Shakespeare and Freemasonry

Monday, 02 February 2009
In July 1929, Lord Ampthill, Pro Grand Master of UGLE, accompanied by 600 masons in full regalia, laid the foundationstone of Stratford's Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. United Grand Lodge of England perceived a link between the craft and the bard. Why?

"For charity itself fulfills the law, and who can sever love from charity?" (Love's Labour's Lost, IV.iii). This speech expresses the essence of a Freemason's purpose: to be a builder of love. Shakespeare was an ethical teacher. Could he also have been a mason?

Look at the Dedication in the first Shakespeare Folio, addressed "To the Most Noble and Incomparable Pair of Brethren, William, Earle of Pembroke... and Philip, Earle of Montgomery..." - not the normal way to address noblemen. The Dedication describes Shakespeare as "so worthy a Friend and Fellow", while "the most, though meanest, of things are made more precious, when they are dedicated to Temples." Masonic-style inferences are numerous in the plays, some obvious, others subtle. In Henry V (I.i), we hear of "the singing masons building roofs of gold.", while Love's Labour's Lost (I.ii) mentions a lodge and, possibly, a disguised password: 

I will visit thee at the lodge.
That's hereby.
I know where it is situate.
How wise you are...
Come Jaquenetta.

Coriolanus (IV,vi) refers to 'apron men' ("You have made good work, you and your apron men"), the meaning of the lambskin apron being touched upon in Measure for Measure (III.i) in the satirical jest: "And furred with fox on lambskins too, to signify that craft, being richer than innocency, stands for the facing."

The opening lines of Julius Caesar may be understood as a cryptic description of the difference between an operative mason ('carpenter') and an accepted Freemason. :

Speak, what trade art thou?
Why, sir, a carpenter.
Where is thy leather apron, and thy rule?

Why dost thou with thy best apparel on?

You, sir, what trade are you?
Truly, sir, in respect of a fine workman, I am but, as you would say, a cobbler.
But what trade art thou? Answer me directly.
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 (II.iii), death is touchingly embraced by Peter ('an armourer's man') : "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."

The Tyler used to draw the symbolic teaching of the degree on the floor before the candidate's entrance. Gonzalo, in The Tempest (, may refer to this and the masonic pillars: "For it is you that hath chalk'd forth the way which brought us hither... 0, rejoice beyond a common joy! and set it down with gold on lasting Pillars." The chief character of The Tempest is of course Prospero, an initiatic name for one who gives joy and prosperity by enabling others to prosper: the mark of a true master mason. He describes himself 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." A fitting ending might be to refer to the mystery of the password. Look at Love's Labour's Lost (V,iii) : 

One word in secret.
Will you vouchsafe with me to change a word?
Name it...
You have a double tongue within your mask, And would afford my speechless visor half... Let's part the word.
No! I'll not be your half...
One word in private with you ere I die.
Bleat softly then; the butcher hears you cry.
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...
Not one word more... Break off... Break off...

In this mocking dialogue, the word is provided crytically through the use of a 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 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 Word and Pillar of Freemasonry. Here, the word is not only 'parted' but 'halved and lettered', with Shakespeare appearing to show his mastery of its meaning and usage. Was he a mason? 

Peter Dawkins MA (Cantab) is the Director of the Francis Bacon Research Trust

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