Shakespeare in cannabis. “To smoke or not to smoke. That is the question”
Even though cannabis was widely used for thousands of years in many countries, it wasn’t until the early 20th century when it became illegal in UK and the rest of the world. However, we know now that the prohibition didn’t mean the substance stopped being used, especially among artists and those who needed an extra dose of creativity.
Therefore, is not surprising to know that William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), the most important writer in English language, could have written some of his plays and sonnets under the influence of cannabis.
Researchers from South Africa, led by Thackeray and his team, did some forensic analysis on 400-year-old tobacco pipes that were dug up in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare lived. After digging under his garden, the team of investigators discovered 24 fragments of the pipes that the famous writer used. They discovered some traces of cannabis in eight fragments found in the old Shakespeare’s property.
Thackeray stated he was delighted to find indications of cannabis, although they cannot be completely sure Shakespeare smoked weed, the found pipes were from his garden.
The pipes are from the seventeenth century, a period when hemp was commonly used to produce rope, clothes and paper, and marijuana was mostly used for medical purposes. However, the finding of the pipes gives credibility to those who think people in Renaissance England used drugs for simple pleasure.
Moreover, the Bard’s use of drugs is not weird, taking into account the experimental nature of Elizabethan medicine. In fact, Thackeray and his team think that the writer used cannabis to improve his creativity.
We can imagine the scenario where Shakespeare performed his plays in the court of Queen Elizabeth, who liked to enjoy the performances with the company of some close friends such as Drake, who used to smoke clay pipes filled with “tobacco”. But, what type of tobacco? Because there were different types of tobacco in those days and some were made of different herbs, which could include cannabis. There are some literary indications of Shakespeare’s herbal predilections.
When we look at some of his famous sonnets, it is more than possible to get conclusions that suggest he could have written under the influence of cannabis. For example, when he writes the words “using a noted weed for writing”.
It has been assumed that the writer alluded to drugs in his work. His sonnet 27 says:
“Weary with toil I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind when body’s work’s expired.”
And in his sonnet 76 Shakespeare wrote:
“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…”
The “noted weed” could mean that the writer wanted to use “weed” (cannabis) to enhance his creativity (invention).
And his sonnet 118 says:
“Like as, to make our appetites more keen,
With eager compounds we our palate urge.”
What does the word “compounds” mean? Some researchers think is a clear reference to cannabis mixed with other substances.
The discoveries, which were led by Francis Thackeray of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, didn’t surprise the members of his team. Even though the discovery took place in 2000, it has been again reviewed in the South African Journal of Science, after the debate about if Shakespeare was a cannabis smoker restarted with an article written by Mark Griffiths in Country Life.
In his article Griffith indicates that the play named “A country controversy”, William Shakespeare wrote what it could be a reference to the herb with the words “an herb which make the time itself with sondering”. Griffith thinks the words seem to refer the way cannabis makes time to slow down for those who smoke cannabis.
The technique used with the fragments of the pipes is known as gas chromatography mass performance and it is able to detect very little traces of any substance after so many years. The analysis of the traces in the early 17th-century clay tobacco pipes is clear: different plants were smoked in those pipes, including cannabis. Pot was widely smoked in Europe in 17th century. And it was smoked by many contemporaries of the English writer.
Even though we cannot be completely sure about it, it seems Shakespeare could have used weed in order to get some inspiration to write his 38 plays and 154 sonnets. Anyway, if Shakespeare smoked cannabis to enhance his creativity, he would not be the only writer who did so.