Did Shakespeare smoke cannabis—or is it all a midsummer night’s dream?
By Jasen T. Davis
Did William Shakespeare, one of the most celebrated writers of English literature, smoke out? A scientist from South Africa thinks so, and he’s willing to dig up the Bard’s bones to prove it.
Born in England in the year 1564 CE, William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (not including his “lost play,” Cardenio), 154 sonnets and four poems. He also created nearly 1,700 words, and many of his original phrases are still used by all of us today including, “. . . seen better days,” “. . . full circle” and “. . . charmed life.”
Where did Shakespeare’s inspiration originate? Professor Francis Thackeray, a South African paleontologist at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria who graduated from Yale University, has shocked more than a few academics by claiming that Shakespeare smoked cannabis. He also says he has physical evidence.
The professor had a police laboratory examine residue from two dozen smoking pipes found in Shakespeare’s home. The forensic scientists discovered traces of cannabis in the residue.
Professor Thackeray has since asked that Shakespeare’s body be exhumed from his grave in Stratford-upon-Avon and examined. While that might be extreme, it would certainly be interesting to know whether or not the most imminent and prolific scholar of Western civilization could keep a job and pass a urine test.
Thackeray published his theory in the African Journal of Science. Since then, the story has been widely reported by mainstream media news outlets like Fox, CNN and National Geographic. Of course, quite a few people disagree with the professor. These people include other scientists and professors of modern literature.
One argument is that the pipes could have belonged to anyone, including Shakespeare’s friends and relatives. True enough . . . or maybe the parties at his house were awesome. Do you know anyone who owns 12 pipes?
Other scholars take umbrage in the fact that their hero might have inhaled for inspiration. Some critics argue that many people since Shakespeare have smoked cannabis, but haven’t produced any literature. They forget about Charles Baudelaire, Allen Ginsburg and Hunter S. Thompson, who all used cannabis.
Even Professor Stanley Wells, president of the world-respected Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has said that any claims that Shakespeare smoked marijuana are “. . . a lot of fruitless speculation.”
During Shakespeare’s time, the Catholic Church banned smoking cannabis in England. Artists who enjoyed the herb would have had to hide their habit, lest they end up under the tender mercies of the Inquisition and other unforgiving English authorities.
The fact that so many people still smoked cannabis back then is still an inspiration. Even if Shakespeare never used any of those pipes, someone did, and I’d imagine the Bard socialized with what were perhaps the greatest thinkers, artists and writers of his time.
A final complication is that Shakespeare, regardless of whether he smoked cannabis or not, never wanted his body exhumed. Ever. He even placed a curse upon his own tomb:
Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,/To digg the dust encloased heare;/Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,/And curst be he that moves my bones.
Et tu, Bill?
With the theory that Shakespeare might have used marijuana, comes a closer examination of some of his writings for references to the plant. Professor Francis Thackeray says this line from Sonnet LXXVI might be a thinly-veiled reference:
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?
Naturally, mainstream scholars dispute this interpretation, but “they protest too much, methinks.”