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.