“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.

Shakespeare for the People as all 154 of the Sonnets are performed in celebration of the Bard’s birthday at New York’s Central Park Sonnet Slam

Melinda Hall photographed by Pete Casanave at 2014's Sonnet Slam

Melinda Hall photographed by Pete Casanave at 2014′s Sonnet Slam

 

Starting at 1pm on Friday 24 April, no less than 154 Shakespeare enthusiasts – including students, scholars and performers – will take the stage one at a time, each reading one of William Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Welcome to the Sonnet Slam.

It began five years ago, founded by actor-director Melinda Hall. “I really wanted to create a place in New York City where Shakespeare was able to heard,” she says, “and performed by just about anyone.”

Now firmly established as an annual event, these free public readings in the Central Park Naumburg Bandshell are able to snag the attention of accidental, as well as intentional, audience members.

And, according to Melinda, the performers are just as varied as the audience. “We have doctors and lawyers and diplomats,” she says, “and shop workers and all sorts of people that read the sonnets.”

The event does attract some theatre professionals though. Readers this year will include Emmy Award Winning actor Richard Thomas, as well as actor and playwright Patrick Page, and actor Peter Francis James (who also teaches drama at Yale University.

This year there is an Indiegogo campaign accompanying the event which Melinda hopes will help to ensure the Sonnet Slam’s future.

“My vision is that we will raise enough money to hire some grant writers,” she says, “to assist in getting city, state, and arts funding, so the Sonnet Slam can be a perpetual event.”

SonnetPoster-2015
For more details on the Sonnet Slam visit the Facebook page.

Go here for details of the Sonnet Slam Indiegogo campaign.

And as an extra treat, here’s a video of Ben Crystal reading Sonnet 29 in OP (Original Pronunciation) last year’s Sonnet Slam.

Stand-up comedian, actress, writer, vegan and all-round clever clogs Sara Pascoe is a big fan of William Shakespeare, and she’s not afraid to shout about it

SARAPASCOE_mickperrin_image1
How on earth?

“I’ve got an English degree, and a big part of my life at university was throwing off the misunderstandings and misapprehensions I’d had about Shakespeare at school and coming to appreciate him properly. At school I think we got taught Macbeth and King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the teacher would say ‘Oh, you see what he’s saying here? He’s saying this’, and I would think ‘How on earth?’ I just didn’t believe them, I thought the teachers were making it up. Then when I was at university we had to read virtually all of the plays and we went into much more depth. That was when I suddenly realised how clever Shakespeare was, and it was mind-blowing.”

My favourite play…

“I did love the Sonnets. I think they’re so accessible and they have such universal themes – death, and time, and how we replicate ourselves. If I had to pick a favourite play… I really loved The Winter’s Tale actually, and I remember thinking Measure for Measure was brilliant, but I think probably Hamlet is my favourite.
“The one I seem to have seen most is As You Like It. I saw an RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing which had Tamsin Greig as Beatrice. They set it I think in Cuba or South America and it was just fantastic, really rhythmic and hilarious.”

If Shakespeare were here today…
“Shakespeare nowadays? Oh gosh, it would be something incredible, wouldn’t it? He was so fantastic at creating these flawed heroes where you could absolutely see how life had made them behave in a certain way, and because of that behaviour drama just unfolds everywhere around them. He’d put everyone else to shame because he’d be writing comedies and dramas and films all at the same time. Even now, people would probably be saying ‘Is it really just one man? It must be a committee of people doing it secretly!’”
Sara Pascoe - Large Library Image

He always sees the full picture
“I just think he understands human psychology so brilliantly. He understands cause and effect, he understands how people can be trying to be good, but also that their worldview might be slightly too myopic to enable them to see anything larger. However, he as the writer always manages to see the full picture and always, especially in the greatest of the plays, manages to create such a viable world that it doesn’t seem fictional. I recently saw the Macbeth they did at the Globe where they made the play a comedy, very successfully. And I thought that was so fantastic because the ambitions of the Macbeths had such lightness of touch all of a sudden, and the play still held together, it still felt true.”

Ten Things I Hate About You
“I think what was always surprising, probably because of the age I was when they came out, was finding out that things like Ten Things I Hate About You was The Taming of the Shrew. It’s always great when you think ‘Oh! Yes, I see, it’s that story!’ I’ve been watching House of Cards, and they’ve very clearly jumped off from Macbeth.”

On being a teenage skateboard fairy
“I do talk about Shakespeare in my show that I’m touring with at the moment. I have a little routine about being told that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a comedy and how as a 15, 16-year-old having teachers try to say ‘Look, here’s the joke – the queen loves a donkey!’ you just think ‘I don’t get it’. The routine’s about that and how in our production we were trying to liven it up. Everyone wants to do their own ground-breaking thing with Shakespeare, even though it’s all already been done. So I played Puck, but I was on a skateboard and I knocked myself out. Twice. I wasn’t very good at the skateboard. We really thought this was ground-breaking at the time.”
Sara Pascoe press pic

All about the attitude
“I think that’s what’s so interesting about new productions, they make you meet characters again in a different way. I really like Hermione from The Winter’s Tale. I think that her speeches are so brave and courageous. I’ll always love Kate from The Taming of the Shrew too, but she doesn’t even really talk very much in the play. It’s much more the attitude and the performance of her, isn’t it?

“Beatrice and Benedick’s whole repartee with each other, it’s so brilliant to watch on stage because it doesn’t come across on the page in the same way. Trying to overhear somebody else’s conversation while hiding behind a pot plant, I always think that’s so hysterical.”

Women with brains and activity and thoughts
“I think in terms of his time he was incredible. This was a time when women weren’t allowed on the stage. To be born a woman and want to be creative was impossible. You couldn’t own property, you couldn’t earn money, you were either born into a rich family to be married off, or you were born with no money and very limited options. Shakespeare did write women with brains and activity and thoughts, and I think in some plays the women are as varied as the men in terms of morality and intelligence. Although now for actresses the number of men on stage to the number of women is probably a bit frustrating, it could be a whole lot worse, so I think he should be respected for that.

“Also people are now putting on all-female productions. That’s so exciting because in Shakespeare’s day it would have been an all-male company, and now the opposite is completely possible.”

Most Shakespeare thing I’ve done…
“This isn’t so much a Shakespeare thing as a me thing, but I’ve been to the RSC twice to do stand-up. I got to do stand-up on the stage at the Swan, and that was amazing. Stratford-upon-Avon is a wonderful place. You walk around thinking ‘Oh my god, this is where Shakespeare was born’. Then I remember that I live in London – where he chose to live.”

Go here to find out more about Sara and check out her latest tour dates.

This interview originally appeared in Issue 6 of Shakespeare Magazine. Go here to see the original version.