Was Shakespeare a Stoner?

Slate's Culture Blog
June 28 2011 8:34 PM

Was Shakespeare a Stoner?

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Image of the "Chandos portrait" of William Shakespeare courtesy of Wikipedia.

There exists an endearingly passionate camp of Shakespeare nuts who simply cannot believe that the son of a glover from a podunk market town 100 miles out of London could have possibly written the sublime, genius plays attributed to him. He had no education, they argue, no aristocratic standing, no opportunities to mingle with the literati of his day.

But what if he had some really, really choice weed?

Ten years ago, South African anthropologist Francis Thackeray first floated the Bard-bong connection when—inspired in part by sonnet references to "a noted weed," "compounds strange," and a "journey in my head"—he analyzed pipe fragments found in Shakespeare's garden and discovered traces of cocaine and myristic acid (a plant-derived hallucinogen), as well as hints of marijuana.

After reading the sonnets, "we put forward a hypothesis that Shakespeare may have used cannabis as a source of inspiration," Thackeray told the BBC in 2001—though the anthropologist was careful to note that his team wasn't claiming that Shakespeare owned any of the pipes found on his property, just that such drugs would have been available to him. (It should also be said that Thackeray's readings of the sonnets in question are decidedly unorthodox, particularly given that weed didn't come to "marijuana" until 1929 in the United States.

Thackeray now says that he has petitioned the Church of England for access to Shakespeare's grave, located in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon. Sniffing out Shakespeare's pot habit isn't Thackeray's primary goal, though: According to FoxNews.com, he first plans to confirm that the skeleton does, in fact, belong to Shakespeare; then he wants to solve the long-standing mystery of how the poet died. Finally, he tells LiveScience, chemical analysis on "extremely small samples" of keratin left in Shakespeare's fingernails or toenails can be sampled for marijuana, and chemical analysis of his teeth could also illuminate his smoking habits (though not whether he stuffed his pipe with tobacky of the traditional or wacky variety).

Thanks to a high-tech technique known as "laser surface scanning," all this can apparently be accomplished without running afoul of Shakespeare's famous crypt curse: "Blessed be the man that spares these stones / And cursed be he who moves my bones."

Kind of makes us see that whole Yorick scene in a brand-new light.

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Update: Over on Twitter, we're looking for your best Shakespeare-related pot puns. (My favorite so far: "Titus Hydroponicus.") Tweet at us with the hashtag #StonedShakespeare, or leave your best in the comments.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.