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Did Shakespeare Smoke Pot?

Tobacco pipes in the Bard’s backyard may retain traces of cannabis, but some historians remain skeptical

Does this look like a stoner to you? (Wikimedia Commons)
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Every writer has his or her quirks — but was William Shakespeare’s of the herbal variety? Maybe: Tobacco pipes unearthed in the Bard’s backyard contain traces of chemicals found in cannabis, Bonnie Malkin reports for The Telegraph.  

Back in 2001, a South African anthropologist named Francis Thackeray used tech from a narcotics crime lab to see what sorts of substances might have been smoked in 400-year-old pipe fragments unearthed in Stratford-upon-Avon. Some contained residues of nicotine and cocaine, likely from Peruvian coca leaves.

Four pipes found at an excavation site in Shakespeare's back garden bore a chemical signature similar to that of cannabis. The results were not conclusive. There’s no evidence that Shakespeare used the pipes, let alone smoked them. But even the implication that the he liked to smoke a bowl drew backlash.

Thackeray thinks that the pipes present compelling evidence. Over a decade later, he argues as much in two recent articles in The Independent and the South African Journal of Science. This time around, Thackeray cites literary and historical evidence in addition to his scientific data. Recently, historians have suggested that Shakespeare’s likeness may appear on a 1598 botanical book, while others dispute its validity. Among other plants, the book covers a few popular flavors of tobacco — possibly alluding to the playwright’s enjoyment of herbs? It’s a weak connection.

Thackeray stands on slightly stronger ground when interpreting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76, which refers to “invention in a noted weed” and an aversion to “compounds strange.” He interprets these phrases as indicating the poet's possible preference for cannabis over cocaine while writing, though it’s unclear when exactly people started using the term weed directly in place of cannabis.

Some historians still aren’t convinced, though, notes Hillary Hanson for The Huffington Post. Columbia University’s James Shapiro thinks the interpretation is dubious at best. “We don’t know what Shakespeare did or didn’t do. Just because these pipes were found in his garden doesn’t mean his neighbor kid didn’t throw the pipes over the fence. There are a million possible explanations,” he told Hanson.

So did the Bard like bud? Scholars may never know whether Shakespeare lived next to a 17th-century version of Harold and Kumar or enjoyed the herb himself.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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