play between ‘sweet husband’, ‘happy mother’ and the ‘child’ they bring forth; there is also, in the following sonnet, the strongest indication that the mother is a widow. This scenario brings to mind the legend of Osiris, Isis – the widow and child Horus. The most common representation of this relationship in Masonic symbolism (following Plato) is the 3-4-5 right-angled triangle: the upright represents Osiris, the horizontal Isis and the hypotenuse Horus . Therefore it’s interesting to note that the word Marke is the 828th word in the Sonnets – and 828 is the gematria value of the Hebrew words BN ALMNH – The Widow’s Son.
I’ve always been keen to the idea that William Shakespeare was really the statesman Francis Bacon, the writer of the almost eerily Masonic tale – The New Atlantis. You can spend a lot of time following the threads about their connection on Sir Francis Bacon’s New Advancement of Learning.
Shakespeare and Freemasonry by William Norman M’Daniel, from 1912 suggests something similar:
Hence, to read these plays as mere stories in dramatic form, filled in with many wise reflections, is to miss their real character. The Tempest may be read simply as such a story, and even as having a moral purpose. Sir Edward Strachey says quite aptly that it is “a mimic, magic tempest which we are to see, a tempest raised by art, to work moral ends with actual men and women,” But he fails to show how it is to bring about such a state in the actual affairs of men, say of our day or of any time. The play contains hints suggesting that it is meant to be of universal application. It will yet be clear that this play can be fairly interpreted as an allegorical drama, summing up the whole method of Francis Bacon’s philosophy, and especially his moral philosophy, as it is to affect in actual life the individual, and all the relations which men and women sustain toward each other, from the primary relations of the family to the highest, which is that of government. And when so interpreted it will be found that it is also the philosophy of Freemasonry.
I do find it to be very interesting to think about and consider Shakespeare’s involvement with the early invention of Freemasonry (I’ve had conversations that he was at the same time Grand Master of both the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons) – well before it coalesced in its 1717 founding. And, it seems that the brothers of the United Grand Lodge of England felt of like mind in 1929 when pro Grand Master Lord Ampthill, accompanied by 600 masons in full regalia, laid the foundation stone of Stratford’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. The UK fraternal magazine Freemasonry Today [now archived] suggests that the connection can be found in the meaning from a quote found in Love’s Labour’s Lost as it being the essence of a Freemason’s purpose: to be a builder of love.
“For charity itself fulfills the law, and who can sever love from charity?”
Love’s Labour’s Lost, IV.iii
Perhaps the mystery is the greatest clue to the bard’s mystic tie to the fraternity. Alfred Dodd, writing his examination of the plays and poems, says it unequivocally:
The story is told in the Great Shakespeare Folio of 1623 . . . the greatest Masonic Book in the world. The System was buried in secret and left to grow and root itself, like a bulb, in the dark for a hundred years. The emergence of the Masons in 1723 was a PLANNED emergence . . . …….the Centenary of the 1623 Folio. William Shakespeare was not only a Freemason, he was the FATHER and FOUNDER of the FRATERNITY, the Writer of the Rituals.
Was he or was he not to be…a Freemason? That is the question! Asking the questions is likely more fun than knowing for sure, but so long as conspiracy theories abound, this is one of the fun ones. Are the greatest works of the English language and drama really manifestos of esoteric ritual word play? We may never know.
But asking gives us more reason to celebrate the worlds greatest writer and dramatist – Happy Birthday Shakespeare.
This post was in contribution to HappyBirthdayShakespeare.com, a tribute to Shakespeare by bloggers from all over the world to post on how Shakespeare has impacted their lives. This celebration is sponsored by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which owns and cares for the five Shakespeare Houses.