William Shakespeare, undoubtedly the most famous and best known of all English playwrights, dramatist’s and poets is often regarded as England’s national poet and has long been identified as “The Bard of Avon.” Known throughout the World, for over 400 years the works of William Shakespeare have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.
The author of 38 plays, 154 sonnets and numerous other works, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and brought up in Stratford-upon-Avon. Although his early life is somewhat sketchy, it is known that in 1582 aged 18 he married Anne Hathaway with whom he had three children. Their first child, a daughter they named Susanna, was born in 1583 and two years later, in 1585, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. After the birth of the twins there is a period of seven years during which there are no records of Shakespeare’s life, and it is not until 1592 he is found to be working in London as an actor in a popular theatrical Company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which performed for the then Queen Elizabeth in 1594 at the Royal Palace in Greenwich, and again in 1597 when the group performed Shakespeare’s play ‘Loves Labours Lost.’ Shakespeare throughout his life enjoyed the Royal patronage of both Queen Elizabeth and James I, both lovers of theatrical comedies, and his group performed a number of theses for both these Royals during this period. When the Queen died, and after the coronation of James I, he changed the name of the performing company to the King’s Men.
Shakespeare was a productive writer, and between 1589 and 1613 he wrote most of his works, and by 1597, 15 of the 38 plays written by William Shakespeare were published. His early plays were mainly histories and comedies, such as, Richard II, Henry VI (parts 1, 2 and 3) and Henry V as well as, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. By about 1608 he wrote mainly tragedies including Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Macbeth, considered by many as the greatest works in the English language, and during his later years his style had changed to producing tragicomedies, amongst which are Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest.
In 1599, by this time an accomplished playwright and actor, Shakespeare and his partners decided to build their own theatre on the South Bank of the river Thames, which they called the Globe, where he performed for 16 years. He also began to purchase leases of vast tracts of land near Stratford at a cost of £440 which made him a relatively wealthy man for the period, earning £60 pounds a year from this investment. Sources estimate that he earned in the region of between £10 and £20 for a new play. His salary as an actor was about £100 per annum, one share in the Globe realised over £200 yearly, (he may have had more than one share) which along with other earnings from his plays amounted to an income of at least £500 per year. The relative value of £10 in 2014 is £2,120, amounting to over £100,000 per a year, which during Elizabethan England was a very substantial fortune. By the time of Shakespeare’s death, his wealth has been variously estimated at about £750,000 to £1,000,000 in today’s value.
Somewhere between 1610 and 1613,Shakespeare left London and moved back to Stratford, where his wife and married daughters had been living during his time in London, he retired from acting. His retirement proved to be short-lived, for by the spring of 1616 William Shakespeare became ill. He must have known that his time on this earth was almost over as shortly before he died he wrote his last will and testament. This is the will that has the famous bequest to his wife, “Item I gyve vnto my wief my second best bed with the furniture.” This line in Shakespeare’s will has generated numerous debates as to whether or not this was a snub to his long-suffering wife Anne Hathaway. At first glance in might seem so, but experts in Elizabethan times explain that the “second best bed' was actually the bed in which William and his wife Anne would have slept, as the best bed would have been kept for guests only.” And suggest that it was actually a splendid bequest, as a wife always received the second best thing in a will, with the best being reserved for a son or daughter, in Shakespeare’s case the major bequests were left to his eldest daughter Susanna, who would have been expected to look after and care for her mother for the rest of her natural life.
On the 23rd April 1616, William Shakespeare died. Two days later he was laid to rest in the Holy Trinity Church in Strafford, the same church in which he was baptised. The epitaph on the stone covering his grave has a curse inscribed which warns against moving his bones, that Shakespeare himself is supposed to have composed;
"Good friend for Jesus sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones."
In the year 2008 when the gravestone was being repaired and restored, care was made to avoid disturbing the bones, thus avoiding Shakespeare’s centuries old curse.
Today, William Shakespeare’s plays are highly popular, and continue to be performed to audiences throughout the World. They have been studied and reinterpreted in a variety of different performances by many varied Actors and Actresses on stage and screen, with many different cultural and political interpretations. Shakespeare’s plays have enthralled people from all walks of life since he first wrote them and show the genius of the author in the way he portrays the characters as real human beings in a wide range of emotions and conflicts. William Shakespeare works still remain fashionable 400 years later.
Yet, various mysteries surround the life of Shakespeare, the first of these is that the date of his birth is unknown, although he is recorded as being baptised on the 26th April 1564. His likeness has been questioned, and, along with his personality and character have created more conspiracy theories about his identity and ‘supposed’ authorship of his plays, than any other figure in English literature. Many prominent names, experts in the field of literature, history, the theatre as well as renowned authors such as Dickens and Twain have questioned his writing of the 38 plays, 154 sonnets and numerous other works, and for over 400 years since Shakespeare died doubts continue to be raised as to the authenticity of his works.
Most doubters point to the fact that for an author with such a prolific pen as Shakespeare there is little evidence of his personal life, nothing to link him directly with the works attributed to him, and that a man from a humble background with a lack of a university education could not have possible crafted the plays and works, and that only a poetic genius could have written them. (much the same as Scotland’s national Bard Robert Burns had to endure during his lifetime.) This has spawned many conspiracies about his life, as well as the identity of the true author of the dramas and poems, and people continue to search the great man’s works for clues and will often come up with some obscure and fantastic reason for him not being the author, invariably without a shred of evidence.
These theorists’ are not just confined to Shakespeare’s personal life and work, some Masonic historians and researchers have looked at whether or not he was a freemason, and many believe that he was responsible for creating Masonic Ritual.
Generations of well-known Brethren have poured over Shakespeare’s work looking for hidden Masonic Symbolism, Allegory and Esoteric meaning within it’s lines and have came up with many weird and sometimes surprising statements, and fitting Shakespeare’s words to justify their argument that he was a Freemason. First of these is that William Shakespeare must have been a freemason, one such author Fairbairn Smith states;
“Reading his plays and noting the Masonic allusionsand passages that almost seem to stand out of the ritual and lectures, one can only conclude that Shakespeare was either a Mason or that Masons drew upon him for their material.”
The problem that arises here is that if Shakespeare was a Freemason, then he would have had to have joined in the 1590’s, however many English Masonic Scholars doubt very much whether there was any Speculative Lodges at this time, which he would have to have been admitted into. We know that there were Lodges in London in 1717, 120 years later, but there is no evidence to support them being older. Smith also makes comparisons to some passages and the third degree, however it is general agreement among historic researchers that the third degree was formulated at the beginning of Modern Masonry and the birth of the Grand Lodge of England.
Every single author that has approached and agreed with the theory that Shakespeare was a Freemason has studied Shakespeare’s plays and concluded that there is Masonic connotations in his work. This is the only evidence that they use to support this hypothesis, and invariably the passages quoted to support him using words with Masonic association have been adapted to appear to fit in with their suggestion, and their true meanings disregarded. There are many, many examples of this, here are only a few of some of better known ones that are always quoted;
“What! My old Worshipful Master!”
Taming of the Shrew, Act V, s.1.
The words Worshipful Master are showing to be proof that Shakespeare either was and knew of Freemasonry, however, not so, theses words were common place during this period and used as a mark of respect, the full passage is;
Vincentio: “What, you notorious villain, didst thou never see thy master's father, Vincentio?”
Biondello: “What, my old worshipful old master? Yes, marry, sir: see where he looks out of the window.” (IV, 1, 2430-2433)
This is a comic response from Biondello, and its true context simply means honoured or esteemed, the reader can see there is no Masonic connotations in it at all, but the author uses this a an example of it being so. This it typical of all the supposed Shakespeare Masonic quotes, and do not stand up to examination. The only connection they have with Freemasonry is words. The same goes for the use of ‘apron’ and ‘brother’ and others of that ilk when they are used in his works.
Peter Dawkins in his work “Shakespeare and Freemasonry”, uses this passage from Love’s Labour’s Lost to prove the Masonic pedigree of Shakespeare, and explains that it is the method of disposing the word in the first degree and he must have known it;
“This article is just a brief introduction to what lies waiting to be discovered and brought to light. But a fitting ending might be to refer to the mystery of the Word itself, instructive substitutes for which are provided during the course of the Degrees. Shakespeare knew these Words, and the ultimate One; also the science of how to speak and share them, which teaches us so much.” For instance:-
Ber. One word in secret....
Dum. Will you vouchsafe with me to change a word?
Mar. Name it....
Long. You have a double tongue within your mask,
And would afford my speechless visor half....
Let's part the word.
Kath. No! I'll not be your half....
Long. One word in private with you ere I die.
Kath. Bleat softly then; the butcher hears you cry.
Boyet. 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....
Ros. Not one word more.... Break off....Break off....
The reader will of course immediately see the similarity in the wording as it narrated above and does go a long way to show some Masonic knowledge, however, all is not what it seems, for there are words and lines deliberately left out to make it look like there is some kind of Masonic connection and Shakespeare was giving the impression of Freemasonry at work. First of all this respected author got the location of the passage wrong, he states it is from Act 1V Scene iii, it is in fact from Act 5 Scene ii and the actual passage is this; (the quotes above are highlighted)
White-handed mistress, one sweet word with thee.
Honey, and milk, and sugar; there is three.
Nay then, two treys, and if you grow so nice,
Metheglin, wort, and malmsey: well run, dice!
There's half-a-dozen sweets.
Seventh sweet, adieu:
Since you can cog, I'll play no more with you.
One word in secret.
Let it not be sweet.
Thou grievest my gall.
They converse apart
Will you vouchsafe with me to change a word?
Say you so? Fair lord,--
Take that for your fair lady.
Please it you,
As much in private, and I'll bid adieu.
They converse apart
What, was your vizard made without a tongue?
I know the reason, lady, why you ask.
O for your reason! quickly, sir; I long.
You have a double tongue within your mask,
And would afford my speechless vizard half.
Veal, quoth the Dutchman. Is not 'veal' a calf?
A calf, fair lady!
No, a fair lord calf.
Let's part the word.
No, I'll not be your half
Take all, and wean it; it may prove an ox.
Look, how you butt yourself in these sharp mocks!
Will you give horns, chaste lady? do not so.
Then die a calf, before your horns do grow.
One word in private with you, ere I die.
Bleat softly then; the butcher hears you cry.
They converse apart
The tongues of mocking wenches are as keen
As is the razor's edge invisible,
Cutting a smaller hair than may be seen,
Above the sense of sense; so sensible
Seemeth their conference; their conceits have wings
Fleeter than arrows, bullets, wind, thought, swifter things.
Not one word more, my maids; break off, break off.
By heaven, all dry-beaten with pure scoff!
Farewell, mad wenches; you have simple wits.
Twenty adieus, my frozen Muscovits.
Exeunt FERDINAND, Lords, and Blackamoors
Are these the breed of wits so wonder'd at?
Now if you read the scene as it is written, the reader will see that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Freemasonry, and is in fact deliberately misleading and edited by the author, to show some fanciful Masonic connection when there is none whatsoever. In fairness to the author, he informs us that he took the quotes of Love’s Labour’s Lost from an earlier book by respected Masonic author, Alfred Dodd, who should really have known better than to chase windmills.
Was Shakespeare a Mason? Not on this evidence, there is no proof to show he was, in the ritual, his work or in any reference or historical work. Did he create Masonic Ritual? If the only evidence is to be found in his plays and works, then the answer must also be no.
Stewart Donaldson HM Sources;
Time Magazine – 27th Sept. 2007.
Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No.2
Shakespeare's patrons & other essays by Henry Brown. London: J. M. Dent & sons. 1912.
Neilson, William Allan, and Ashley Horace Thorndike. The facts about Shakespeare. NewYork 1913.
Shakespeare and Freemasonry – Peter Dawkins – Correspondence with the author – 17/6/14
Shakespeare Creator of Freemasonry – Alfred Dodd. 1933.
Time Magazine – 27th Sept. 2007.