Shakespeare the pothead?

A line in William Shakespeare's Sonnet # 76 made some researchers in South Africa curious. What if the "noted weed" the Bard referred to was actually weed? You know, reefer. Pot. Cannabis. Marijuana.

Cannabis was grown in England as early as the year 400. In the 16th and 17th centuries, hemp was frequently used for ropes and canvases for ships.

Off to Stratford-on-Avon, where the researchers dug up Shakespeare's property at New Place, where he spent the last years of his life. They discovered some clay pipes in the ground dating back to Shakespeare's time and tested them for traces of cannabis. Bingo.

This doesn't necessarily prove anything, however, it just means that there was a possibility that Shakespeare indulged. Some will, of course, jump to the conclusion that the Bard toked for inspiration, and that marijuana led to classics like Hamlet and King Lear. That makes perfect sense - until you remember all the half-baked stoners laying on the couch watching infomercials and not exactly churning out sonnets. All this probably means is that Shakespeare liked to indulge in a toke after a long day of working at the Globe.

William Shakespeare's famed plays and sonnets may have been written under the influence, according to new research. In the Feburary issue of the South African Journal of Science, Francis Thackeray of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria and his colleagues document the presence of cocaine and myristic acid (a plant-derived hallucinogen) in clay-pipe fragments retrieved from the beloved bard's Stratford home. Their analysis also hints at the presence of marijuana residues.

Though the pipe cannot be definitively linked to Shakespeare himself, it is certain that it dates to the 17th century. This fact came as a surprise to the scientists; previously, the earliest known record of cocaine in Europe dated to only 200 years ago. "There is some suggestive evidence [of drug use] in Shakespeare's own writing," Thackeray told Reuters, pointing to phrases like "noted weed" and "compounds strange" in sonnet 76. "But I think Shakespeare, who may have experimented with these substances, is saying he would rather turn away from them. I would not read it as an endorsement of drug use."

Portions from Kate Wong of SciAm; other portions from Reuters news service
Forensic analysis was done on pipes found in the home of Shakespeare. the evidence was circumstancial, however, 2 of the 24 pipes tested bore traces of cocaine. (the first time the drug has been found in Europe before the 19th century) others had traces of a chemical called myristic acid (a hallucinogenic), and traces of cannabis and tobacco.

"The cocaine found is really quite remarkable" says Dr. Francais Thackery (who co-wrote the article in the South African Journal of Science) it "was recorded in Europe about 200 years ago, but to our knowledge, never this early" (of course, no one has tested for cocaine on anything this old, either)

As well, hemp was widely used for rope and even printing Shakespeare's early works, but there is little evidence that it was ever smoked.

The pipe fragments were examined using gas chromotography with the help of co-author, Inspector Tommie van der Merwe of the South African Police Service's forensic science laboratory.

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