Was Shakespeare a Freemason? Masonic Symbolism in Macbeth

by Bro. Robert Guffey

In 1933 Past Master Alfred Dodd published a book that purported to contain evidence linking William Shakespeare with the creation of Freemasonry, an international secret society built around an interest in esoteric knowledge, including the ancient art of alchemy. In the book, Shakespeare: Creator of Freemasonry, Dodd focuses on the Masonic symbolism in two plays, Love's Labours Lost and The Tempest. Except for two brief references he ignores Macbeth, an indispensable play in establishing Shakespeare's ties to Freemasonry, The entire play appears to have been written as an allegory for the bloody murder of Hiram Abiff, the core figure of Masonic ritual.'

In 1933 Past Master Alfred Dodd published a book that purported to contain evidence linking William Shakespeare with the creation of Freemasonry, an international secret society built around an interest in esoteric knowledge, including the ancient art of alchemy. In the book, Shakespeare: Creator of Freemasonry, Dodd focuses on the Masonic symbolism in two plays, Love's Labours Lost and The Tempest. Except for two brief references he ignores Macbeth, an indispensable play in establishing Shakespeare's ties to Freemasonry. The entire play appears to have been written as an allegory for the bloody murder of Hiram Abiff, the core figure of Masonic ritual.

Upon reaching the third degree the Masonic initiate is led through the mock ritual killing of Hiram Abiff, one of three original Grand Masters of Freemasonry. According to legend, Abiff had promised his architects that he would reveal to them all the secrets known by a Master Mason once the construction of Solomon's Temple was completed. Three of the builders-Jubela, Jubelo, and Jubelum- were too impatient to wait and attacked Abiff, demanding to hear "the Master's Word" immediately. Abiff refused, after which the three "unworthy craftsmen" committed the ultimate betrayal by killing their Master (Robinson 218, 219).

From the previous paragraph alone one might notice the uncanny recurrence of the number three in Masonic ritual. In addition, not only are there three original Grand Masters, three assassins, and a total of thirty-three degrees of the Masonic hierarchy, but there are also three Principal officers, three symbolic steps "from this life to the source of all knowledge" (Downward, Sorcery, 81), three obligations, three lights upon the Altar, three "pillars" that support the Lodge, and three knocks that gain the candidate admission into the Lodge, followed by three more knocks to summon the Brethren (Pike 548). This last example is paralleled in Act Two, Scene Three, in which three knocks are continually repeated until the porter allows entrance to Macduff, the future murderer of the "unworthy" Macbeth.

Both the number three and the concept of alchemy play an integral role in the story of Macbeth's downfall. In Act One, Scene One, we are introduced to three witches who utter the words, "Fair is foul, foul is fair" (1110). James Shelby Downward has pointed out that this is a well known principal of alchemy. Just as lead can be transformed into gold, the ostensibly noble Macbeth and his wife can be transformed into serial murderers by greed and ambition. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth might be seen as deliberate representations of the mystical nagari, an androgynous dragon that symbolizes the alchemists' ultimate goal of separating "the cosmic she and he"(Downard, 'Call to Chaos', 309). Certainly, the Macbeths might be viewed as a warning to those who would take this separation to an extreme.

The number three appears again in relation to Hecate's appearance in Act Three, Scene Five. Though some scholars attribute the authorship of this scene to a writer other than Shakespeare, nevertheless it's interesting to note that in classical mythology Hecate has three roles-some of them in1fernal, some of them divine. Downward writes, 'I ..she is Diana on Earth, Luna in Heaven, and Hecate in Hell" (Sorcery, 63). This parallels the triune godhead Jah- Bul-On, an entity mentioned prominently in the thirteenth degree of the Scottish Rite, whose name is said to be comprised of Jahweh, Baal, and Osiris (Knight, 236). The melding of the positive and the negative are common elements of both alchemy and the Brotherhood, As Grand Commander Albert Pike has written, "The true name of Satan, the Kabalists say, is that of Yahveh reversed; for Satan is not a black god. ...For the initiates this is not a Person, but a Force, created for good, but which may serve for evil." (102). "The conviction of all men that God is good led to a belief in a Devil, the fallen Lucifer or Lightbearer, Shaitan the Adversary, Ahriman and Tuphon, as an attempt to explain the existence of Evil, and make it consistent with the Infinite Power, Wisdom, and Benevolence of God" (Pike, 324).

"Man is a free agent, though Omnipotence is above and all around him. To be free to do good, he must be free to do evil. The Light necessitates the Shadow" (Pike, 307). In other words, "Fair is foul, foul is fair."

Macbeth can easily be viewed as a mingling of these forces. He is a bundle of paradoxes: nobleman and murderer, murderer and coward, coward and warrior. He is the perfect vessel for Shakespeare's retelling of the ritualistic killing inherent in the third degree, for the three "unworthy craftsmen" possess many of the same contradictory traits.

In Act Two, Scene Three, Shakespeare presents a subtle analogy to a fragment of the Hiram story. According to the ritual, confusion erupted among Hiram's architects after his murder, for only the Grand Master knew the location of the building's plans. Without these the architects could not finish constructing the Temple of Solomon, which was to have been the masterpiece of Hiram Abiff. Instead it remained half-completed for a long time, and eventually deteriorated into ruins. It was not to be finished until years later, by architects who had no knowledge of Abiffs original intentions. Essentially, the life had been stolen from the building by the "unworthy craftsmen."

Similarly, confusion abounds when the noblemen learn about the death of King Duncan. In feigned surprise Macbeth yells "horror" three times in a row, followed by these lines:

"Confusion now hath made his masterpiece: Most sacrilegious murder hath broke open The Lord's annointed temple and stole thence The life o' th' building!" (1118)

The parallels between the Abiff legend and these lines are obvious. Shakespeare further extends the Abiff metaphor only a few lines later when Macbeth describes what the King looked like in death:

"His silver skin laced with his golden blood; And his gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature For ruin's wasteful entrance." (1118)

Of course, silver and gold are colors respectively attributed to the moon and the sun, both of which are prominent alchemical symbols. According to Albert Pike they also "correspond to the two columns of the [Masonic] Temple, Jachin and Boaz" (776). Reinforcing this connection, Shakespeare uses an evocative simile to describe Duncan's wounds. The word "ruin's" brings to mind the dilapidated state of an old building - no doubt the unfinished "anointed temple" of Solomon.

Perhaps the most blatant parallel between the death of Abiff and Shakespeare's tragedy occurs during the next murder scene. Haunted by the witches' prophecy that Banquo would be "father to a line of Kings," Macbeth hires a pair of assassins to exterminate Banquo and his son Fleance. In the following scene, this pair mysteriously transforms into a trio. To the uninitiated this might seem like a discrepancy. However, after all the evidence presented so far it becomes obvious that Shakespeare is purposely waving a red flag in order to attract the reader's attention to this "irrelevant" detail. For the Bard's "fellows" it would have been immediately obvious that the three assassins were to be associated with Jubela, Jubelo, and Jubelum. Certainly it's no coincidence that the assassins kill Banquo in Act Three, Scene Three. As stated before, there are thirty-three degrees in Freemasonry. To underscore the symbolism, Shakespeare begins the very next scene with these words, "You know your own degrees" (1122).

In scenes like these Shakespeare is constantly toying with figure and ground. The figure is the plot itself, while the ground is the mystical symbolism fueling the direction of the plot. For example, on the surface "You know your own degrees" simply refers to the revelers at Macbeth's banquet measuring how much they can eat and drink, but beneath the surface lurks the true, symbolical meaning. Another example of this occurs in this very same banquet scene when one of "night's black agents" returns to inform Macbeth of Banquo's murder. To Macbeth's question, "Is he dispatched?" the assassin replies, "My lord, his throat is cut: / That I did for him." Relieved, Macbeth says, "Thou are the best o' th' cutthroats" (1122). The figure here is a mere plot device, a continuation of Macbeth's killing spree. The ground is something quite different, a subtle reference to the oath of the first degree in which the slitting of the throat plays a significant role (Morgan, 22).  

Like light melding with shadow, figure and ground perform a delicate dance throughout the entire play. Sometimes, however, the symbolism subsumes both figure and ground. When Macbeth confronts the witches a second time, for example! he is assailed by three apparitions. These apparitions cannot be interpreted on a rational, surface level. The first one, described as "an Armed Head," is clearly symbolic of the first Sephiroth of the Kabalah. As Albert Pikehas written, "First of these [ten Sephiroth], in each, is Kether, the Crown, ring, or circlet, the HEAD" (768). Freemasons believe that Hiram Abiff's 'Word," lost upon his death, can only be found "in certain great texts known to scholars under the generic name of Kabalah" (Waite, 417). The search for the Lost Word is a central goal of Freemasonry.

The second and third apparitions are inextricably tied together. The second takes the form of a bloody child, while the third appears as "a Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand" (1126). This recalls the Mysteries of Samothrace, one of many ancient cults upon which the Freemasons based their hierarchical system of degrees. On the island of Samothrace very young children were initiated into the Mysteries. They were presented with the sacred robe, the crown of olive, and directed to sit upon a throne. Pike describes the details:

In the ceremonies was represented the death of the youngest of the Cabiri, slain by his brothers, who fled into Etruria, carrying with them the chest or ark that contained his genitals: and there the Phallus and the sacred ark were adored. Herodotus says that the Samothracian Initiates understood the object and origin of this reverence paid the Phallus, and why it was exhibited in the Mysteries (427).

The second apparition represents the object of the mimed ritualistic sacrifice, the Hiram Abiff of the Samothracian Mysteries, while the third is to be identified with the Initiate himself, holding aloft a tree that is both phallic and reminiscent of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, thus connecting the final apparition with the first. Of all the symbols in Macbeth these are the most overt, and at the same time the most obscure. Appropriate for a play filled with paradoxes.

The preceding has merely been a brief fraction of the Masonic symbolism that can be found in Macbeth. Any of these examples viewed in isolation would not mean much. However, as in alchemy, when the various elements are combined, something strange and unexpected rises to the surface. Though new, one feels as if it has always been there, just out of sight.

The idea of Shakespeare having been a Freemason will probably be a controversial theory to literary scholars, but then again anything not generally known since before the Cretaceous Period is controversial to literary scholars. Meanwhile, most mainstream historians believe that Freemasonry was founded in 1717, long after Shakespeare's death. Other, more esoteric authors trace the origins of the Brotherhood all the way back to Ancient Egypt. True or not, neither theory erases the fact that obvious Masonic symbolism is woven into the tragedy of Macbeth, written o,'er a hundred years before traditional history says that such symbolism ever existed.


Works Cited

Dodd, Alfred. Shakespeare: Creator of Freemasonry. London: Rider & Co., 1933.

Downward, James Shelby. "The Call to Chaos." In Parfrey, Adam (ed.). Apocalypse Culture. Portland: Feral House, 1990.307-27.

"Sorcery, Sex, Assassination and the Science of Symbolism." In Keith, Jim (ed.). Secret and Suppressed: Banned Ideas & Hidden History. Portland: Feral House, 1993. 59-92.

Knight, Stephen. The Brotherhood. New York: Dorset Press, 1986.

Morgan, William. Illustrations of Masonry. Batvia, NY: Miller, 1827. Pike, Albert. Morals and Dogma. Richmond: L.H. Jenkins Inc., 1948.

Robinson, John J. Born in Blood. New York: M. Evans & Co., 1989.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. In Harbage, Alfred (ed. Pelican Shakespeare. New York: Viking, 1977.

Waite, Arthur Edward. A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry. New York: Weathervane Books, 1970.