Did Shakespeare Smoke Pot?

And more importantly, does it matter?


Recently a 2001 study has resurfaced that found evidence Shakespeare may have smoked pot. The study seems to come back into the mainstream every few years, so that the Bardolators can clutch their pearls and insist he didn’t, or the marijuana enthusiasts can voice their support. The evidence found by the study is far from conclusive. I would even venture to call it dubious. However, if he did smoke pot, who cares? Does it really change how we perceive the plays? I think not.

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Once I saw the study come up and read some articles criticizing the conclusions, I decided to read the study myself. So, I strapped on my graduate student research pants and got to work. I was able to find the article quickly thanks to my Academic Search Premier access through my library. Reading it, however, was an entirely different endeavor. 

In case you couldn’t guess from my content, I am not a scientist and I don’t play one on TV. The details of the methodology and results were somewhat lost on me (microns and such). They used gas chromatography on 24 pipe fragments found in Shakespeare’s garden and other places around Stratford to determine whether the chemical residue from common hallucinogens (and tobacco) were present in the pipes.

At the start, they acknowledge that it would be difficult to find evidence of cannabis because the organic elements break down quickly especially when burned. However, past studies were able to identify traces on 600 year old pipe pieces (the pipes here were 400). They were able to find traces of tobacco and cocaine though, which begs the question, why are we so worked up about the pot, but not the cocaine? (Note: those pipes may have come from outside Shakespeare’s garden.)

Anyway, they found a series of other substances with known hallucinogenic properties. Many of those could be attributed to compounds found in the soil the pipes were buried in. There were minute chemical traces found on four of the pipes that could be attributed to cannabis. These findings were not conclusive because the traces found were so small.

So, what does this mean? Very little if anything at all.

We can say with a significant degree of certainty that American tobacco and cocaine were likely smoked in those pipes. It makes sense because this would have been the time period that those substances were introduced to Europe. It is impossible for us to know if Shakespeare ever smoked out of those pipes. They are from his time period, but there’s no proof that they belonged to him.

It is important to keep in mind that hemp was grown in England long before American tobacco was introduced. It was likely referred to as tobacco, not weed, marijuana, or cannabis. Is it possible that Shakespeare smoked weed or other hallucinogens? Yes, but there’s no strong evidence for it.

This brings us back to the question: does it matter? If Shakespeare did smoke pot, does it color our opinion of him or his works? He did, after all, still write the plays whether he was high or not, so why get worked up about it?

So many people avidly deny the possibility that Shakespeare could have smoked pot. I suppose it ruins the image of the perfect genius we have created. I, however, think the prospect makes him a more complex person. I don’t think most people would be mad if they had an understanding of the “real” Shakespeare. 

One thing my research has taught me is that Shakespeare is a complicated person. He was a shrewd businessman and a savvy writer. He knew how to take source material and make it into a good piece of theater. He didn’t seem too concerned with publishing his plays; he could make his money through the theater. He certainly collaborated with the actors in his troupe and probably collaborated with his contemporaries. 

And maybe, he smoked pot. There’s little to no evidence either way, but doesn’t that explain some of his writing 😉


What do you think? Does it matter that Shakespeare smoked pot?


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