Hide Your Fires: On Shakespeare and the ‘Noted Weed’

Reports spread this week that the English language’s most celebrated writer might have smoked marijuana, but the fuss only reveals how little is known about the Bard of Avon.

Folger Shakespeare Library

The Internet has been aflame in recent days over the question of whether William Shakespeare, the most venerated figure in the English language, liked to get high. Media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic jumped on forensic analysis of pipes from Shakespeare’s garden, with many taking irreverent delight in how they reported the news that the Bard of Avon may have smoked marijuana. People were so excited about the news, in fact, that they failed to notice that it wasn’t news at all—but merely a resurrection of a study from 2001. This isn’t even the first time that the media has revived this story—the study led to several articles back in 2011 as well. But the episode is emblematic of a larger issue: the huge discrepancy between public adulation of Shakespeare and historical knowledge of the man himself, and the desire of many to fill that void.

The study in question, from the South African researcher Francis Thackeray and his colleagues, certainly warrants public interest. Thackeray, an anthropologist, told me he was inspired to investigate whether Shakespeare enjoyed marijuana while reading the author’s poems—specifically Sonnet 76, which contains the verse, “Why write I still all one, ever the same/ And keep invention in a noted weed,” as well as a reference to “compounds strange.” Thackeray and his team analyzed 24 pipe fragments from in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, including several from Shakespeare’s birthplace and the home he owned later in his life at New Place. The tests found strong evidence for use of nicotine and, more surprisingly, cocaine—a fascinating discovery for anyone interested in the consumption habits of Elizabethan England.

Evidence for marijuana was less substantive. The 2001 study states that “unequivocal evidence for cannabis has not been obtained.” The researchers did detect mass-to-charge ratios of compounds that were indicative of compounds derived from marijuana, but not in quantities sufficient for proof. The study argues that the lack of evidence may be “associated with the effects of heating, and problems in identifying traces of cannabinoids in old samples,” but ultimately concludes that “the results are suggestive but do not prove the presence of cannabis.” Thackeray told me that he has since revisited the data and believes the evidence for cannabis to be more substantial than before, but this apparently strengthened evidence is not seen in any new reports.

Aside from the lack of any conclusive proof for presence of marijuana, it’s even harder to tie the pipes directly to Shakespeare himself. They have been dated only according to their size and dimensions—the study says that they “probably date to the 17th century.” (Shakespeare died in 1616, for reference.) The provenance of the fragments does little better, as scholars can’t say how much time Shakespeare actually spent at his final home of New Place, and his birthplace became an inn in the early 17th century. Short of digging up Shakespeare’s body and putting it through chemical testing (and Thackeray has proposed doing just that in the past), there’s slim evidence to indicate that Shakespeare was a stoner.

Stories like these continue to seize the public’s imagination because there’s still so little information about one of the most studied figures in history. Michael Witmore, the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., gave me the rundown of what is known about the Bard: He was born in Stratford-upon Avon; he moved to London and had a successful career as a poet, actor, and playwright; and he eventually retired from the London stage and returned to Stratford, where he bought a home for himself and his family. And yet there’s little information about his educational background, and there are a whole seven years of his life—between the birth of his twin children and his arrival in London—for which there are no records whatsoever.

It’s no wonder then that new claims about Shakespeare’s life draw so much attention. Take, for instance, the alleged discovery of Shakespeare’s dictionary by two New York booksellers, which prompted a piece in The New Yorker questioning the collective hunger for relics tied to the playwright. Articles from earlier this year reported on the claim that a likeness of Shakespeare had been discovered in a late-16th-century botanical book, and still others puzzled over several different portraits purported to depict the “real” Shakespeare. And that’s without even delving into articles about whether Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, or gay, or hey, did he even write any of those plays?

Many of these discoveries and theories end up being either debunked or disregarded by Shakespeare scholars, mainly because they fail to fulfill the very specific criteria these scholars require to verify authenticity. “The standard is very high with a new ‘discovery’ about Shakespeare,” Witmore said, “and it is that we should feel that it is unreasonable to doubt the assertion.” That is, scholars must be able to discount all other alternative explanations for the discovery before they can agree that it’s attributable to the Bard. Witmore and his colleague, Heather Wolfe, actually provide a thorough overview of the painstaking verification steps Shakespeare scholars must take in their response to the discovery of the dictionary. Unfortunately, what don’t receive the same degree of public attention are the new discoveries that scholars have verified, among them being the fact that Shakespeare may have had a co-author on up to a third of his plays, according to Witmore.

Just because most Shakespeare discoveries tend to be unverifiable doesn’t mean that future announcements of new findings will be greeted with any less enthusiasm. “It is startling that anyone could have written so creatively for so long, and that a set of works would continue to speak to people and be adapted from one language and place in time to another,” Witmore said. “I think that is fundamentally difficult to explain, and in a way it’s both inspiring and, as an achievement, mystifying, which is why we still have questions.” Next year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, meaning surely the analysis is just beginning.