Were the works of Shakespeare inspired by Cannabis? Scientists find traces of drugs on pipes
Were the globally renowned literary works of the master playwright himself written with a little inspiration from drugs? That is the question posed by South African scientists who studied tobacco pipes from Shakespeare’s home and found traces of cannabis.
Shakespeare, an influential figure of Elizabethan England, is known for his plays and sonnets, and is considered to be the most famous writer of the English language.
400-year-old Pipes of the Playwright
A grouping of 17 th century tobacco pipe pieces were found at William Shakespeare’s historic property in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. The pipe fragments were examined by anthropologists and botanists using sophisticated forensic methods, and researchers detected cannabis on eight of the fragments — four of which were excavated directly from the Bard’s garden, according to TIME.
John Shakespeare's house, believed to be Shakespeare's birthplace, in Stratford-upon-Avon. (CC BY 2.0)
The analysis, published in the South African Journal of Science, speaks on the chemical tests done on the clay pipes—a technique called gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS). These non-destructive chemical tests revealed traces of drugs on the pipe bowls and stems, including: cocaine, hallucinogens, and compounds created by the burning of cannabis.
The pipe fragments from Shakespeare’s garden contained traces of cannabis, while the other pipe pieces revealing residues of Peruvian cocaine and other drugs were from a different location.
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Mysterious Messages of ‘Compounds Strange’
Study author and anthropologist Francis Thackeray of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa suggests that Shakespeare may have referred to drug use in some of his works.
Thackeray points to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76, which reads: “Why with the time do I not glance aside / To new-found methods, and to compounds strange? / Why write I still all one, ever the same, / And keep invention in a noted weed...”
Title page from 1609 edition of Shake-Speares Sonnets. Public Domain
The ‘noted weed’ might be interpreted to mean that the playwright was “willing to use ‘weed’ (Cannabis as a kind of tobacco) for creative writing (‘invention’),” says Thackeray.
He continues, “In the same sonnet it appears that he would prefer not to be associated with ‘compounds strange’, which can be interpreted, at least potentially, to mean ’strange drugs’ (possibly cocaine).”
In this the researchers believe Shakespeare might have been fully aware of the pernicious effects of cocaine, and dismissed it, preferring cannabis as a stimulant instead.
Digging up the Truth
News magazine The Wire reports that Francis Thackeray once sought to exhume Shakespeare’s skeleton in an attempt to determine the cause of death (which remains mysterious), and perhaps glean more information on his potential drug habits in a forensic and non-destructive manner. Any grooves found between the canine and incisor teeth might reveal to researchers if he was chewing on a pipe as well as smoking from it.
The exhumation did not happen, and just as well, for William Shakespeare is said to have had a strong obsession with burial, and a fear of exhumation. He tried to ensure his bones would lay restfully by having a warning carved into his tombstone: “Blessed be the man that spares these stones/ And cursed be he that moves my bones”.
Is the accusation of drug use by Shakespeare much ado about nothing? Certainly drug use throughout the ages, including 17 th century England, is not such a shocking revelation.
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The forensics tell the tale of the diversity of plants that were smoked in Elizabethan England, but since the pipes cannot be conclusively tied to the Bard himself, the question of whether William Shakespeare used cannabis to inspire his writings remains speculation. On the other hand, study author Thackeray has been arguing this perspective for more than a decade, and has attracted some derision from Shakespearean scholars. They “dismissed the suggestions that the author's genius was fueled by drugs,” reports The Telegraph.
Thackeray and his colleagues appeal to the historians, noting that “Literary analyses and chemical science can be mutually beneficial, bringing the arts and the sciences together in an effort to better understand Shakespeare and his contemporaries.”
Shakespeare's funerary monument in Stratford-upon-Avon. Public Domain
Featured Image: The Cobbe portrait, claimed to be a portrait of William Shakespeare done while he was alive. Circa 1610. / Cannabis leaf, deriv.
Cited study: Thackeray F. Shakespeare, plants, and chemical analysis of early 17th century clay ‘tobacco’ pipes from Europe. S Afr J Sci. 2015;111(7/8), Art. #a0115, 2 pages. http://dx.doi. org/10.17159/sajs.2015/a0115
By Liz Leafloor