“Shakespeare Smoked Dope?” Shakespeare Magazine Editor Pat Reid investigates the clickbait headlines and reveals the dodgy research and unbelievably shoddy journalism behind the sensational claims

Gamut Theatre's 2015 Hamlet uses drugs to make its point. But Shakespeare himself probably didn't.

Gamut Theatre’s 2015 Hamlet uses drugs to make its point. But Shakespeare himself probably didn’t.

 

You’ve probably already seen the spurious “Shakespeare Smoked Dope!” headlines that are flashing around the internet – if not, I won’t dignify them by reposting a link.

What you may not know is that the story – which seems to have been revived by The Independent – is actually 15 years old.

It’s based on claims by a South African academic, who says he’s found residue of cannabis in 17th century pipes unearthed in Shakespeare’s garden in Stratford-upon-Avon.

He also claims to have detected cocaine residue in similarly-dated pipes found elsewhere in Stratford.

The academic in question, Francis Thackeray, believes that a line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76 about “invention in a noted weed” is a reference to cannabis.

Thackeray, a palaeoanthropologist, admits there’s no evidence that any of the pipes belonged to Shakespeare.

But this hasn’t stopped the world’s media gleefully publishing lurid, attention-grabbing “Shakespeare was a Stoner!” headlines.

What’s distressing is that none of the major media brands – including iconic names like The Telegraph and Time – have subjected these claims to even the most cursory analysis.

Instead, legions of so-called journalists have merely cut-and-pasted the original Independent story before adding their own byline and picture.

Whatever your opinion on Shakespeare or drugs, this is clickbait churnalism at its most egregious.

To counterbalance this tsunami of Shakespearean misinformation, I’ve done a little reading, thinking and questioning – three things which are supposedly part of the job for any professional journalist.

First of all, cannabis. Hemp was harvested on an industrial scale by the Tudors (for multiple uses including rope-making, fabrics and remedies). But the variety in use was apparently lacking in psychoactive properties, and it has never been thought that Shakespeare’s contemporaries were smoking it.

Tobacco from the New World was certainly being smoked during the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. However, there are no references to tobacco in Shakespeare’s works.

As for cocaine, this wasn’t even synthesized until the 19th century. And, to my knowledge, reports of people smoking cocaine only date back to as recently as the 1970s.

The concept of “smoking weed” didn’t catch on in England until centuries later, so Thackeray’s interpretation of the line in Sonnet 76 is fanciful at best.

Incidentally, there are numerous uses of the word “weed” in Shakespeare. All refer to either clothing (in the sense of “widow’s weeds”) or lowly species of plant-life.

In the latter sense, the references are overwhelmingly negative, although there is an example of ‘weed’ as a term of endearment in Othello.

There are certainly no clear examples of ‘weed’ used to mean cannabis. Thackeray’s clutching at the elliptical line in Sonnet 76 seems like a desperate manifestation of confirmation bias.

There are plenty of references to drugs in Shakespeare. They take the form of remedies, potions and, in Romeo and Juliet, deadly poisons. What you won’t find is any mention of smoking cannabis or cocaine.

And finally, there are several references to pipes in Shakespeare’s works – usually in the sense of musical instruments, but sometimes in the sense of veins as pipes containing blood.

And, you guessed it, there are absolutely no references in Shakespeare to pipes being used for smoking.

I should state at this point that I personally don’t have any problem with the idea of William Shakespeare experimenting with mind-altering substances. After all, many of my favourite musicians did. But the likes of Hendrix and Bowie were frying their minds 400 years later. There’s simply no evidence that Shakespeare did so in the 16th and 17th century.

Certainly, Shakespeare’s language can be ultra-vivid, dizzyingly complex and brain-stretchingly surreal. He had huge appeal for the generation of Romantic poets that came later – some of whom did partake of substances that we would recognize as mind-altering drugs.

But perhaps we should accept that Shakespeare’s legendarily imaginative deployment of language was ultimately just down to him being a great writer.

I use Open Source Shakespeare to check quotes and references in Shakespeare’s works. And you should too.

Shakespeare Magazine is a completely free online publication all about Shakespeare. Go here to read all our issues so far.

Comments

  1. An interesting perspective here on the use of a specific word in Shakespeare’s works – not an unusual nor unenjoyable activity. In this case it just so happens to be one which evokes a reaction, and mass/pop culture simply jumps on it. I like the angle Thackeray has on the sonnet’s line, but again, we’ll never know.
    The debate is more enjoyable than anyone thinking they’re “right”. But the attention this word got was far too disproportionate. Either way, it doesn’t matter if Will took drugs or not.
    Thank you for this great post.
    Much love,
    Filip
    http://www.ifitbelove.com

  2. Mark Gisleson says:

    Not surprised by the weakness of the meme racing through Facebook right now, but there is one glaring weakness in your analysis. The reference was to smoking coca leaves, not smoking cocaine.

    Coca leaves have been smoked by shamans, but since heat destroys the psychoactive properties of the leaf, it probably wasn’t a popular pastime. Which is not to say it didn’t happen. In the early days of tobacco I’m sure there were frequent shortages if not high prices driving a lot of experimentation. If you can smoke tobacco and feel alert, what happens when you smoke hogweed? Didn’t work? Let’s try smoking clover!

    Writers are creative and prone to experimentation. That Shakespeare might have experimented seems quite reasonable and not at all surprising.

  3. monideepa mukerjee says:

    The only good thing about this “Shakespeare a stoner” article ,which was front page news I think in all major newspapers in India, is that it shows that even after 400 years anything to do with the Bard is front page news.

  4. Well, as Artistic Director of Gamut Theatre whose photo you featured at the top of the article, we appreciate the exposure, but we didn’t really use drugs to “make our point”. In setting the play in 2015, we found that certain aspects of the story were changed and heightened when approaching a production that wouldn’t just be “modern dress” but actually an experiment as to whether or not the story was truly “timeless”, ie “could fit in any time”.

    So, there were drugs used and mis-used, primarily anti-psychotic medications, and alcohol. No marijuana , though. Also, notes were passed on Iphones, the closet scene had no “dagger” but a kitchen knife (giving it a more immediately disturbing feel for contemporary audiences), and a dice-y bit of legality involved in a how a grave-digger might responsibly put a skull in a random passer-by’s hands.

    We don’t think this is the only way to do the story, btw. We’ve produced this play many times over the past 25 years, most notably in contrast to this one would be a production several years ago that connected back to Shakespeare’s source material of the story of the young Viking Warrior, Amleth. So, we don’t just use drugs to make our point. We “hold the mirror up to nature” in many different lights and from many different angles.

    Photos from our archive of our 2011 Hamlet:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/66432591@N02/albums/72157630954780888

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