Shakespeare as a stoner? All smoke & no substance

Were herbs to blame for this play?
Were herbs to blame for this play?

By now you’ve undoubtedly have heard the news: Pipes from Shakespeare’s property have been found to contain cannabis! Shakespeare was a stoner! If you haven’t heard, here’s a snippet from the Telegraph:

South African scientists have discovered that 400-year-old tobacco pipes excavated from the garden of William Shakespeare contained cannabis, suggesting the playwright might have written some of his famous works while high. Residue from early 17th century clay pipes found in the playwright’s garden, and elsewhere in Stratford-Upon-Avon, were analyzed in Pretoria using a sophisticated technique called gas chromatography mass spectrometry, the Independent reports. Of the 24 fragments of pipe loaned from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to University of the Witwatersrand, cannabis was found in eight samples, four of which came from Shakespeare’s property.

The author of the piece goes on to suggest Shakespeare must have smoked weed while writing his plays. She even finds “evidence” in sonnet 76.

Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange? (She seems to think he is talking about cocaine)
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,(Ah, he must be high on weed!)
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

I will admit the line about “noted weed” is unclear, but I don’t see what she sees. I read a sonnet about the poet’s answer to those who question his writing skills, and possibly a charge of repurposing older works. He retorts back, “From time to time, don’t I look for new methods and strange (different/ new) compounds”? Shakespeare is suggesting his work is fresh, even as his themes are old. Love is an old theme, yet he ‘dresses old words new”. Shakespeare compares the sun to his work; each day the same sun comes up, yet each day is new. Doesn’t sound like a guy who is high or talking about getting high. Sounds more like a man who doesn’t take criticism lying down. The author of the Telegraph piece may have tried a little too hard to prove her point. Of course she is not the only one. Several “scholars’ have come forward with evidence hidden in the plays.

How about we talk about the pipes and the fact surrounding them. Let’s say the date of the cannabis is accurate, give or take just a few years. This makes the weed roughly 400 years old. Given that Shakespeare was born 450 years ago, we would have to assume that if they belonged to him ( and we don’t know that they did) this would mean he smoked weed in his fifties. Of course, this could also mean this was the last of his weed, and maybe he’d been smoking the stuff for most of his adult life. Maybe… But…

Just because the pipes were found on Shakespeare’s property, doesn’t mean they were his pipes. Here is what we do know, or at least have been told:

The study, published in the South African Journal of Science, examined 24 pipe fragments from the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Shakespeare lived. Some had been excavated from Shakespeare’s garden. Using advanced gas chromatography methods, researchers detected cannabis on eight fragments — four of which were confirmed as from the Bard’s garden, the Telegraph reports. Evidence of Peruvian cocaine was found on two others, though they were not from the same property. Times

Okay, so some pipes, (obviously not ones that anyone treasured, why else be tossed?), were found in Shakespeare’s garden. Humm.. Who else lived at Stratford? Ah, yes, Anne his wife, his two daughters, and after his death, one of his son-in-laws. Could the pipes belong to one of them? How about servants or farm hands? Could they have smoked weed out of cheap, easily discarded clay pipes? How about friends? What if Shakespeare held parties (he did have the biggest estate in the area, I bet he held a lot of parties) and had friends who smoked weed from time to time? How about neighboring teenagers? Today’s teens spend hours looking for a safe, undetected place to smoke some pot. Could the same be true of 16th century teens? Shakespeare’s large garden may have attracted silent late night visitors looking to get high. Perhaps they were caught and threw the pipes down as they tried to maintain some semblance of innocence (okay, that was me and two friends once. Sorry, I digress). But the point its, it could have happened.

All of the suspects listed above are based purely on conjecture. Just as is the suggestion that Shakespeare smoked and wrote about weed. Once again we are faced with a few facts taken widely out of context. We don’t know who threw the pipes in the garden or if they were thrown in the garden at all.

Here’s another idea. What if Shakespeare ordered some soil for his garden? He may have asked a local farmer for some fertilizer. What if a cart full of soil, which just happened to contain discarded pipes, happened to find its way into Shakespeare’s garden? Considering 16th century society had little regard for where their rubbish landed, it shouldn’t be hard to image that carts of garden soil might contain refuse. Once again, this is conjecture, oh, but it’s fun to speculate!

Shakespeare at Tobacco Factory As You Like It by William Shakespeare Directed by Andrew Hilton  Cast  Orlando                            Jack Wharrier Adam                               Paul Nicholson Oliver                               Matthew Thomas Charles & William             Peter Basham Celia                                 Daisy May Rosalind                            Dorothea Myer-Bennett Touchstone                       Vic Llewellyn Le Beau & Martext             Vincenzo Pellegrino Dukes Frederick & Senior   Christopher Bianchi Amiens                              Offue Okegbe Corin                                  Alan Coveney Silvius                                Ben Tolley Jaques                               Paul Currier Audrey                               Hannah Lee Phebe                                Sophie Whittaker Production Director                           Andrew Hilton Assistant Director          Nicholas Finegan Designer                         Harriet de Winton Music                               Elizabeth Purnell
Shakespeare at Tobacco Factory
As You Like It

But none of my ideas are any less credible than thinking these pipes are the smoking gun (or, smoking pipe) evidence that Shakespeare was high while he wrote. And if he did, who cares? It’s the work that matters, not how he achieved it. Come to think of it, a very high Shakespeare could explain a lot of silly, loose plots, it could certainly explain Dogberry or Touchstone. The point is, we have no facts to back up these claims, only a lot of questions. Whose pipes were these, why were they found discarded, and most importantly, does it matter?

Until we find 400 year old pipes with Shakespeare initials on them, or an ode to weed, written by him, I will withhold judgment. There are too many characters in this drama that had the means and motive to smoke cannabis. Living in 16th century plague ridden, garbage infested England would make anyone want to get high.

It drives me nuts when new “evidence” brings out wanna-be Sherlocks, who think they can deduce something concrete about Shakespeare. Just because he used the words “weed” and “compounds strange” they point and claim proof Shakespeare was a stoner. Surly some of them must be high.

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

12 thoughts on “Shakespeare as a stoner? All smoke & no substance”

  1. Strangely, I’d not heard about this until you mentioned it, Sari, but what a load of cobblers these reporters write for publication! They add 2 and 2 together to come up with 5, knowing that too many readers will swallow it hook, line and sinker and think ‘there must be something in it!’

    It would be interesting to know what medical uses cannabis was put to, and if Shakespeare’s son-in-law Dr John Hall ever prescribed it. And do we know if Will ever smoked or approved if it? Does he ever explicitly mention it? We know James I inveighed against it as much as others praised it and wrote songs about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You ask some very good questions. I wondered about the medical angle but don’t recall ever reading about it us as medicine. It is possible Shakespeare’s son-in-law prescribed it for someone who lived at the house. I didn’t know about James I. Now I want to look this up.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I find (UK Cannabis Internet Activist) that in 1563Queen Elizabeth I decreed that land owners with 60 acres or more must grow Cannabis else face a £5 fine. (I assume this was for the manufacture of paper or maybe rope, which is what hemp was known for.) In1564 Philip of Spain followed the lead of Elizabeth and ordered Cannabis to be grown throughout his Empire from modern-day Argentina to Oregon, and in 1606 the British took Cannabis to Canada to be cultivated mainly for maritime uses.
        The use of cannabis is best known for its use in Moslem countries (Muhammed apparently condoned cannabis while condemning alcohol), especially the Order of Assassins, who supposedly derive their name from hashish.

        I further find that cannabis sativa is useful in countering depression while cannabis indica (“Indian hemp”) helps as a muscle relaxant.

        Don’t know which strain was in those clay pipes …

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for the info Chris! It makes sense that someone in the household might be depressed. I vote for Ann. Her husband was rarely around and she lost a child. It would be interesting if they come up with the strain that was in the pipes. It might go a long way in explaining what was going on.

        Like

  2. Well, now we know how Bohemia acquired its coastline. Or maybe that was Shakespeare’s less-well-known use of LSD several centuries before it was discovered. Though we musn’t discount the theory that Shakespeare was relating a sexual encounter with an extraterrestrial in his depiction of Titania.

    Of course, we’ll have a smoking gun (er, pipe) if someone uncovers a huge takeout order for munchies in Shakespeare’s name.

    Liked by 1 person

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