Masonic Articles and Essays
Shakespeare and Freemasonry
Bro... William Norman M'Daniel
This article explores the relationship between the purpose and teachings of Freemasonry and the works of William Shakespeare.
We have set it down as a law to ourselves to examine things to the bottom, and not to receive upon credit, or reject upon probability, until these have passed a due examination. ~ BACON'S NATURAL HISTORY.
SPECULATE: To consider by turning a subject in the mind and viewing it in its different aspects and relations; 2. In philosophy, To view subjects from certain premises given or assumed, and infer conclusions respecting them a priori. ~ WEBSTER'S DICTIONARY
Anything proposed at this late day as a new contribution to the history and purpose of Freemasonry should be accompanied by the best of credentials. And, yet, the very fact of its being new may preclude almost any evidence except what it bears within itself; so that the most one can do is to state what appears to be a truth, show how it has become such to him, and then rely upon it being apprehended by others.
In offering to the Craft this essay, which in its main proposition may seem altogether new, and perhaps revolutionary, all that is asked for it is the application of a primary Masonic rule of action. A strange brother coming into a community is not received as such on his own representation, but neither is he discarded. Let the same method by which he is duly accepted as a member of the Fraternity be applied to the views here expressed. It is the only way in which they will become true to other persons.
Should these views appear to any reader like an attempt to overthrow some of the most ancient landmarks of the Fraternity, the assurance is given that such is not the writer's purpose. Rather it is an effort to restore to the Order the original patent or charter of Freemasonry, thus making it possible to verify or correct all its landmarks.
In reflecting upon the work in Lodge meetings, and its exemplification in the lives of brethren, these questions often presented themselves:
- What is the purpose of it all?
- Is its full purpose understood?
- Are the results commensurate with the ideals of expectations?
And to answer these questions was not an easy matter. There is a feeling abroad, which must be wide-spread, as its expression can be traced through many Masonic journals, that something is wanting in the working of the Order; either there is a misconception as to its origin and object, or errors have crept into the exposition of the work. At any rate it seemed worth some study to ascertain whether there might not be a reasonable explanation for such conditions.
It is apparent to many of the most zealous and loyal Masons that the discussions and uncertainty as to the origin of their Order is placing it on the defensive, and is a handicap to its progress. In these days of libraries and general reading, the influence of standard works of popular education cannot be ignored. At the beginning of the article on "Freemasonry," in the New International Encyclopedia, after a passing reference to the claims made for the antiquity of the Order, the statement is made that:
...the Order, however, is now considered to have been instituted about the early part of the eighteenth century - the pretensions put forth to a date coeval with the building of the Temple at Jerusalem, with King Solomon as its first Grand Master, being considered by those who have thoroughly investigated the subject as not worthy of credit.
In the new Encyclopedia Britannica, the article on "Freemasonry" was written by William James Hughan, recently deceased, a recognized authority on questions pertaining to Masonry. After noting that the Mother Grand Lodge is that of England, which was inaugurated in the metropolis on St. John Baptist's day, 1717, and that a Grand Lodge was founded in Ireland in 1725 and in Scotland in 1736, he states:
It is important to bear in mind that all the regular Lodges throughout the world, likewise all the Grand Lodges, directly or indirectly, have sprung from one or the other of these three governing bodies named... It may be a startling declaration, but it is well authenticated, that there is no other Freemasonry, as the term is now understood, than what has been so derived. In other words, the Lodges and Grand Lodges in both hemispheres trace their origin and authority back to England for working what is known as the Three Degrees, controlled by regular Grand Lodges.
Yet, in face of all this the general work and reputation of the Order is based on the assumption that modern Freemasonry is something very ancient.
Studies extending over a number of years led to a generalization so remarkable that at first it seemed incredible, as no doubt it will to many other persons; but it grew so clear and definite, accounting for an origin of the Order consistent with the known facts, furnishing a reasonable explanation for the difficulties which beset it, and giving such an exalted conception of Freemasonry, that its truth could scarcely be questioned.
A point was reached where there was no avoiding the conclusion that the teachings and purpose of Shakespeare and Freemasonry are identical; that their origin was coincident, or nearly so, the Order being designed to prepare a special body of men to exemplify in actual life the principles embodied in the plays; and, reciprocally, the plays being intended to supply, with concrete illustrations, correct rules of conduct and life; and that both are parts of the grand and comprehensive philosophical scheme of Francis Bacon to regenerate the world and unite mankind into a universal brotherhood.
This view of Freemasonry places it at the very top of that vast scheme, making the institution a necessary integral part of the wonderful plan, without which it would have been incomplete. This view makes the purpose of the Order the sublimest conception of man, this being no less than to secure and maintain the freedom, the welfare and the very preservation of the human race, A little reflection will convince any member of the Order that its work has tended toward that end; but what has been done, notable as it has been, is hardly more than a beginning or earnest of what it was meant to accomplish.
To show how such conclusions were reached naturally is...
a chronicle of day by day,
Not a relation for a breakfast.
and yet it may be possible to give in a reasonably small compass at least an intelligible, if bare, outline of the course which led up to it.
It is but fair to remark that others have had suspicions or intimations of some close relation between Shakespeare and Freemasonry. The Worshipful Master of Bard-of-Avon Lodge claimed Masonic fraternity with Shakespeare, thinking that allusions to Masonic terms and customs are scattered through the plays, but chiefly on the strength of Hubert's words in King John:
They shake their heads,
And whisper one another in the ear,
And he that speaks doth grip the hearer's wrist.
Of course, this is but a slight and superficial argument, since such actions are not peculiar to Masons.
Frederick Nicolai, a learned book-seller of Berlin, advanced the belief that Lord Bacon, influenced by the writings of Andrea, the alleged founder of the Rosicrucians, and of his English disciple, Robert Fludd, gave to the world his "New Atlantis," a beautiful apologue, in which are to be found many ideas of a Masonic character. But in his opinion the Order was not established until 1646, when a number of men met for that purpose. It is worth noting that this is the same year in which the Royal Society was founded. Had Nicolai understood the relation between Shakespeare and Freemasonry, and the part they bear in Bacon's system of philosophy, no doubt he would have made a different guess.
In the effort to establish the truth of the main proposition - the identity of Freemasonry and Shakespeare - let all questions relating to their history be laid aside for the present, and let attention be directed to their actual nature. Long ago the wise man who, it is believed, knew all about these subjects, said: "The nature of everything is best considered in the seed." That is, by beginning with the elements of which it is composed. This course is pursued in all the investigations of modern science, and it should be the proper course for Speculative Masonry. That is the significance of the term Speculative.
It will hardly be questioned that the whole system of Freemasonry is the expansion of some principle, some fundamental idea, just as truly as the mighty oak has developed from the germ within the acorn. Now, the germ idea of Freemasonry is contained in one paragraph of the Charges of a Free-Mason (1723), and in the first line:
A Mason by his tenure is obliged to obey the moral law.
And as the embryo of the acorn sends roots down into the ground for the sake of the tree that grows above, so the observance of the moral law is to the end that mankind may be united into one brotherhood - a high ideal, never to be attained, but still the goal toward which to strive.
While the main part of this Book of Constitutions pretends to trace the history of Masonry from the earliest period of the world's history, the least reflection will convince one that all this has nothing to do with speculative Masonry. Almost all the book having reference to Freemasonry may be said to be in that one paragraph, which is here given:
A Mason is obliged by his Tenure to obey the moral Law; and if he rightly understands the ART, he will never be a stupid ATHEIST, nor an irreligious LIBERTINE. And though in ancient Times Masons were charg'd in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet 'tis now thought more expedient only to obligate them to that Religion in which all Men agree; leaving their particular opinions to themselves; that is, to be GOOD MEN AND TRUE, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denomination or Persuasion they may [be] distinguish'd; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Unity, and the means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must else have remained at a perpetual distance.
This paragraph may be summed up in a single phrase, which fully expresses the vital spirit of Freemasonry - The Majesty of the Moral Law.
Professor Henry Van Dyke has made the splendid generalization that the aim and purpose of the Shakespearean dramas also is to teach the Majesty of the Moral Law. It will be found, when the plays are studied from this viewpoint, that they form a comprehensive and consistent body of ethics or moral philosophy, the term being used in the Baconian sense as embracing politics, ethics, as commonly conceived, and logic; and that this system is entirely in harmony with the teachings of Freemasonry. It may be more exact to say that Freemasonry is a training school to make the realization of this philosophy possible.
Perhaps the simplest and yet most satisfactory definition of Freemasonry is Dr. Hemming's, that...
Freemasonry is a beautiful system of morals, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.
Shakespeare may be also defined as a beautiful system of morals, veiled in allegory and illustrated by fictitious and historical personages. Further, one play, The Tempest, which stands first in the collected plays, is an epitome, a miniature of the whole. The argument of our main proposition - the identity of Shakespeare and Freemasonry - may be based upon the proper interpretation of this play. One primary idea must be kept in mind: these plays are works of art; works of literary art, which, next to music, is the highest art; and again, in the form of the drama, which is the highest form of literary art.
And as Alfred Noyes has so aptly expressed it, "The content and import of a work of art are not to be weighed in the same way as those of a philosophic system or a work of science." It is to be realized more as a personal experience, not so much comprehended by the mind as apprehended by the soul. Let it not be thought strange, therefore, if for many persons The Tempest has little significance. For that matter, to how comparatively few persons is Shakespeare anything more than a name. The reason is to be found in our one-sided, unnatural and, in many respects, false education. Others can place themselves where Shakespeare and Freemasonry meet, if they but free their minds from traditions and prejudices.
Hence, to read these plays as mere stories in dramatic form, filled in with many wise reflections, is to miss their real character. The Tempest may be read simply as such a story, and even as having a moral purpose. Sir Edward Strachey says quite aptly that it is "a mimic, magic tempest which we are to see, a tempest raised by art, to work moral ends with actual men and women."
But he fails to show how it is to bring about such a state in the actual affairs of men, say of our day or of any time. The play contains hints suggesting that it is meant to be of universal application. It will yet be clear that this play can be fairly interpreted as an allegorical drama, summing up the whole method of Francis Bacon's philosophy, and especially his moral philosophy, as it is to affect in actual life the individual, and all the relations which men and women sustain toward each other, from the primary relations of the family to the highest, which is that of government. And when so interpreted it will be found that it is also the philosophy of Freemasonry.
In a small frame hanging on one of the beautiful marble columns in the Library of the Masonic Temple at Philadelphia, PA., are a number of Masonic Landmarks, which may be accepted as a fair statement of some fundamental principles of Freemasonry. They are reproduced here.
THE MASONIC LANDMARKS
The Moral Law is Masonic Law.
Obedience to lawful authority is inculcated by Masonry.
Masonic qualifications are mental, moral, and physical.
Masonic preferment is grounded upon real worth and personal merit only.
Charity should be the distinguishing characteristic of a Mason.
The will of the majority governs for the good of the whole.
Secrecy is indispensable in Masonry.
The Master is the head of the Lodge.
In his absence, the Wardens preside according to rank.
The Grand Lodge is supreme in its sphere of jurisdiction.
The approbation of God is the highest Masonic honor.
Comparing these Masonic Landmarks with The Tempest, it can be seen how they are woven into the word-pictures of the play.
As the Moral Law forms the first Landmark, so the main theme of the play is illustrated by the story of the violation of the moral law by the false Duke and his confederates, and their repentance; with the result that a reconciliation of all the persons is brought about, and they agree to live in harmony and unity.
The second landmark is the recognition of lawful authority. Now, the very first scene of the play teaches the same lesson. In the first twenty-seven lines is embodied the whole theory of authority and obedience, as the basis of true liberty. Notice, the cheerful obedience of the sailors to the commands of their proper superiors, and the sudden change to sullen opposition to those who had no lawful right to order them about. In the same way it can be seen how the other general abstract principles of Masonry are illustrated as the play progresses.
But it is desired to call special attention to the distinguishing term of Freemasonry - the word Free. Freedom is the enveloping, penetrating atmosphere of the play as a whole, and of every part of it. It is the necessary life-giving principle for the development of the individual and society as therein portrayed. The idea of freedom is present in almost every action of importance throughout the entire play, and forms the theme of a postscript, in form of an apologue. The simple wish of Caliban, type of primitive man, or of the animal becoming human, is for his freedom; and it forms the last wish of Prospero, type of the highest developed man. But above all, the promise of freedom and the hope of attaining it formed the very life of Ariel, and was the spur to all his activity; and Ariel, it is believed, symbolizes the spirit of man.
To analyze the play in detail would make this paper too long. Let this marvelous drama of The Tempest be interpreted as an allegory expressing in the form of literary art what Bacon meant to express in sculpture by the statue of Orpheus, which he erected in his grounds of Gorhambury. The result will show whether it bears such an interpretation and has any relation to Freemasonry.
Bacon inscribed the statue, Philosophy Personified. He interpreted Orpheus as denoting learning, and the ancient fable as a picture of universal philosophy. The music of Orpheus was of two kinds: one that appeased the infernal powers, he applied to natural philosophy, which seeks to understand and control the physical world; the other, which draws together men and beasts, to moral and civil discipline. In other words, Bacon understood Orpheus to have been to the Greeks a civilizing hero, who had induced their ancestors to renounce cannibalism, and taught them the arts and sciences and how to live together. This, Bacon thought, was the true Orpheus music or harmony.
Now, The Tempest presents to us a picture of similar sordid, selfish and warring social conditions transformed into a society where reparation has been made for all injustice, where no man is to "shift" for himself, but where each shall shift for the others, and where, as a result, peace prevails. "The supreme harmony prevails when all things are in harmony with the moral order."
The events which brought this about culminated in the marriage of Miranda, the admired daughter of Prospero, to the prospective reigning prince. This marriage, with its attendant happiness, is emblematic of the prosperity and peace of a state which would accept Bacon's philosophy, symbolized here by Miranda. It will be noticed that she is the very embodiment of pity, sympathy for her fellow-men, as Ariel is the embodiment of thought, especially in its highest manifestation, that of the creative imagination.
Herein, lies the explanation of the figure which represents Freemasonry as spanning the world with its arms of light and love and benevolence. It is indeed a picture of an ideal civilization, of a state requiring a high degree of education to be even approximately realized. This is the invisible Temple, continually being built.
The teachings of Freemasonry lead in this same direction, and I submit that the Order was instituted to bring to pass just such a condition of society, in which Masons are to be the living stones. It was meant to be a civilizing force, working throughout the whole world. The universal application of its principles and teachings attest to this fact. These principles in their general form are embodied in The Tempest, while in the other plays they are exemplified as they apply to the manifold conditions of human relations. It should be said that these plays are extra-institutional, something like the post-graduate studies of schools and colleges. They have no immediate connection with the secret work of the Lodge.
Freemasonry is frequently conceived as a religion. The language of the Ancient Charges implies that it may be so considered. Every religion has its body of doctrines, its votaries, and an organization through which, by means of rituals and worship, these doctrines are taught to its followers and disseminated among outsiders. In Freemasonry, the Lodges and the secret work correspond to the religious organizations and their rituals. But Freemasonry has no body of doctrines. Freemasonry is not a matter of belief. Its members are to think and feel and act. And, in lieu of a body of doctrines, I name the peerless plays of Shakespeare as embodying and exempliplying the principles which are to serve as a guide and inspiration of Masons; that is, beyond what is inculcated by the secret work of the Lodges.
If an explanation is asked how modern Freemasonry was connected with Operative Masonry, the answer is that the ancient Institution was taken as the wild stock on which the new was grafted, exactly as each of the plays was based on some older tale or legend. The process is set forth quite plainly in that charming play, The Winter's Tale, where the author says:
A gentlers cion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race; this is an art
Which does mend nature - change it, rather; but
The art itself is nature.
The great secrecy and mystery which surrounded the early history of the Order was necessary to establish it, but this should no longer hold in our day.
It may be that all this is well known in the higher Masonic circles, but kept hid, like so many other things, from motives of prudence. But if such a course seemed necessary at one time in the history of Freemasonry, it is difficult to see a reason for continuing it. If it is not known, then the conviction is expressed that a careful examination will verify the discovery. And its importance cannot be questioned or exaggerated.
Freemasonry makes a private appeal to all that is best, noblest and most unselfish in man; and to stimulate the interest by a certain amount of mystery, secrecy of symbolism is well and good. But this has its limitations. In these days many men have advanced beyond such a stage in their education. To them the actual truth cannot fail to appeal. It will solve not only the perplexing question of the authorship of the plays, but in large measure their real meaning, and furnish a practical way of relating them to men's lives, thus making them what they were meant to be - a vital, educating force.
It will explain the tremendous spurt of civilization in England during Bacon's life-time, and make clear who was the intellectual dynamo that furnished not only the light and power of that wonderful period, but the impulse which led to our present advanced stage of civilization. It will confirm the opinion that Freemasons were meant to be the special guardians and conservators of the richest and noblest treasure intended for the welfare of mankind that the human mind ever collected. It will establish the fact that in modern times lived a philosopher, Francis Bacon, the freest, wisest, tenderest of men, who for three centuries has met the common fate of philosophers - to be misunderstood and maligned - but who planned a scheme of philosophy surpassing all that ever preceded; and who also made provision for its dissemination and preservation among men.
Let Freemasonry acknowledge its paternity, which will be found to have been noble in name and most noble in fact, and claim its inheritance, with its attending responsibilities, and it will have the means to solve the difficulties and dispel the fears felt by many members and expressed so forcibly by the good brother, Bishop Charles T. Williams, of Michigan, when he said:
I have often felt that Freemasonry should be something more than a mere theatrical exhibition, with some technical charity and a good deal of social intercourse; but I do not see just how its moral forces can be effectually concentrated and directed.
It can also meet the criticism, and fufill the prophecy presented by Oswald Wirth, who declared that our institution has not yet found itself, that it seeks itself like the youth who is forced to recognize himself, and take knowledge of what he really is. He predicts that an epoch will come forcibly, when all that is respectable will be universally respected - when forms shall be appreciated and scrupulously observed no more by instinct or superstition, but in reason, for what they contain as living.
Let Freemasonry but find itself - and this is possible by the author's last will and testament, The Tempest - and there is nothing that can prevent it from becoming the world-wide civilizing force which it was designed to be, becoming the most potent factor in dispelling ignorance and superstition, in bringing about a fuller freedom and development of man, and in replacing the selfishness, deceit and inhumanity, which unchecked must eventually destroy our civilization, by the rule of justice and love, which alone can unite mankind into a universal brotherhood.
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