Did Shakespeare Smoke Weed?

To blaze, or not to blaze, that is the question.

Without a doubt, William Shakespeare is one of, if not the most, well known English writer of all time. Writing predominantly for theatre, Shakespeare's literary works are still performed around the world, still studied today in English classrooms and are used as inspiration for modern films.

But there is an air of mystery surrounding the famous Bard, and little is known of his life. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in England in 1564, but his exact birthdate is unknown. He married Anne Hathaway in a nearby town at the age of 18 and the pair had three children, although no direct descendants exist today.

Following the birth of their children, there is no further reference of Shakespeare's life until 1592, when he was referenced as an established actor and playwright in London. It is not known exactly how long he lived in London, or where he based himself. In 1597, he purchased the second largest building in his hometown of Stratford, where he died in April 1616.

Although he is generally regarded as a literary mastermind, and created up to a quarter of the English language in his works, there is some controversy surrounding his legitimacy as a writer. Some theorists believe he didn't write any of the works himself due predominantly to the rigid class structure of Elizabethan England and his place within it. 

So really, little is known about the life and times of William Shakespeare. Excitingly, a modern study of clay pipes has given a look into the Bard's possible drug-filled lifestyle, and has provided new ways at looking at some of his poetry.

What did the study find?

In 2001, a South African anthropologist and his team analysed organic residues in clay pipe fragments from Shakespeare's residence in Stratford-upon-Avon in an attempt to discover just how the Elizabethans chose to unwind. None too surprising was the presence of nicotine within these samples, but there were a few quirky compounds that make things more interesting.

Myristic acid is derived from the compound myristicin which is also the hallucinogenic element of nutmeg, and could be considered a chemical cousin to modern-day MDMA. Camphor was also found in the clay which is used to assist in clearing the lungs, is found in products such as Vicks VapoRub, and has a range of topical uses.

Similar to flavoured tobacco today, both vanillin and quinoline were found in the pipe samples. Vanillin, from the vanilla bean, and quinoline, present in black tea and scotch whiskey, were used to reduce the harshness of tobacco smoking. The pipe samples also contained cocaine residue, the leaves of which would have been imported into England from South America.

These compounds; nicotine, myristic acid, camphor, vanillin, quinoline and cocaine, were firmly identified in the study. This suggests that smoking was used for both recreational and medicinal purposes in the time of Shakespeare's life.

In addition to these compounds, the study found suggested residue of cannabis, but this residue was not proven.

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So – did Shakespeare smoke weed?

Short answer – we don't know. 

What this study has shown is that at least one hallucinogen, myristic acid, was available and used during the 17th century in the town in which Shakespeare lived. Our Bard, and other writers and creatives, definitely had access to a range of drugs in a time where smoking was very socially acceptable and if anyone has any creative friends, you'll know that they're usually down to party.

With this accessibility in mind, some of Billy's sonnets seem to have a pretty straightforward drug connection.

What does his poetry allude to?

Shakespeare's famous works tell stories of love, as in Romeo and Juliet, and tragedy, such as Hamlet. He was, however, an incredibly prolific writer, and there are some lines in his sonnets which suggest he was a user and advocate of drugs as a tool to unwind.

Sonnet 27 begins:

Weary with toil I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind when body's work's expired.
(1-4)

This 'journey in my head' is a subtle nod and could be attributed simply to dreaming. It could also mean a drug-fuelled hallucination, perhaps from myristic acid. 

Less subtle is the opening to 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?
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?
(1-8)

The word 'compound' was used as early as 1530 in reference to a chemical substance, so there is little doubt as to what Shakespeare could have been referring to here. He goes on to use the phrase 'invention in a noted weed'. Marijuana has shown promise in studies linking cannabis use and creativity – showing an increase in psychotomimetic symptoms which could lead to linking unrelated concepts, a key link in creative thinking. This line suggests that Shakespeare himself was privy to an increased level of creative thinking while under the influence of this 'noted weed'.

One of the more well-known side effects of using cannabis is an increased appetite, more commonly known as the munchies. This increased appetite can be incredibly helpful in the treatment of some disorders and illnesses, and Sonnet 118 suggests that Shakespeare was aware of the increased appetite drug use can create:

Like as, to make our appetites more keen,
With eager compounds we our palate urge.
(1-2)

Although none of Billy's main characters used drugs on stage, his poetry suggests he was not unfamiliar with drug use and its effects. 

When will we know?

Unfortunately, there is currently no firm evidence to suggest that William Shakespeare smoked weed or not, and firm evidence likely lies in his remains – which currently sit in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford under a curse for anyone who dares disturb them. What we do know, however, is that at the very least, cocaine and nicotine were very accessible to him, and he was likely to partake. Perhaps his brilliant creativity was due to dabbling in drug usage.

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Laura Desmond
Laura Desmond

Laura Desmond is an Adelaide-based writer with a keen interest in the arts, gender politics and social change. She is currently working to obtain a Master in Writing through Swinburne University.

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