Shakespeare and marijuana: important discovery or silly speculation?

Some scholars suggest that the Bard may have smoked marijuana for inspiration, but others are skeptical. 

AP Photo/VisitBritain
A monument to William Shakespeare in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey in London.

What do William Shakespeare and The Dude have in common? More than you might think, claims a recent report in the South African Journal of Science.

In an analysis of findings originally unearthed in 2001, Professor Francis Thackeray of the University of Witwatersrand suggests that the Bard may have been fond of marijuana. An investigation of residue found in early 17th-century tobacco pipes excavated in Stratford-upon-Avon, near Shakespeare’s home, found traces of cannabis and nicotine. Several of these pipes are said to have come from the renowned playwright’s garden. 

These findings don’t prove that Shakespeare used marijuana or even that the pipes found in his garden belonged to him. But the discovery has led Dr. Thackeray to speculate nonetheless. 

To support this theory, Thackeray points out a line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76, in which the playwright mentions “invention in a noted weed.” This could be interpreted to mean that Shakespeare used marijuana for creative writing, or “invention,” purposes, Dr. Thackeray suggests in an article for The Independent. 

Other scholars are skeptical. 

"I suppose it's remotely possible that Shakespeare and his family were getting a buzz from what they were smoking, but I very much doubt that it played any meaningful role in his life,” Stephen Greenblatt, professor of English at Harvard University, told Harvard Magazine when the discovery was first announced in 2001. "Alcohol is a much more likely stimulant for Shakespeare's imagination, and even that is probably unimportant.”  

James Shapiro, author of the forthcoming Shakespeare biography “The Year of Lear,” describes Thackeray’s interpretation of Sonnet 76 as a “twisted and bad misreading” that “would earn a C+ in a college class.” 

In Sonnet 76, Shakespeare is writing about his struggle to find new ways to praise the woman he loves, Dr. Shapiro explains in a phone interview. The term “noted weed” is widely accepted by literary scholars as referring to a style of clothing, and in this context, Shakespeare is using the phrase to talk about “dressing up” his language. 

Furthermore, Dr. Shapiro adds, while Shakespeare would no doubt have been familiar with cannabis from reading John Gerard’s "Herball," a widely circulated botany encyclopedia, marijuana was known at the time for its value in curing ear aches and helping hens "lay eggs more plentifully” – not for giving people a high.  

In other words, it’s unlikely that the Bard actually toked up for inspiration. So why has the idea surfaced time and again over the past decade, making headlines every time?  

“It’s really hard to explain the nature of genius,” Shapiro offers as an explanation. “Nobody wants to read about Shakespeare working 18 hours a day, day in and day out. That’s not romantic … but that’s the reality.”  

“If you ask me what’s extraordinary about Shakespeare’s productivity, it’s what he didn’t use,” he adds. “Neither tea nor coffee was available. No double espresso. Forget about the weed.” 

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