Masonic Symbolism in one of Shakespeare’s Plays

Was 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 Anthony and Cleopatra, he does not seem to have realised that this play is deeply grounded in the symbolism of the Royal Arch degree.

It doesn’t take a genius to detect that there is something rather strange going on behind the scenes in Anthony 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 mystic rite.

The following selection of such strange lines come from Act V, scene 2:

Guard Here is a rural fellow
That will not be denied your highness’ presence:
He brings you figs.

Cleopatra Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there,
That kills and pains not?

Clown . . . his biting is immortal:

Clown Truly she makes a very good report o’ the worm:
. . . the worm’s an odd worm.

Clown I wish you all the joy of the worm.

Clown Look you, the worm is not to be trusted but in the keeping of
wise people; for indeed there is no goodness in the worm.

Clown Yes, forsooth; 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:

Lepidus You’ve strange serpents there.

Anthony Ay, Lepidus.

Lepidus Your serpent 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 perspective:

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 (1). 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 Anthony and Cleopatra, there are also references to the pearl of great price, the descent into Egypt and the mysterious serpent. In Act I, v, Anthony 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 Anthony’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 Masons. General Albert Pike, the famous nineteenth century reformer of the Scottish Rite in America, once claimed, “Gnosticism is the soul and marrow of Freemasonry” (3).

Within Anthony 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’ we find:

. . . mechanic slaves
With greasy aprons, rules and hammers, shall
Uplift us to the view.

In Shakespeare’s 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.

Another instance 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 the question:

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 Temple (5).

When we look again at the above quotation from Anthony 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:

Menas All mens’ faces are true, whatso’er their hands are.
Enobarbus But there is never a fair woman has a true face.
Menas No slander; they steal hearts.

The conversation soon moves to discussion of the way the two women, Octavia and Cleopatra, have exercised their strength and undone Mark Anthony (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 Anthony 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 significance.



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 Anthony and Cleopatra was originally written with a courtly, Masonic audience in mind (6).

1) This 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 Universelle, p.588.
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 Anthony 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.


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