“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.

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