In 2015, the English-speaking world went slightly mad at the purported revelation that William Shakespeare, best-selling author of all time and owner of a very large forehead, may have smoked pot.

But what most people overlooked was that the 2015 study was a rehash of a similar investigation done in 2001. The earlier study also sent shockwaves through the literary community for its suggestion that Shakespeare may have written his most important works under the influence.

The findings of both studies were the fruit of research done by a group of South African scientists. The lead researcher, Francis Thackeray, explained at the time that he was spurred on to investigate the Bard’s alleged toking habits because of the conspicuous mention Shakespeare made of a “noted weed” in one of his sonnets.

Near the beginning of Sonnet 76, Shakespeare writes: “Why with the time do I not glance aside / To new-found methods, and to compounds strange? / Why write I still all one, ever the same, / And keep invention in a noted weed…”

The singular mention of weed – nowhere else is weed, or any other reference to it found in Shakespeare’s canon – was enough to rouse the team of anthropologists and forensic scientists to employ cutting-edge technology to discover the truth.

What the researchers eventually found only suggested that the Bard of Avon partook of Mary of Jane. They found no conclusive evidence that Shakespeare smoked weed. The mere possibility, however that the greatest writer in the English language smoked marijuana was enough to whip all aspiring artists/potheads into a frenzy.

A Beacon of High

Had the Bard lived in the era of the vaporizing weed there would have less doubt as to his habits. But all the researchers had to go on were 24 pipe fragments found on the grounds of Shakespeare’s last known residence, the New Place.

And what they found confounded more than it explained. The researchers found conclusive traces of both nicotine and cocaine in all their samples. Marijuana residue was found in only four fragments.

Only, other than the fact that the pieces of pipe were found in Shakespeare’s garden, nothing tied the pipe fragments directly to him. This fact is what ultimately led most prominent Shakespeare scholars to dismiss the team’s findings as nothing more than conjecture.

But, within the echo chamber of the Internet, a myth had already been formed. No matter that the researchers could not link Shakespeare with marijuana use definitively, the association was enough for people to create their own narratives.

The fact that there are significant gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare, no doubt fueled the flames of speculation and wish fulfilment. So starved is the general public for more insight into the mind and genius of Shakespeare that even a spurious allegation of marijuana use metastasized into fact.

Sticks and Stoners

What we do know about Shakespeare is that he was a successful (in his time) actor, poet, and playwright. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, moved to London and then retired from the stage and moved to the English countryside.

He died in 1616. But between the birth of his children and his move to London, there remains a seven-year gap in our knowledge of him. Little is known about his educational background as well.

The desire to reconcile Shakespeare the man with the writer of such monumental works like Hamlet and Macbeth has produced a cottage industry of conspiracies that seek to explain away the ignorance surrounding his life and motivations.

Theories abound of Shakespeare’s supposed homosexuality, that he was secretly Catholic, and that he didn’t even write his most famous works. It all goes to show how the lack of knowledge of a legendary historical figure drives the need to fill the vacuum with anything, even alleged drug use.

Thackery mentioned as much in his article, saying that the combined efforts of the arts and sciences were needed to “better understand Shakespeare and his contemporaries.” And while his efforts to prove whether Shakespeare smoked weed or not turned up nothing in that regard, it still shed some light on the consumption habits of the Elizabethan era.

Funnily enough, the presence of cocaine did not create the same stir as the presence of marijuana residue. The cocaine residue was attributed to Peruvian coca leaves, which would have been in vogue during that period.

English explorers and traders, most notably, Sirs Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, had been bringing back both tobacco and coca leaves from their expeditions to North and South America. So their presence in smoking implements of that time is not out of the ordinary.

A medieval pipe of the type Shakespeare may have used

The Weed Cure

Why there was so much hysteria surrounding the possibility of the Bard’s weed use is anyone’s guess. Narcotics of all kind have always been associated with heightened creativity. And Shakespeare mentioning weed within the context of creativity and writing lends credence to the fact that that was why he was interested in weed, if he was interested at all.

Whether Shakespeare availed himself of marijuana for medicinal purposes is also unknown. Ancient cultures were known to mix cannabis with other plants and herbs for treatment of pain, but no evidence exists that physicians in Shakespeare’s time used it for that purpose.

Our modern perspectives on weed also factor into why this story caught on so enthusiastically.

The very idea that a master like Shakespeare would not only struggle to fill the page but then prescribe himself weed to get his creative juices flowing was something that no doubt appealed to pro-marijuana advocates.  

Starting with the normalization of medical marijuana, weed has slowly regained acceptance as a non-threatening form of intoxication. Whether it be through smoking it, using a marijuana vape pen, or even in edible form, marijuana is everywhere right now.

The legalization of recreational marijuana has ushered in a completely new perspective on the “noted weed.” But the uproar over Shakespeare’s alleged weed use also revealed how conflicted people still feel about marijuana.

Even in the age of legal weed and the marijuana vaporizer people are still reluctant to associate its use with the spectacular achievements of a singular genius like Shakespeare. When it comes to attitudes over marijuana, though, it seems we are all guilty of, as Shakespeare himself wrote, “dressing old words new.”

About the Author

Phyllis Baker is the PR manager of the quitting smoking community and the health blogger. Her personal interests include creative writing, art and self-development.