“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.

Issue 07 of Shakespeare Magazine is out now, celebrating 425 years of Great Shakespeare Actors

Ken Cover 07
Kenneth Branagh is cover star of Shakespeare Magazine 07, in keeping with the issue’s theme of Great Shakespeare Actors.

The venerable Stanley Wells discusses his new book on the subject, handily titled Great Shakespeare Actors, while Antony Sher reveals what it’s like to play Falstaff – the subject of his own new book Year of the Fat Knight.

We also go behind the scenes of the excellent My Shakespeare TV series, while British actress Zoe Waites chats about heading to the USA to play As You Like It’s Rosalind with Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Other highlights include Shakespeare in Turkey, Shakespeare Opera, and the real story of Shakespeare and the Essex Plot.

All this, and the Russian fans who made their own edition of David Tennant’s Richard II

Go here to read Shakespeare Magazine 07 right now.

And don’t forget, you can read all seven issues of Shakespeare Magazine here.

As always, Shakespeare Magazine is completely FREE.

Read what Turkish student Cansu Kutlualp had to say about Shakespeare Magazine at the Shakespeare: Counterstream Symposium in Istanbul

“Blogs are not the only written material that can be found online that highlights up-to-date Shakespearean information. There is a magazine, I find that it’s one of a kind, that is online and free for its readers. It’s called the Shakespeare Magazine and it’s a relatively new one.

Cansu Kutlualp speaks at the symposium.

Cansu Kutlualp speaks at the symposium.

“The team behind it is working enthusiastically for each issue, giving a chance for their readers to participate in the magazine itself. The content varies; it’s not traditional, it is a fresh breath for Shakespeare enthusiasts. Not only do they talk about upcoming shows but they explain what Shakespeare means to individuals, what they thought about certain plays, movies or the fact that every nation has a different take on Shakespeare.

Cansu Kutlualp (second left) at the symposium.

Cansu Kutlualp (second left) at the symposium.

“In one issue they took on the World Cup that took place a few months ago and turned the whole thing into a Shakespearean process. What did Shakespeare mean for Brazil and its literary history? How much did Shakespeare affect the contemporary theatre, film or TV shows in Brazil? The magazine celebrates all kinds of global Shakespeare events and by doing so connects readers of all ages under the common and everlasting umbrella that is the Bard himself.

“I myself wrote a piece concerning Turkey and Shakespeare. Mr Pat Reid who is the Founder and the Editor of the magazine was so helpful and supportive that the article turned out to be a good one and it will be published in an upcoming issue.

Pat Reid, Shakespeare Magazine’s Founder & Editor.

Pat Reid, Shakespeare Magazine’s Founder & Editor.

“The magazine opens up discussions via social media too. Supporters of the magazine get to discuss their Shakespearean topics via Twitter or on the magazine’s Facebook page. A couple of months ago I was working on an essay for a class about Macbeth and psychoanalysis. After I finished my essay I asked via the magazine’s twitter page, what people thought about Lady Macbeth and Macbeth’s personalities. With Mr Reid’s input, and with the participation of the magazine’s readers, we had a fun and informative discussion. Then we couldn’t continue the discussion with the limitation of 140 characters, so we brought it to the Facebook page. I must say the whole discussion had me question what I had in my mind when the whole thing started.

The powerful and evocative poster for the symposium.

The powerful and evocative poster for the symposium.

“If you want to read the magazine you can find it on issuu.com which also contains the previous issues.