Is Shakespeare a stoner? There have always been contentious aspects of history that get debated in academic circles, but more often than not, the public doesn’t hear about it. However, when you mention Shakespeare and marijuana in the same sentence it’s bound to prompt some conversation. That’s what Francis Thackeray, a South African anthropologist, did when he wrote an article for the Independent detailing his research on the residue of clay tobacco pipe pieces, on loan from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust found in the Stratford-upon-Avon garden of Shakespeare. What most of the Internet didn’t notice was that this research was over a decade old, with the results having been first published in the South American Journal of Science back in 2001.
In his research, Thackeray used a forensic technique called gas chromatography mass spectrometry, a favored method for explosions, drug detection, and airport security. The results indicated out of 24 pipe fragments, nicotine was found in one sample, Peruvian cocaine from coca leaves was found in two samples, and cannabis was found in eight samples. Thackeray stated that the samples were likely from the 17th century, and that his study wasn’t intended to prove Shakespeare used the pipes but that at least hallucinogens where possibly available in 17th century England. The pipes theoretically could’ve belonged to the Bard of Avon, but they could have just as easily belonged to anyone who was fortunate enough to stay at his home-turned-inn.
The reaction to Thackeray’s research was guarded skepticism, largely dismissed until 2011 when he used the research in an attempt to solidify a request to dig up the poet’s bones, which could provide evidence of a connection between Shakespeare and marijuana usage and also provide some insight into the writer’s health history. Shakespeare had a fear of his remains being tampered with and left a warning on his grave reading, “Blessed be the man that spares these stones. And cursed be he who moves my bones.”
Thackeray did not plan to move his bones, instead he planned to use laser surface scanning to re-create a 3D model of the corpse to study. Although he submitted a request to do so to the Church of England, they never received it. So why is Thackeray’s research in the news again? That’s thanks to Mark Griffiths, a botanist who noticed that within the engraved frontispiece of John Gerard’s Herbal, published in 1597, there was a figure cited as “The Fourth Man.” Griffiths believes that this man could possibly be Shakespeare. The book explains the various types of “tobaccos” introduced to Europe by Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, and others. These loose connections to Shakespeare and marijuana were quickly regarded as inconclusive. Still, Thackeray co-opted the speculative theory to support his research.
Personal information about Shakespeare has been difficult to find, which makes new discoveries about his life the subject of a lot of critical analysis. Subjects like his sexuality, his religion, and whether or not he really wrote his own plays. These claims have captured the imagination of historians, anthropologists, and others to try and find truth in these ideas. Shakespeare most likely encountered writer’s block at some point, and whether or not he called upon the kind green herb to deal with it if is a question we may never have an answer to.