Someone Smoked Cannabis in Shakespeare's Backyard, Say Researchers

Posted on August 10, 2015

In a new article published in the South African Journal of Science, scientists reported the results of extensive testing on pipes that were found in the backyard of William Shakespeare's home in Stratford-on-Avon. The test results showed that someone was smoking cannabis and Peruvian cocaine from coca leaves.

The scientists used a non-destructive chemical and forensic analysis at the state of the art narcotics lab owned by the South African Police. Francis Thackeray, a professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute of the Witwatersand, Professor Nicholas van der Merwe of the University of Cape Town, and Inspector Tommy van der Merwe performed gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) on the pipe bowls and stems. Professor Thackeray had obtained the pipe bowls and stems on loan from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. The items had been excavated from different areas in Stratford-upon-Avon. Two of them came straight from the Bard's garden. The pipes dated from the early 17th century and were made of clay.

There were 24 pipe fragments. Eight of the samples indicated cannabis residue was present. Nicotine from the type of tobacco leaves from the New World brought back by Sir Walter Raleigh were found in one samples. Two of the samples contained evidence of Peruvian cocaine made from the type of coca leaves brought back from Peru by Sir Francis Drake.

Professor Thackery claims that he has found two references in Shakespeare's works referring to the inhalation of cannabis and/or cocaine. Sonnet 76 has a line about "invention in a noted weed" which Thackeray says means Shakespeare used cannabis to boost his creativity for writing.

Sonnet 76 is Shakespeare writing to his critics and rival poets who accused him of writing the same thing over and over and never trying any new poetic forms or techniques. It is part of a series. Professor Thackeray says that "compounds strange" in line four refers to cocaine, which Shakespeare did not like at all. But "compounds strange" is generally accepted as meaning new and unusual ways of using meter and rhythm in poetry or unusual word play, not drugs.

He says the Bard preferred cannabis, as in line 6 when he talks about why he "keeps invention in a noted weed." But the usual reading of this line is that "noted weed" means "the same fashion" or "the same old style of clothes."

Here is the sonnet:

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?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted 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.

We think Thackeray is really stretching here. We don't see Shakespeare talking about drugs at all in this sonnet. As for the lab evidence, it is purely circumstantial. These claims came up a decade ago and scholars dismissed them as ridiculous. Even if someone did smoke cannabis in Shakespeare's backyard, it doesn't mean Shakespeare was the smoker.

Pretty much all men smoked something during that time period as there were reports of Shakespeare's plays being presented in rooms that were full of pipe smoke. Apparently there was quite a bit of variation in what was in those pipes. That is what the evidence shows. Nothing more.

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