Monday, 02 February 2009 10:26

Shakespeare and Freemasonry

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

Published in Features
Wednesday, 11 June 2008 01:00

Pro Grand Master's address - June 2008

11 JUNE 2008

On the nineteenth of July, this very fine building – created as a Masonic Peace Memorial – will be seventy-five years old. At the June Quarterly Communication in 1933, held seventy-five years ago last Saturday at the Central Hall Westminster, Lord Ampthill, the then Pro Grand Master, thanking Lodges for their generous response to the appeal for the erection of this building said that, “it would be an outward sign of our pious memory of the Brethren who fell in the Great War and, at the same time, a fulfilment of the duty we owe those who came after us.”

I believe that the building remains today as a fitting memorial for the Brethren who fell in the Great War. And a fitting fulfilment of the duty the planners and builders owed to those who came after them. I am confident that that fulfilment will continue for many generations of future Masons.

Referring to the building the then Pro Grand Master continued, “it is a duty we owe to the cause of Masonry, and to Freemasons all over the world, that the headquarters of the English Constitution should be worthy of the honour and reputation that we enjoy, and that the place of assembly of the Grand Lodge of England should be fully significant of our faith and cause, our confidence in the future, and our determination to make Freemasonry more and more a potent influence for the good in national life.”

Shortly afterwards, the Grand Master, His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn held an especial meeting in connection with the dedication of this Masonic Peace Memorial at the Royal Albert Hall, followed the next day – 19 July 1933 – by the dedication itself, here at Great Queen Street. So, the first Quarterly Communication was held here on 6 September 1933. To commemorate that, at our next Quarterly Communication in September, I have asked Brother John Hamill, Director of Communications, to talk about the history of the building.

Towards the end of last year I launched a survey of Lodge and Chapter records. This survey will be an important building block for the book on Masonic history which we are planning to publish in 2017 as part of the Tercentenary celebrations of the formation of the first Grand Lodge. Undertaking this survey within an organisation of this size and age is ambitious. But I am confident that, with your help, it will be successful and that the results will also be important in encouraging further research into our history.

I have been following the results very closely and I am pleased that the project has been enthusiastically supported. All our Provinces have now appointed a volunteer co-ordinator to organise the survey. Most of these co-ordinators have taken the opportunity to attend a briefing meeting here at Freemasons' Hall, and have already started the survey in their Provinces. We hope to have completed the survey by the summer of 2009.

At the end of May the Deputy Grand Master opened the Women and Freemasonry Exhibition in the Library and Museum. It covers the development of Freemasonry for Women in the early years of the last century. At the preview guests included lady representatives from the various women’s organisations including the Order of Women Freemasons and the Honourable Fraternity of Antient Freemasons. We maintain our independence from the women’s organisations and they are happy to maintain their independence from us. Apart from the historical interest, the Exhibition has a valuable public relations benefit. It will help to dispel the commonly held myth, among non-Masons, that there are no women in Freemasonry! I commend the Exhibition to you.

The Hampton Court Flower Show in July will feature a garden with a Masonic theme which I hope will encourage some of you to visit, if you have an interest in gardens. It is sponsored by the Metropolitan Grand Lodge and twelve Provinces in the south of England. I am looking forward to attending and the dates and details can be found on the UGLE website. Brethren, returning to the words of the Pro Grand Master in 1933, and comparing those words with the situation today: this fine building is fully significant of our faith and cause; we have confidence in the future and we remain determined to make Freemasons more and more a potent influence for good in our national life. In fact, I believe that the Craft is in a much stronger position now than it has been for many years, and I end my remarks by wishing you and your families a very happy summer.

Published in Speeches
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