Getting High on Marijuana May Have Been the Secret to Shakespeare's Success

Getting High on Marijuana May Have Been the Secret to Shakespeare's Success
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

A Midsummer Night's Dream might actually be funnier than you realize.

A study published in the July/August edition of the South African Journal of Science reported a number of pipes dug up from the garden of William Shakespeare contained trace amounts of marijuana. The research, originally conducted by University of the Witwatersrand professor Francis Thackeray in 2001, received renewed attention after an article he published in the Independent on Saturday. 

"Maybe the Elizabethans were just experimenting with various drugs seeing what worked and what didn't," Thackeray told National Geographic in 2001. "We can't prove that Shakespeare smoked these pipes, but we do now at least know what his contemporaries were smoking."

The marijuana was traced using a sophisticated procedure called gas chromatography mass spectrometry. In addition to marijuana, investigators found trace amount of cocaine in two pipes, one of which belonged to the family of John Harvard, best known for the university that bears his name. "The readings we got were the same as if it had tested a modern-day crack pipe," another researcher told the magazine.  

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So were some of the greatest works of the English language written while their author was high as a kite? The evidence is spotty. 

Thackeray said he was led to investigate a possible link between Shakespeare and marijuana after reading the master's Sonnet 76, in which Shakespeare wrote he kept "invention in a noted weed." Traditional Shakespearian scholarship has generally taken the line to refer to clothing, which would conform with the word's archaic definition.

Hemp, from which marijuana is derived, was grown and imported by England during Shakespeare's lifetime for the plant's alternative use in rope making.

At least one Shakespeare expert, however, found the claims dubious. "I have no idea if he did; I don't think it made any difference," Richard Strier, a retired University of Chicago professor of Renaissance English literature, told Mic. Strier said the possibility that Shakespeare took a toke now and then was irrelevant. "The guy had a wonderful imagination whether he smoked marijuana or not."

Strier said he had never previously heard serious claims suggesting Shakespeare was a stoner and added that any such argument would demand "real research." 

The secret of success?
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If Shakespeare did smoke occasionally, he would be just one of a number of celebrated writers who have used the plant. Known members of the green club include luminaries like Carl Sagan, Stephen King, Maya Angelou and Alexandre Dumas.

In the end, Strier said, the matter was much ado about nothing: "I think it's one of those supposedly great discoveries that actually means nothing."