in one of Shakespeare's Plays
William Shakespeare a Freemason? There are those who would
argue that the spirit of Freemasonry is everywhere to be found in his
plays, but what about the evidence? A number of his plays contain clear
Masonic references and these have been described
elsewhere by writers such as Dodd and Dawkins. Whilst Dodd observed some references to the craft in Antony and Cleopatra, he does not seem to have realised that this play is deeply grounded in the symbolism of the Royal Arch
take a genius to detect that there is something rather strange going
on behind the scenes in Antony and Cleopatra. Whilst the setting in
ancient Egypt makes it entirely natural for the author to draw parallels
between the two protagonists and the Egyptian divine couple Osiris and
Isis, there are some more unorthodox elements that call for explanation.
The most striking of these, to my mind, is the peculiar manner of Cleopatra's
death. Shakespeare does not so much seem to be describing a real death
here, the tragic death of a heartbroken 'goddess', but rather a curious
following selection of such strange lines come from Act V, scene 2:
is a rural fellow
That will not be denied your highness' presence:
He brings you figs.
thou the pretty worm of Nilus there,
That kills and pains not?
. . . his biting is immortal:
she makes a very good report o' the worm:
. . . the worm's an odd worm.
wish you all the joy of the worm.
you, the worm is not to be trusted but in the keeping of
wise people; for indeed there is no goodness in the worm.
I wish you all the joy of the worm.
Why does Shakespeare
bring his heroine's doom in the hands of a clown? Why does the deadly
asp have to be described as an 'odd worm' that bestowes 'joy' and 'cannot
be trusted'? One has the strongest suspicion that Shakespeare is alluding
to esoteric mysteries.
Is it not significant,
too, that this 'death rite' takes place in an anonymous Egyptian stone
monument. Might one not assume that this is that most celebrated of
all Egyptian monuments, a pyramid? In a Masonic context it would be
entirely appropriate because, in the higher degrees, the Egyptian pyramids
are considered to be temples of initiation.
In Egyptian paintings
the 'dead' are sometimes shown being swallowed by a viper and then emerging
from its tail in the form of a scarab. In this instance the serpent
is not an agent of final annihilation but appears to play the role of
the transforming alembic in alchemy. In a parallel to this, the 'alchemical'
transformation of fermented barley malt into Scotch whisky is performed
in a curling copper pipe known as 'the worm'. If Shakespeare ever visited
Scotland he would doubtlessly have sampled the 'joy of the worm' himself.
Another hint that Cleopatra's worm was partly an alchemical worm comes
earlier in the play, in II, vii:
strange serpents there.
of Egypt is bred now of your mud
by the operation of your sun; so is your crocodile.
The mud of the prima
materia is converted by action of the fiery sun in the serpentine tube
of the alembic. Shakespeare's curious repetition of 'your' seems to
signify, or parody, the alchemists' use of 'our': 'Our Mercury', 'Our
Water', 'Our Sun', etc..
The passage that
follows the episode with the worm is interesting, too, from a Hermetic
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me now;
This sentence echoes
the beautiful 2nd century Gnostic poem, The Hymn of the Robe of Glory
This profound and deeply mystical poem describes the departure of the
soul into the body (Egypt), where it forgets what it is, why it came
and where it belongs. The boy who is thus sent down into Egypt is given
the task:of fetching back a magnificent pearl from the bottom of the
sea, guarded by a terrible serpent. At the end of the poem the boy is
accomplishes his mission and returns home:
And I began (then) to charm him,
The terrible loud-breathing Serpent.
I lulled him to sleep and to slumber,
Chanting o'er him the Name of my Father,
The name of our second (my Brother),
And of my mother, the East-Queen.
And (thereon) I snatched up the Pearl,
And turned to the house of my Father.
Their filthy and unclean garments
I stripped off and left in their country.
My Glorious Robe that I'd stripped off,
With its beauty of colour I decked me,
And my Mantle of sparkling colours
I wrapped entirely o'er me.
I clothed me therewith, and ascended
To the Gate of Greeting and Homage.
I bowed my head and did homage
To the Glory of Him who had sent it, ( - my robe)
And I was with Him in His Kingdom . . .(2)
It is not only the
'Robe of Glory' itself that we find in Antony and Cleopatra, there
are also references to the pearl of great price, the descent into Egypt
and the mysterious serpent. In Act I, v, Antony sends his lover the
gift of an 'orient pearl' - 'This treasure of an oyster'. Prior to this
there is a curious passage dense in esoteric symbolism. Here Cleopatra
herself is here described as, 'My serpent of old Nile', and immediately
thereafter she becomes the custodian of Mark Antony's precious pearl.
There are thus good
grounds for connecting Shakespeare's Egyptian play with the Gnostic
philosophy from which this poem owes its existence. In this it is not
so far removed from the hidden philosophy of the Freemasons. General Albert
Pike, the famous nineteenth century reformer of the Scottish Rite in
America, once claimed, "Gnosticism is the soul and marrow of Freemasonry"
Within Antony and
Cleopatra, as indeed with many of Shakespeare's plays, there are a number
of lines which refer overtly to Masonic terms and tools. In the final
scene of the play, prior to the introduction of the 'joy-bringing worm'
. . . mechanic slaves
With greasy aprons, rules and hammers, shall
Uplift us to the view.
day masons and carpenters both fell into the category of 'mechanics'.
The characteristic dress of a Mason includes an apron worn over the
loins: this is greasy because it is traditionally made of lambskin and
therefore impregnated with lanolin. The 24 inch rule and the hammer
(or 'gavel') are the two tools allocated to the first degree of Masonry,
the Entered Apprentice. The first signifies the measure of time and
the second is effectively a 'Tau' cross and hence a phallic symbol.
of Masonic symbolism comes earlier in the play, in Act II, scene 3.
Here we find, in consecutive lines, thinly veiled reference to the square
and compass - cosmographic dividers:
The world and my great office will sometimes
Divide me from your bosom.
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.
We see here not only
the square and compass but also reference to 'the rule'. This can represent
the Masonic 'straightedge' - the 12 or 24 inch rule. It can also stand
for the rules and ordinances governing Masonic conduct, such as those
laid down in the Old Charges. Masons are said to meet, 'on the square'.
There are a number
of similar references in the play which anyone with a basic knowledge
of Freemasonry will be able to detect. One reference, though, is more
significant than the others because it is not casual but deeply built
into the structure of the text. Furthermore it is a reference that I
believe only a Mason of high degree (4)
could have made, or would have recognised. It comes in Caesar's concluding
speech at the end of Act II:
What would you more? Pompey, good night. Good brother,
Let me request you off; our graver business
Frowns at this levity. Gentle lords, let's part;
You see we have burnt our cheeks; strong Enobarb
Is weaker than the wine, and mine own tongue
Splits what it speaks; the wild disguise hath almost
Antick'd us all. What needs more words? Good night.
The reference in
bold is to a story from the apocrypha that constitutes an extremely
important component of Masonic mythology and particularly relates to
the Royal Arch degree. The story is found in the first book of Esdras,
chapters 3 and 4, and deals with events occuring during the Babylonian
captivity. Three young men of the royal bodyguard of the Persian king
Darius have a philosophical dispute to find the wisest, by resolving
Which is strongest, the Strength of wine, the Strength of the King
or the Strength of women?
Zerubbabel, an Israelite
prince, wins the contest by proving that women are stronger than wine
or kings - he then goes on to clinch his victory by showing that 'Truth'
is a greater force than any of these other three. In the Masonic catechism
the solution to the 'riddle' is given as:
Wine is strong, a king is stronger, even stronger are women, but
Truth conquers all.
The reward to Zerubbabel
for finding this correct answer was being granted permission to lead
his people back from their exile and to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem.
The earliest Masonic
context for this quotation is to be found in the fabric of Rosslyn Chapel
near Edinburgh. This is an extremely unusual building constructed by
William St Clair between 1441 and 1488. It bears only a superficial
resemblence to a church, or chapel, and appears at first sight to be
either unfinished or partially ruined. The inside of the building is
extraordinarily rich in carving and statutary. Much of this depicts
episodes of Masonic ritual - there is a 'Hoodwinked' apprentice undergoing
initiation - with a 'Cable tow' around his neck, kneeling down and holding
a book (the Bible), there is the murdered master mason Hiram Abif with
the fatal wound above his right eye and the two ornate pillars of the
temple, Boaz and Jachin. The only written inscription in the whole building
contemporaneous with its fifteenth century construction is the above
quotation from Esdras, albeit rendered in Latin, 'Forte est vinum, Fortior
est rex, Fortiores sunt muliers, Super omnia vincit veritas'. The relevance
of this quotation is driven home when we consider the building's design
which is intented as a small scale reconstruction of King Herod's Jerusalem
When we look again
at the above quotation from Antony and Cleopatra we see that Caesar
says: 'Mine own tongue splits what it speaks'. If he is speaking with
a forked tongue he is not speaking the truth - in other words the truth
is stronger than he - the king. In line 114 we find reference to, 'The
conquering wine . . .'. In the preceeding scene (Act II, scene 6), which
is closely related, there is some discussion about the strength and
truthfulness of women:
mens' faces are true, whatso'er their hands are.
there is never a fair woman has a true face.
slander; they steal hearts.
soon moves to discussion of the way the two women, Octavia and Cleopatra,
have exercised their strength and undone Mark Antony (the king). In
fact it would be possible to consider the whole plot of the play to
be a meditation on the quotation from Esdras. The 'strong man' Enobarb
is weaker than wine that undoes him. The 'king' Mark Antony is brought
to ruin by his love, lust and ambition for women. He illustrates clearly
what we find in 1 Esdras iv, 26, 27:
Many men have lost their minds because of women, and have become
slaves because of them. Many have perished, or stumbled, or sinned,
because of women.
It seems more than
possible that this passage was Shakespeare's underlying inspiration
behind the writing of the play - certainly Philo's opening speech in
the first scene of act 1 exemplifies it:
Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure; those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front; his captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights have burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust. Look! where they come.
Take but good note, and you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transfor'd
Into a strumpet's fool; behold and see.
Finally, we see
Cleopatra, the seductive syren, flee into 'suicide' before the truth of
what is about to befall her as a consequence of her wild flirting and
'gipsy's lust'. The only missing element from Esdras' story is the Jerusalem
temple - but as the final scene takes place in, 'An Egyptian monument',
we perhaps have there the original temple of early Masonry, and greater
From the evidence in this play, it seems likely
that Shakespeare was a Freemason familiar with the ritual at the heart of the Royal Arch degree.
If this is true, we may deduce that Antony and Cleopatra was originally written
with a courtly, Masonic audience in mind (6).
to Earlier Shakespeare research
poem appears in the Gnostic apocryphal book The Acts of Thomas.
It has an interesting parallel in the parable of 'The Prodigal Son': who
also leaves his home and goes down into Egypt, before eventually being
re-robed and reunited with his true (spiritual) family. This similarity
with the gospel story should not distract from the fact that Gnostic Christianity
was Egyptian in character and considered foul heresy by the church establishment.
2) Translation by G.R.S.
Mead, in Echoes from the Gnosis, Theosophical Publishing Society.
3) In a letter entitled 'Instructions'
issued by him on 14th July, 1889 to the 23 Supreme Councils of the world
- recorded by A.C. De la Rive in La Femme et l'enfant dans la Franc-Maconnerie
4) It is difficult to be
certain how many degrees there were above that of Master Mason in Shakespeare's
day. The great majority of the higher degrees currently existing certainly
post-date the writing of Antony and Cleopatra. However the Royal Arch
degree is said to be very ancient, and there are certainly tombstones
in Scotland engraved with Royal Arch insignia dating from 1621 and earlier.
5) Knight and Lomas, The
Hiram Key -Pharoahs, Freemasons and the Discovery of the Secret Scrolls
of Jesus, Century Books, 1996.
6) It seems that many plays
were commissioned for Masonic occasions, particularly court performances
celebrating the feast of St John the Evangelist (27th December). See Ron
Heisler's illuminating essay The
Impact of Freemasonry on Elizabethan Literature.
Peter Bull 2004-2023
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