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Was Shakespeare a Weed Smoker?


Image credit: A portrait of Shakespeare from 1610. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons.

The use of cannabis has been going on for thousand years. Only at the beginning of 20th century, it had been criminalized in the U.K. and many other countries. Therefore, its use was thought to be naturally accepted before then.

However, it might be quite interesting that some important English writings could be affected by such notorious drug. Based on some research, it is suggested that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) might be the cannabis smoker, which could be supported by some excerpts from his writing.

The forensic analysis had been done by a group of South African researchers on tobacco pipes unearthed from Stratford-upon-Avon, including Shakespeare’s garden. These pipes were four hundred years old. From their analysis, they discovered that of the 24 fragments of pipe, eight were found with traces of cannabis, four of which belonged to the family of the Shakespeare. Although two were also found with traces of cocaine, these were not discovered on his own property. So it is believed that Shakespeare had never used cocaine in his time.

The findings released by Francis Thackeray and his team from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, are not new, because the research was implemented in 2000, however it was republished in the the latest edition of South African Journal of Science owing to the debate on whether Shakespeare was cannabis smoker was restarted over an article published by Country Life and the author was Mark Griffiths.

It was suggested by Griffiths that Shakespeare had written a play called “A Country Controversy”, in which he had referred  to an herb ” which maketh time itself wither with sondering.”

Talking with IFL Science, Thackeray said that he thought such mysterious reference was meant cannabis, because it was well-known that cannabis was quite effective in making time ‘slow down’, which was always perceived by a cannabis smoker.

It is the technique called gas chromatography mass spectrometry that was applied to trace the content of narcotics in the initial forensic study. Such technique was capable of detecting them even after quite a long period of time.

As Thackeray said, according to chemical analyses of residues in early 17th-century clay, it was thought that the various kinds of plants had been smoked in Europe. Such study would be much helpful to both literary analyses and chemical science so as to combine the arts with the sciences together, thus making efforts to have a better understanding of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

This has also been tried to avoid answering the question whether the Shakespeare’s plays were performed in Elizabethan England in a smoke-filled confusion?

If reviewing some work written by Shakespeare, a few clues appeared to be found with implication what he had been affected in that regard. Based on the article from As Shakespeare-Online , it is said that his Sonnet 76 had allusion of using “a noted weed” for “invention” (writing), however, he did shy away from “compounds strange,” which might be the reference to cocaine.

Even if we are not sure of the true facts, from such findings it is somehow suggested that in the course of writing some of his 38 plays and 154 sonnets Shakespeare might have been helped with sort of assistance.