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Perchance to Dream: Was Shakespeare’s Creativity Influenced by Cannabis?

August 10, 2015

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” or so says the witty Bard. William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer in the English language and creator of over 1,700 words now in our common vernacular, may have been creatively influenced by a touch of cannabis.

Harvard Magazine reports on a fascinating subject hundreds of years in the making. In Elizabethan England, hemp (or Cannabis Sativa) was the second-most cultivated plant of that era. It was fashioned into rope, paper, clothing, sails, and, you guessed it, may have been smoked for its mind-altering effects.

Clay Professor of Archaeology Nickolaas J. van der Merwe worked with colleagues to analyze scrapings from the bowl pieces and stems of 24 pipes unearthed from sites in and around Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust provided fragments of kaolin, or white clay, from the garden at Shakespeare’s residence, all dating from the 1600’s. 

Using gas chromatography and a mass spectrometer, the fragments were tested. Although cannabis itself degrades fairly quickly, cannabidiol and cannabinol are stable combustion products that can be detected in ancient artifacts. Cannabis-related compounds were found in eight of the 24 samples, including four pieces found in the Bard’s garden.

It's entirely possible that these pipes belonged to the noted playwright and that he partook of everyone’s favorite green mischief-making plant. There are almost no references to the plant in his writings, although many wonder if there may be a sly reference to it as his "tenth muse" mentioned in Sonnet 38:

How can my muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour'st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O! give thy self the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who's so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thy self dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

However, Shakespearean scholar and Cogan University Professor Stephen Greenblatt gives his insight on the findings:

“I suppose it's remotely possible that Shakespeare and his family were getting a buzz from what they were smoking, but I very much doubt that it played any meaningful role in his life….The seventeenth century gossip John Aubrey described Shakespeare as not much of a partygoer – when he was invited to debauch, he’d beg off.” 

But we can dream, can't we? “To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub.”