The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, allowed South African research scientists from the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria to analyze twenty-four pipe fragments found on the grounds of William Shakespeare’s home. The findings – published in the current issue of the South African Journal of Science – show that eight of the pipes tested contain traces of cannabis and two of the pipes contain traces of cocaine. Others appear to be laced with tobacco, camphor, and hallucinogenic nutmeg extracts high in myristic acid.

The pipes date to the seventeenth century when hemp was used widely in the production of rope, clothing, and paper, and when marijuana was used to treat certain medical conditions. However, the discovery of the pipes laced with several narcotics lends credibility to the theory that people in Renaissance England used drugs for pleasure.

It has been a long-standing but highly unconventional assumption that Shakespeare alludes to drugs and drug use in his works, particularly in his non-dramatic poetry. Sonnet 27 begins:

Weary with toil I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind when body’s work’s expired. (1-4)

Even more conspicuous is Sonnet 76, which contains Shakespeare’s references to a ‘noted weed’ and ‘compounds strange’ — ‘compound’ known as early as 1530 to mean a substance formed by a chemical union of two or more ingredients.

There is little doubt that this combination of the findings by South African researchers and the possible references to psychotropic drugs in Shakespeare’s writings will prompt many more to hypothesize that Shakespeare used narcotics as a source of inspiration. We will never know for sure, but if Shakespeare did use drugs as a tool to spark his creativity he certainly would not be the only literary genius to have done so.

7 replies
  1. John Roger
    John Roger says:

    In the 1990s, a London forensic scientist examined Shakespeare’s pipe: tobacco, ‘mystretic acid,’ marihuana. A decade later, a reviewer of Shakespeares’ writings said “sometimes it rambles.” When Norwegian painter Edvard Munch stopped his depression with psychotherapy, he never painted again. As a career artist at 82 who has clinical depression, leave me to my painting and my herb.

  2. Hamlyn Bond
    Hamlyn Bond says:

    Sonnet 27 was about nothing more rock ‘n’ roll than tiredness. Think you’ve missed it there. But yes, his references to weed and compound were highly suspect. Surprising that today’s schoolchildren say they can’t understand his work, really.


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