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Was Shakespeare a stoner? Scientist finds marijuana residue in playwright's pipes

Was Shakespeare a stoner? Scientist finds marijuana residue in playwright's pipes
William Shakespeare's pipes show marijuana residue, a scientist says. (Illustration by Paul Gonzales/Los Angeles Times based on 1623 engraving by Martin Droeshout)

What's in a name? That which we call some dank bud by any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare didn't write those words exactly, but scientists think it's possible that the Bard of Avon might have been acquainted with a certain relaxing herb. In an article published in the Independent, South African anthropologist Francis Thackeray says four pipes found in Shakespeare's garden have tested positive for cannabis residue.

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Thackeray and his colleagues tested several of Shakespeare's clay tobacco pipes "using a sophisticated technique called gas chromatography mass spectrometry," the scientist writes.

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The pipes from Shakespeare's garden might have been used to smoke pot, but they tested negative for cocaine, which was also consumed by some in the playwright's era. "Shakespeare may have been aware of the deleterious effects of cocaine as a strange compound," Thackeray writes. "Possibly, he preferred cannabis as a weed with mind-stimulating properties."

Thackeray cites Shakespeare's Sonnet 76, which some claim indicates the author's fondness for dope: "Why with the time do I not glance aside / To new-found methods, and to compounds strange? / Why write I still all one, ever the same, / And keep invention in a noted weed..."

"This can be interpreted to mean that Shakespeare was willing to use 'weed' (cannabis as a kind of tobacco) for creative writing ('invention')," Thackeray writes. It's not clear that "weed" was used as a synonym for marijuana in 16th and 17th centuries, though; in Slate, Ben Yagoda notes that it was listed as a "new word" in an academic journal in 1929.

It remains unlikely, of course, that anyone will ever be able to prove definitively that Shakespeare was a pothead, unless historians somehow discover a stash of Doritos and "The Big Lebowski" DVDs in his garden.

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