The Secret Alchemy of Shakespeare

The question has often been asked whether William Shakespeare was in any sense an Alchemist or whether he was a member of the Rosicrucian Order or a member of some Masonic Lodge. In his plays and poetry a great number of references to the art and science of alchemy, chronology, astrology, cabalistic magic  and knowledge of the occult prevails which many academics and laymen often over-look or possibly ignore as being trivial and insignificant. In a previous article (Shakespeare’s Codename) I have already explored the esoteric nature of the pseudonym which in time came to define the author’s secret role in Elizabethan England (See “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”). On closer examination it seems he was not the only poet and playwright to explore or expound on the art of Alchemy so prevalent in that age. We might easily turn to Reginald Scot’s “Discovery of Witchcraft” (1584) or to Ben Jonson’s cynical play The Alchemist (1610), or his masque Mercury Vindicated From the Alchemists, perhaps Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus or John Lyly’s Gallathea. What preceded them was the first known treatise on the subject in England by Ripley entitled The Compound of Alchymy (1591), written during the reign of Edward IVth and printed with a dedication to Queen Elizabeth when printed (1591) which Shakespeare might have had at his disposal. In actual fact if we turn to the first play in the 1623 Folio, The Tempest we detect the first reference to alchemy by Alonso in Act 5, scene 1:

See also: Shakespeare’s Astrology and Shakespeare’s Cosmology

And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they
Find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em?
How camest thou in this pickle?

The “grand liquor” is of course the aqua vitae of the alchemist, a watery equivalent of the lapis philosophorum (Philosopher’s Stone) which restores vitality of the body and prolongs life. However, the practice of Alchemy per se was thought to be questionable especially by numerous victims of alchemical charlatans who promised great returns for their financial investments. The curative and medicinal properties of gold are mentioned by King Phillip in Shakespeare’s King John, Act 3 scene 1:

The glorious sun stays in his course and plays the alchemist, turning with splendour of his precious eye the meagre cloddy earth to glittering gold.

In sonnet 33 again we find reference to the alchemy of gold:

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy.

A direct metaphorical reference can be found in Timon of Athens towards poets and painters being akin to “alchemists”:

Hence! Pack! There’s gold; ye came for gold, ye slaves: you are an alchemist, make gold of that;

And in Julius Caesar when Casca describes the moral character of Brutus:

And that which would appear offence in us,
His countenance, like richest alchemy, will change to virtue and to worthiness.

The gilding of copper coins to resemble gold was a common practice by those villains masquerading as professional alchemists. In fact as early as 1456 the Crown offered a special licence granted to those who professed to be able to turn prime matter into pure gold such was the widespread and common belief in the wonders of alchemy. In July 14th 1565 Cornelius Alvetanus (aka: A. De Lannoy) who was endorsed by the Crown to produce 50,000 marks of gold annually dedicated his treatise on Alchemy entitled Theatrum Chemicum. However when he was commissioned by the exiled Princess Cecilia, the daughter of Gustavus 1st of Sweden to produce the same service Queen Elizabeth became enraged and forbade the alchemist from any such arrangement. His attempt to elope back to Europe was thwarted and he was duly arrested. There were of course serious practitioners of the alchemical art who understood the terminology was merely symbolic or allegorical such as for example Robert Fludd, the Wizard Earl Henry Percy, Dr. John Dee and the poet and astrologer John Florio.

In his treatise “Elias the Artist”, the occultist Phillipus Paracelsus prophesised in an allegorical sense the emergence in the 16th century of a great wisdom imbued with enormous creative potential that would arrive like a messenger from God (ie: the biblical Elijah). This creative genius would prepare the way for the second coming (Christ as a Phoenix) and the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon. Similarly, the astronomer Tycho Brahe predicted that a supernova in the constellation of Cassiopeia (Lady on her Throne) would shine brighter than Venus for over 3 years (1572-5) signalling the advent of a Golden Age in England. This would be followed by a great planetary conjunction, in the sign of Sagittarius of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn occurring every 400-800 years. The occultist Robert Fludd thought it defined the inevitable emergence of Rosicrucianism in England after the exhumation of the tomb of Christian Rosencreutz its’ founder in Germany (1602-3). In fact Rosicrucianism would secretly permeate Sir Walter Raleigh’s “School of Night”, The Order of Garter Knights, and The Order of Freemasonry whose Secretary was the statesman, writer and intelligencer, Sir Francis Bacon. Francis Bacon was reputed to be the legitimate son of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley so was perceived like Christ to be the son of a virgin. Elizabeth was born under the sign of Virgo, (The Virgin) and was further propagandised as “Gloriana”, “Ourania”  and of course “The Fairie Queene” by the poet Edmund Spenser. This took place within the lifetime and death of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and the election of Sir Francis Bacon to edit and compile the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s work into one volume. His accomplices in this task John Heminges and Henry Condell actually failed in their initial enterprise leaving out Pericles, Prince of Tyre as well as Troillus & Cressida from their first edition. In actual fact Sir Francis Bacon also published his own work “The Advancement & Proficience of Learning” the following year followed by “The Great Instauration”. This signalled the beginning of the Society of the Brotherhood of the Golden Rosy Cross in England with its grand masters the Earl of Pembroke and the Earl of Montgomery (Shakespeare’s 1623 Folio dedication states: “To the Most Noble & Incomparable Paire of Brethren. Both Knights of the Most Noble Order of the Garter”).

Now the Rosicrucian Order had been founded by Michael Maier as early as 1570 in Germany where Anthony Bacon, Francis’ brother had worked as an intelligencer and spy for over a decade. In 1592 another supernova appeared coinciding with the publication of Shakespeare’s poem “Venus & Adonis” denoting the arrival of the Virgin Queen. In 1616 Although the doctrine of the Order was laid out in their original manuscript “Fama Fraternitatis, or the Discovery of the Most Noble Order of the Rosy Cross” in 1610 then finally printed in 1615 the Rosicrucian Order subsequently published a confession as follows:

The denunciation of the actor/stage hand William Shakspere by the Rosicrucian Society

“For conclusion of our Confession we must earnestly admonish you, that you cast away, if not all, yet most of the worthless books of pseudo chemists, to whom it is a jest to apply the Most Holy Trinity to vain things, or to deceive men with monstrous symbols and enigmas, or to profit by the curiosity of the credu-lous; our age doth produce many such, (most of the greatest being a STAGE PLAYER, a man with sufficient ingenuity for imposition.” (Chapter XII., “History of Rosicrucians.”)

Since then the advent of Rosicrucianism in the higher echelons of power was met with a mixture of derision and an element of disdain by playwrights and poets. However, in 1570 they became an officially public organisation or loose affiliation of brotherhoods that had developed secretly amongst much satire, suspicion and paranoia. Ben Jonson’s masque entitled “News of the New World discovered in the Moon” (1621) depicts the sect as a form of impractical lunacy;

“The children of the Rosy-Cross have their college within a mile of the moon; a castle on wheels with winged lantern”.

The main reason being that the Grandmaster of the society in Germany, Duke Gustavus Selenus, (aka: Augustus Luneberg) who attended the coronation of King James Ist, and inspired by the Abbot Trithemius’ own work (Stenographia 1606) published his book on the art and science of cryptography entitled “Cryptomenitices et Cryptographiae” in 1625. In the introductory poems the author is described as Homo Lunae or “The Man in the Moon” since his surname in Greek is synonymous with the Moon goddess Selene. Ben Jonson persisted in his broad satires with “The Fortunate Isles and their Union” which was performed at court on “Twelfth Night”, 1625 parodying Shakespeare’s own play Hamlet which has two characters named Guildenstern & Rosencrantz who are supposedly adherents of the order.

The depiction of the comet or meteor during Shakespeare’s life

Let us for a moment turn our attention to an early engraving endorsing the Rosicrucian Order which shows a strange building (presumed to be the Rosicrucian College) on wheels, with winged lantern on top and two star clusters in the upper left and right hand corners. It seems that in October 17th Joannes Kepler observed a new star bursting in the constellation Ophiucus (aka: Serpentarius) shining brighter than Jupiter. Formerly known to the Greeks and Romans as “the serpent bearer” it lies 27 degrees Scorpio to 27 degrees Sagittarius and named Asclepios after the son of the Greek god Apollo and Koronis (the crow). The star cluster is actually defined as a different asterism, Draco (the Dragon) whose “eye” was formerly the pole star but due to precession it was replaced by Polaris, the alpha of Ursa Minor (Stella Maris), the “navigation star” for mariners (see Richard Eden’s Arte of Navigation 1561). Robert Recorde wrote “the most northerly constellation is the lesser Beare, called Ursa Minoris…the chief marke whereby mariners govern their course in sailing by nighte”. Ptolemy likened its’ influence to a combination of Saturn and Venus, superstitious definitions connote “a poisonous evil”. Now the eye of the serpent actually closely orbits the pole star and in the top right hand is the constellation Cygnus (the Swan) which spans 28 degrees Capricorn to 28 degrees Pisces, formerly known in Christian times as the “Cross of Calvary” or Northern Cross which Ptolemy likened to a dreamy cultural influence. It is also linked with the myth of Leda & Zeus who transformed himself into a swan when visiting the wife of the Spartan King. Leda became pregnant as a result and laid an egg in which was formed the Twins Castor & Pollux as well as Helen of Troy. So the alpha of Serpentarius to the alpha of Ursa Minor (Polaris) to the alpha of Cygnus gives a 3-letter Masonic cipher code of “AAA”. The double and triple “A” as well as depictions of cherubic twins are found as decorative motifs in the preface of Shakespeare’s works, Venus & Adonis, Lucrece and the 1623 Folio of plays because they are “Masonic Symbols”.

Clearly there were numerous advantages to working secretly as an organisation in the Tudor Age when the whole of Europe was harangued with networks of intelligencers, spies and agents so the next stage in the development of Rosicrucianism was the election of its inner circle, the Grand Master and 12 officials along with a hegemonic system for its lesser aspirants to follow. The existence of this theatrical and literary “Janus” (a two-faced god) was again satirised in the anonymous play Return From Parnassus, and in a much later satire The Great Assizes Holden in Parnassus by Apollo and His Assessors (1645) by the satirical poet George Wither (1588-1667) who was himself a Puritan and patronised by the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Pembroke and Earl of Montgomery. He spent quite a number of years in prison for his satirical pamphlets including “Abuses Stript and Whipped” (1613). Mount Parnassus, in ancient Greece was the sacred home of the muses and the god of poetic inspiration Apollo and George Wither’s work parodies twelve poets as jurors/malefactors including himself as Britain’s Mercury;

  1. George Wither – Mercurius Britannicus
  2. Thomas Carey Mercurius Aulicus
  3. Thomas May – Mercurius Civicus
  4. William *Davenant – The Scout
  5. Josuah Sylvester – The writer of Diurnalls
  6. George Sands – The Intelligencer
  7. Michael Drayton – The writer of Occurrences
  8. Francis Beaumont – The writer of passages
  9. John Fletcher – The Post
  10. Thomas Heywood – The Spy
  11. William *Shakespeare The writer of weekly accounts
  12. Phillip Massinger – The Scottish Dove etc.

*The Oxfordshire poet, William Davenant is considered by several Stratfordians to be the illegitimate son of the actor William Shakespeare, and note that the Bard’s name is not hyphenated in this instance.

Among the “mock assessors” elected by the author in this excoriating satire are Lord Verulam (Sir Francis Bacon), Sir Phillip Sidney (Constable), William Budeus (High Treasurer), John Picus (High Chamberlain), and Julius Caesar Scalinger. Clearly, at this moment in time and from Wither’s literary, and one would assume well informed perspective, the idea that Sir Francis Bacon and William Shakespeare were one and the same did not exist otherwise they would not exist as separate characters. Alongside these illustrious names are transposed those renowned for their humanist ideals; Erasmus, Lipsius, John Barclay, John Bodine, Adrian Tenerus, etc. Finally, the list concludes with Joseph Scalinger (The Censor of Manners at Parnassus), Ben Jonson (The Keeper of the Trophonian Den), John Taylor (Chief Crier) and Edmund Spenser (Clerk of the Assizes).

In this biting send-up George Wither (1588-1667) describes twenty Elizabethan celebrities who are described as “Assessors” convened at Apollo’s court to judge the worthy and unworthy contributors to the birth of the English Renaissance. However, he only re-iterates the notion that William Shagspere of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire was merely a “mimic”, not a poet or playwright.

Along with Joseph Hall the dramatist John Marston criticised Shakespeare’s poetry (Venus & Adonis) in his own The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image (1598). He used the same euphemism “Labeo” as Joseph Hall and quoted from Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis (lines 199 and 200). In some sense this hidden reference could be seen as all part of the cut and thrust during the War of the Theatres.

So Labeo did complaine his love was stone
Obdurate, flinty, so relentless none;
Yet Lynceus knows that in the end of this
He wrought as a strange a metamorphosis.
Ends not my poem thus surprising ill?
Come, come, Augustus crowne my laureate quill.

But it does suggest that Hall and Marston knew something more about Shakespeare’s real character and identity and they were not afraid to say so. The poem suggests the author, like the cuttlefish hides behind a cloud of ink and that, should faith or fame be wronged, unlike other writers and poets, he could shift ownership or attribution of his work to another’s name. Meaning of course that the name of Shakespeare was a pseudonym employed by an anonymous author to avoid public attention or criticism unlike others who could not escape judgement or scrutiny.

The aristocrats of France, Germany and England were familiar with ceremonial rituals, their power of persuasion as works of art, and how they might provide a means of influencing the common folk as well as the body politic. The Elizabethan theatre provided just such a viable outlet or channel for these persuasive arguments.

The Parnassus Plays were produced at St. John’s College, Cambridge around 1600 and consist of The Pilgrimage to Parnassus and The Return to Parnassus, the latter composed of two parts, the second entitled The Scourge of Simony, they are thought to have been penned by John Day (1574-1640) who wrote plays for performance by the Children of the Revels, a company sponsored by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, the real author of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,