The greatest playwright of all time may have been high when he wrote his most famous plays. According to a 2001 study, researchers detected traces of cannabis in pipes belonging to William Shakespeare[i].
This discovery does not automatically prove that the famous Bardo smoked weed, but it does suggest that he had access to cannabis.
References to cannabis in Shakespeare
The study authors say they decided to analyze the remains of Shakespeare’s pipe after being intrigued by some of his writing. Sonnet 76, for example, speaks of “invention in a notorious herb,” which may refer to the use of cannabis to enhance creativity.
Shakespeare mentions an aversion to “strange compounds” in the same play, but the researchers believe this phrase refers to cocaine. Therefore, they interpret these two expressions to mean that Shakespeare preferred cannabis to cocaine.
That Shakespeare made reference to cannabis and cocaine in his writing is not surprising, as both came to the UK during his lifetime. Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake, both contemporaries of Shakespeare, brought coca leaves and cannabis plants to England from their travels around the world.
Cannabis found in pipes belonging to Shakespeare
The study authors obtained 24 pipe fragments from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to determine whether the great writer smoked marijuana. Some of these pipes came from the garden of Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon, while others came from nearby properties.
Using a very sensitive technique called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, the researchers discovered the presence of several interesting compounds.
Two pipes contained traces of cocaine, but none of them came from Shakespeare’s garden. However, four pipes unearthed from William Shakespeare’s home contained residue suggesting the presence of cannabis.
Some of the bowls and stems of the pipes contained exotic drugs such as Chinese camphor and myristic acid, the latter indicating that someone may have smoked nutmeg. The researchers also detected hallucinogenic compounds such as borneol, which comes from a plant that grows in the jungles of Borneo.
The presence of these chemicals does not prove that Shakespeare smoked cannabis or any other substance. However, these findings do confirm that several people in his home and surroundings used psychoactive plants during their lifetime.
“We do not assume that any of the bowls and stems were from pipes used by Shakespeare,” write the study authors. “However, this study supports the suggestion that at least one hallucinogen was accessible in England in the 17th century and may have been used by the writer.”
Much ado about nothing (sorry, had to put one in). If you can think of any other, please comment below.
[i] Thackeray JF, Van der Merwe NJ, Van der Merwe TA. Chemical analysis of residues from seventeenth-century clay pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon and environs: research in action. South African Journal of Science. 2001 Jan 1;97(1):19-21. – https://journals.co.za/doi/pdf/10.10520/EJC97282