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.

An Honest Liar…an honest review

photo-original

After hearing several of my most trusted podcaster friends talk about the new documentary on James Randi, I decided to watch it. Netflix is streaming “An Honest Liar”, so I added it to my list, made some popcorn, and turned it on. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, only that several like-minded friends recommended it. My friends may have enjoyed it, but I didn’t, for reasons I am still struggling with, so bear with me.

For those who don’t know, The Amazing Randi, is a magician/escape artist turned debunker. He is famous for debunking Uri Geller’s psychic spoon bending tricks, and faith healer Peter Popoff, who it turns out, was not hearing the voice of God, but that of his wife through a hidden earpiece. Randi’s life long quest was to expose fakes and frauds like these and for that I have enormous respect for the man.

The movie documents Randi’s role as a debunker and the lengths he would go to in order to flush out con artists and fakes. It was fascinating to see just how elaborate some of his debunking tactics were. Randi teamed up with Australia’s 60 Minutes program to demonstrate the gullibility of people and the media. Randi released a fake press package (that no one bothered to check), and by doing so built up publicity for a “spirit channeler” named “Carlos”. Carlos who was actually an artist named Jose Alvarez. Alvarez drew crowds with his paranormal channeling abilities. After a few weeks of touring Australia, Randi and Carlos explained the hoax to 60 Minutes. Randi proved people would believe just about anything given enough authority and credibility. This is still true today. Con artist and pseudoscience peddlers get away with their snake oils largely because the news media either ignores the obvious, or in the case of Doctor, Oz, actually feeds into people’s gullibility.

As I watched the movie, my admiration for Randi and the work that he did grew. As many of my readers know, some of my biggest frustrations are those who peddle pseudoscience, and unsupported “facts”. Those who make money off these types of endeavors are near the top of my worst people list; right below those who harm children, and animals for pleasure. Yet as the movie continued, I started to become depressed. You see, the more frauds and fakes Randi exposed, the more the masses seemed to turn on him. A hard truth hit me, people would rather believe in mystical abilities over scientific facts. No matter how much is at stake, people would rather take their chances with faith healing rather than Western medicine. To be far, it doesn’t start and end with religious beliefs. There is the willingness of otherwise smart people (usually woman) to have a herbal practitioner push a tube up their colon in order to “detoxify” rather than have a Western doctor place a camera in their same colon to check for precancerous polyps. As much as I think we need more people like Randi who are willing to expose myths and frauds, the movie showed me that my views might be in the minority.

This doesn’t mean that I will stop. You will still find me outing pseudoscience through my blog, and my own podcast, once I can find a co-host with a better science background than mine. But what I won’t continue to do is comment on friend’s Facebook posts and contribute to Internet conversations. If nothing else, “An Honest Liar “showed me the futility of trying to educate someone who didn’t ask for it. But this is not why I didn’t like the movie. It was the filmmaker’s agenda that bothered me. Or, maybe, I just didn’t get the director’s goal. Did he make the movie as a tribute to Randi, or as we learn late in the film, expose a “hoax” that Randi willingly participated in.

I don’t want to spoil the movie by giving the ending away, so it’s hard to fully explain why I’m torn. Randi is involved in something that admittedly does harm to a family, yet I am not sure the world needed to know about it. As I watched as the very painful and personal drama unfold, I kept asking myself, “Did I really need to know this? What good does it do to expose this very bad (but understandable) life choice?” For all of the good Randi has done for the world, I am not sure he deserved to have this exposed. On the other hand, maybe Randi has found some measure of peace now that it is out there. If I could have been convinced that this was the reason behind the director’s decision to include this, I would have liked the movie more. As it is, I was left feeling uncomfortable and sad. This is not a good way to end a movie about a man who devoted his life to exposing fakes who made millions off of desperate and gullible people. This is how I will remember Randi, who at 86 is now retired, not as someone who helped keep a personal hoax hidden. I just wish the director were a little more forthcoming with his agenda.