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Masonic Bios

Was William Shaekspeare a Freemason?


By Bro. Robert I. Clegg, New York

A few pertinent paragraphs from the great Bard, bearing on words and phrases in common use among the Craft:

"Put on two leather jerkins and aprons." -2 Henry IV., 2: 190.

"They will put on two of your jerkins and aprons." -2 Henry IV., II, 4:18.

"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.

"A carpenter--where is thy leather apron and thy rule?" - Julius Caesar I, 1:7.

"Mechanic slaves with greasy aprons, rules and hammers." - Antony and Cleopatra, V, 2:210.

"He will line your apron with gold." -Pericles, IV, 6:64.

"You have made good work, you and your apron." - Coriolanus, IV, 6:96.

"Being then appointed Master of this design." -Tempest, I, 2:163.

"The singing Masons, building roofs of gold." -Henry V., I, 2:98.

"What is he that builds stronger than either Mason?" - Henry V., I, 47.

"Who builds stronger than the Mason?" -Henry V., I, 57.

"Creaking my shoes on plain Masonry." -All's Well That Ends Well, II, 1:31.

"You shall see him in the triple pillar of the world." -Antony and Cleopatra, I, 1:12.

"And set it down with gold on lasting pillars." -Tempest, V, 1 :208.

"And call them pillars that will stand to us." - 3 Henry VI., II, 3:87.

"He is not our Craft's Master." -2 Henry IV., III, 2 :297.

"Wooing poor craftsmen." -Richard II., I, 4:28.

THE ABOVE very interesting compilation appeared in the March, 1918, issue of the Rob Morris Bulletin, the bright publication of Rob Morris Lodge, Denver, Colorado, and is of course the production of its able editor, Henry F. Evans. One cannot but wish that our excellent brother had had the space and time to elaborate his article at such length and skill as his sound Masonic knowledge and literary capacity fully warranted. Then indeed we should have the more nearly arrived at a solution of the really knotty question behind the references he has patiently assembled and which but whet our curiosity to a keener edge. There is no present intention to offer a complete answer to the query. At the best we can but carry forward the inquiry a short stage or two but we shall feel quite content if we attract attention to the problem.

We are also denied the satisfaction of going thoroughly and definitely into explanations. This cannot be done in print. The reader must read between the lines. He must make his own references. If his remembrance of ritual is hazy and incomplete there is but one remedy, get the co-operation of some well-informed Mason, or better still, take the article over to the lodge and read it to the brethren. Their reaction will help. There is wisdom in the counsel of many.

Neither shall we on the present occasion delve into the peculiarities, political or otherwise, of the Elizabethan era. We have pointed out on another opportunity the Craft relation of the gilds and their pageantry and we shall curb our temptation to go deeply into Shakespeare's acquaintance with the trades and their customs. To take but the single instance, William Blades has put on record so many allusions to the one trade, printing, that Shakespeare might from the testimony of his literary output be set down not unfairly as an exponent of that calling.

How much did he know of Freemasonry ? We may perhaps meet the inquiry by submitting such evidence as shows what he knew of things and of practices that especially concern Freemasons. Obviously these can be but fragmentary and merely suggestive.

Clarence tells us of King Edward's mysticism in these terms:

"Hearkens after prophecies and dreams;
And from the cross-row plucks the letter G."
- Richard III, I, 1.

One might infer that the allusion is to some means of divination, forecasting the future, as the term "cross-row" is to be found explained as meaning the alphabet. Sometimes the alphabet was accompanied with a cross in the old primers or was arranged in the form of a cross as a token of good luck. But the choice of the letter "G" is significant.

Falstaff's death gives in a word by Mistress Quickly, "chrisom child," "Henry V.," II, 3, a striking comparison. Knowing the fullness of the reference the Freemason can with Shakespeare see the larger vision. For the child when christened was given a white garment and annointed with oil, the while was said the following prayer, "Receive this white, pure and holy vestment, which thou shalt wear before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ, that thou mayest inherit eternal life. Amen." After the member of the Craft has thought over the Apron lectures of Brothers Strobo and Shaver, and also conned over the color allusion by Stowe, "Chronicles of London," to the gifts of the godfathers of "christening shirts with little bands and cuffs, wrought either with silk or blue thread," he will see no doubt what Shakespeare saw, the dying of an old man like unto an innocent child, as one wearing and deserving the purity badge of an Entered Apprentice, "went away an it had been any chrisom child."

Praise to excess is often spoken of as if it were laid on with a trowel. So does Shakespeare speak of it with reference to that very working tool of the Craft, see "As You Like It," I, 2.

Our friend and brother, the great Pythagoras, was by no means unknown to Shakespeare who mentions him by name and alludes familiarly to the theories associated with his school of philosophy. For example:

"To hold opinion with Pythagoras
That souls of animals infuse themselves
Into the trunks of men."
- Merchant of Venice, IV, 1.

Another instance is in "Twelfth Night," IV, 2:

"What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wild fowl?"
"That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird."

Transmigration of souls is elsewhere mentioned by Shakespeare, as in the "Tempest," IV, 1, and in "Hamlet," IV, 5. That beautiful if fanciful -certainly not unscientific-idea, "the music of the spheres," was also Pythagorian and well-known to Shakespeare. Thus it is said in the "Merchant of Venice," V, 1,

"There's not the smallest orb which thou beholdest,
But in his motion like an angel sings."

Does Shakespeare allude to the North? Yes, he deems it the place of darkness and of evil. He mentions a devil assigned to the north. The spirits, "I Henry VI.," V, 3, are sought "Under the lordly monarch of the north." See also "I Henry IV.," II, 4, and the "Merry Wives of Windsor," II, 2.

There is a noteworthy passage in "King John," IV, 2:

"And when they talk of him they shake their heads
And whisper one another in the ear;
And he that speaks doth gripe the hearer's wrist,
Whilst he that hears makes fearful action,
With wrinkled brows, with nods, with rolling eyes."

The sight of the open hand, as in the outstretched hand when extending it to clasp that of a presumed friendly acquaintance or raising the hand when taking an oath in a court of law or elsewhere or when elevating the hand in giving a military salute or answering one, all these and similar acts had a wider meaning in the days of Shakespeare than is even now known to many of the profane. Then it was not uncommon to brand criminals or otherwise maim or mutilate them. The word "stigma" means such an effect as if burned deeply by fire. Just as the mutilated criminal showed that those in authority had branded him noticeably to the end that the beholders could never mistake him for one unrestrained and unrestricted, free of birth and will, so the person born deformed or accidently so was deemed thus crippled or defaced by the will of God to designate his evil nature. Accordingly in "Richard III.," I, 8, the hunchbacked Duke is called:

"Thou elfish-marked, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou that was sealed in thy nativity,
The slave of nature, and the son of hell."

Bacon, about the same period, and by the way we will not here venture into a discussion of the true authorship of the plays of Shakespeare, but Bacon refers to the deformity of the body accompanying a perversion of the mind. Thus, agrees Shakespeare,

"A fellow by the hand of nature mark'd,
Quoted, and signed, to do a deed of shame."
- King John, n, 2.

"And the blots of nature's hand
Shall not in their issue stand;
Never mole, hare-lip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in infancy."
- Midsummer Night's Dream, V, 1.

"But thou art neither like thy sire nor dam;
But like a foul misshapen stigmatic
Mark'd by the destinies to be avoided
As venom toads, or lizards' dreadful stings."
- 3 Henry VI., II, 2.

Probably an allusion to the branding by a heated crown is indicated by the words in "Richard III.," IV, 1. Assuredly there is some ground for the belief that some regicides, notably the Earl of Athol executed for the murder of James I. of Scotland, were tortured with a circlet of hot iron around the head. Note the passage:

"O, would to God that the inclusive verge
Of golden metal, that must round my brow,
Were red-hot steel, to sear me to the brain."

There is a classic story of the tree that revealed to Aeneas the murder of Polydorus in discovering the grave of the one so patiently sought. The account is to be found in Virgil or Dryden's translation of that author, III, 22. Shakespeare seems quite familiar with it. Thus in "Macbeth," III, 4, referring lo the fact that murder will out, we are told,

"It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood;
Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak;
Augurs and understood relations have
By magot-pies and choughs and rocks brought forth
The secret'st man of blood."

The symbolism of the glove is all but lost among Freemasons, not so in the days of Shakespeare. There was a time when the giving of a pair of gloves to the newly-made Mason was as significant as was the bestowal of anything else. Not infrequently a second pair of gloves was given the new member to be in turn transmitted to the one he loved best of the opposite sex. Today the Freemason is mainly accustomed to the white gloves as an appropriate emblem of mourning to be worn at a Masonic funeral or as adding a touch of Masonic uniform or "clothing" at any other ceremonial of a public character. Shakespeare refers to the gloves as a favor to be exchanged freely by friends but when once acquired and worn it could only be demanded as the act of an enemy. For instance,

"Give me any gage of thine, and I will wear it in my bonnet; then if ever thou darest acknowledge it, I will make it my quarrel."
"Here's my glove; give me another of thine."
"There."
"This will I also wear in my cap; if ever thou come to me and say, after tomorrow, 'This is my glove,' by this hand, I will take thee a box on the ear."
- Henry V., IV, 1.

Appropriately enough from a Masonic point of view where the glove has equal weight with the apron in symbolism, Shakespeare calls it "honor's pawn," and a "token of honor," as may be seen by an examination of "Richard II.," I, 1; "Richard II.," IV, 1; "Timon of Athens," V, 4.

We are taught as Masons that the form of a lodge is oblong; its length from east to west, in breadth from north to south, as high as heaven, and as deep as from the surface to the center. Thus are we shown the universality of Freemasonry and that a Mason's charity should be equally extensive. But the expressions must sound strange to the young Freemason, much more strange than they would would have been to the ears of Shakespeare. He uses east to west in the same limitless fashion thus:

"O heaven, that such companions thou'ldst unfold,
And put in every honest hand a whip
To lash the rascals naked through the world
Even from the east to the west!"
- Othello, IV, 2.

And as to the center, pray consider the following,

"As true as steel, as plantage to the moon,
As sun to day, as turtle to her mate,
As iron to adamant, as earth to the center."
- Troilus and Cressida, III, 2.

There is also the claim of the self-confident Polonius who says,

"I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the center."
- Hamlet, II, 2.

While dealing to some extent with the points of the compass we must not overlook the location of graves upon which there is an interesting note in Tylor's "Primitive Culture," vol. 2, page 423. He says,

"It is not to late and isolated fancy, but to the carrying on of ancient and widespread solar ideas, that we trace the well known legend that the body of Christ was laid with the head toward the west, thus looking eastward, and the Christian usage of digging graves east and west, which prevailed through medieval times, and is not yet forgotten."

He also quotes an old work to the effect that the the laying of the head to the west was for the purpose that the dead should rise looking toward the east. Did Shakespeare know of this centuries-old belief ? He did, as may be seen from the following, relative to the burial of the dead,

'Nay, Cadwal, we must lay his head to the east;
My father has a reason for't."
- Cymbeline, IV, 2.

On many occasions we have called attention to the punishment by drowning, the tying of the culprit to a stake at low water and then leaving the body there for at least the period of a couple of tides. Around this old English treatment of criminals grew up certain expressions and superstitions of the liveliest interest to we Freemasons. They are duly noted by Shakespeare. Thus of a rascal in the "Tempest," I, 1, it is said,

"Would thou might'st lie drowning
The washing of ten tides."

And in the "Midsummer Night's Dream," III, 2, we find,

"Damned spirits all,
That in cross-ways and floods have burial."

Falstaff's death is said to have been

"Even at the turning o' the tide."
- Henry V., II, 3.

and in the passing of the king in "2 Henry IV.," 4, is thus recorded by Shakespeare,

"The river hath thrice flow'd, no ebb between;
And the old folk, times doting chronicles,
Say it did so a little time before
That our great grandsire, Edward sick'd and died."

Of symbolism we have a wealth of references, too many for easy selection. In mere allusion to numbers there is too large a choice as the mention of significant numerals is extensive. Threes, sevens and nines are noted as of special importance by Shakespeare, as truly they are to all Freemasons. In fact he has put into the mouth of Falstaff, "Merry Wives of Windsor," V, 1, an explanation with which we may conclude this compilation,

"They say there is divinity in odd numbers,
Either in nativity, chance or death."

Of the symbolism of numbers much is taught in Freemasonry. Three, five, seven, nine, and their multiples are frequently met. All have a pertinent significance for the persevering student of the message shown and conveyed by symbolism. Among the manifold references it is well to reread in this connection the information to be found in the Mackey-Hughan Encyclopedia, Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible (the article on "Number"), and Morals and Dogma (pages 548 et seq).

Was Shakespeare aware of the peculiar associations that these particular numbers have for many if indeed not all of us ? It is very likely that he was so informed. The obvious fact that these numbers are uneven was not unnoticed by him. Nay, he goes further and speaks of odd numbers in a way indicating his acquaintance with the beliefs that had grown around them through the ages of mankind's infancy and mental growth. Thus,

"They say there is a divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity,-chance, or death."
- Merry Wives of Windsor, V, 1.

So magical was the impression of odd numbers that Shakespeare to the better suggest the uncanny he puts into the mouth of a witch the two words "one" and "three" where four is meant.

"Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined."
- Macbeth, IV, 1.

In this he had classic authority for his guide. But there is another example of very considerable interest from our point of view. This is in the promise made by Cade to Dick, the butcher of Ashford. Butchers in the reign of Elizabeth were forbidden to sell during Lent unless by dispensation. Cade therefore makes a double promise, to lengthen Lent and also grant a very unusual permission to kill. The number in the promise could have obviously been one thing as another were it not for the deeper meaning associated with the odd number.

"Therefore, thus will I reward thee - the Lent shall be as long again as it is; and thou shalt have a license to kill for a hundred lacking ane."
- 2 Henry VI, IV, 3.

There are instances where the uses of the expression has indeed become so fixed a custom and habit in our conversation that the symbolism and strength of lore is no longer noted by us. Yet even here it is well worth the notice that Shakespeare prefers to employ an odd number where with equal ease he might have used something else. As,

"Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange: but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings."
- Macbeth, II, 3.

Shakespeare has also reproduced an old charm or spell that may have been employed as an agency against attacks of nightmare. Here it is as will be seen the mention of a number is in both cases to an odd one.

"Saint Withold footed thrice the old wold;
He met the night-mare, and her nine-fold;
Bid her alight
And troth her plight,
And, aroint thee, witch, aroint thee!"
- King Lear, III, 4.

- Source: The Builder - February 1919

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