Was William Shakespeare a Pothead?

By May Wilkerson 08/10/15

Traces of cannabis, tobacco, and even cocaine were found in pipes owned by The Bard.

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William Shakespeare
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Was William Shakespeare high while writing some of the English language's greatest works? That is the question.

It’s not hard to imagine the renowned playwright toking up before writing such mind-bending soliloquies as Hamlet’s famous “to be, or not to be” speech. According to new findings from a group of South African scientists, this may not be far off. The researchers allegedly found tracings of cannabis on a collection of clay pipes excavated from Shakespeare’s historic home in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

They found 24 pipes in total, dating from the early 17th century, in Shakespeare’s garden and neighboring homes. Using a process called “gas chromatography mass spectrometry,” scientists discovered traces of cannabis on eight pipes, traces of nicotine on one, and traces of cocaine on two. Four of the pipes containing cannabis were found on Shakespeare's property.

Early 17th-century Englishmen, like Shakespeare, were known to use various kinds of tobacco, according to study lead Professor Francis Thackeray of the University of Witwatersrand. Explorers Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake may have imported these early specimens of nicotine and coca leaves from the Americas during their explorations.

This isn’t the first time Thackeray has investigated Shakespeare's possible use of mind-altering drugs. In 1999, he wrote a paper titled, "Hemp as a source of inspiration for Shakespearean literature?"

While there is no conclusive evidence that the Bard actually got high off his own supply, Thackeray has looked to some of his sonnets for clues. "In Sonnet 76 Shakespeare writes about 'invention in a noted weed.' This can be interpreted to mean that Shakespeare was willing to use 'weed' (cannabis as a kind of tobacco) for creative writing ('invention'),” he writes. "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)."

Sounds pretty plausible. But even if Shakespeare wasn’t smoking himself up, Thackeray notes that he likely was exposed to some secondhand smoke while Elizabethan gentry puffed away during performances of his plays.

"One can well imagine the scenario in which Shakespeare performed his plays in the court of Queen Elizabeth, in the company of Drake, Raleigh and others who smoked clay pipes filled with 'tobacco,'" he writes.

Maybe Hamlet really was just being paranoid.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.

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