Shakespeare and Cannabis? Seems So …

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Did he “puff the light fantastic” or is it just a long establish method to relax the human body after working long hours, exactly as Elizabethans, and modern Americans use ale and wine. — BY DAVID PINCHING –

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The recent discovery of a drug-tainted clay pipe in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of Shakespeare, has caused some fervent discussion on the topic of the Bard’s possible hemp usage. In early March of this year, some South African researchers explained that their chemical analysis of seventeenth century pipes had revealed traces of compounds created by the burning of cannabis, and hallucinogenic substances. Apparently, then, Shakespeare and his contemporaries had access to a number of narcotics. Naturally, tabloids and websites alike responded by claiming that Shakespeare was inspired by drugs. A few choice headlines include everything from “Drugs clue to Shakespeare’s Genius” and “Did Shakespeare seek inspiration in Cocaine” to the less subtle “Shakespeare’s ‘Cannabis Sonnet‘” and “Shakespeare may have been stoned on pot“. Every academic who could be bothered to dip into the mire of such shock journalism shrieked back that there was no proof that Shakespeare took the substances and that, crucially, he was a genius regardless of his lifestyle. In the lather of spurious information from the drug-lobby, entirely innocuous phrases such as “noted weed” and “compounds strange” were cited as proof that the writer of Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet was drugged up to the ruff. Actually, in the relevant context, “noted weed” means “famous type of clothing” and a “compound strange” is nothing more exciting than an unusual word construction.

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Oddly, in all the desperate kafuffle to find some loose reference to narcotics that could appear in a twenty- line tabloid article, journalists failed to note more suspect goings on in the plays themselves. Was it not Macbeth who saw a dagger floating in the air in front of him, Hamlet who ran about murderously after being visited by his father’s ghost and Othello who babbled incoherently about “goats and monkeys”? Almost the entire cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are given drugs and sleeping potions at some point and one is entirely convinced that he is a wall (actually, he is one of the few not drugged, but the point holds). The fact that the journalists and academics alike seemed to avoid studiously was that there was nothing remotely illegal about the drugs found in the pipes in Shakespeare’s day. As most people are aware, Queen Victoria herself took cannabis for the relief of period pains and every poet worth his or her salt in the nineteenth century ingested enough laudanum and opium to make the Beatles blush. The fact that we seem to want Shakespeare to have taken drugs for sensational value says more about our age of celebrity than it does about the great playwright. Those who like to degrade the great and promote the sensational would like to imagine Shakespeare spliff in mouth like the ridiculous and once ubiquitous ‘psychedelic’ poster of the Mona Lisa. It is a lot easier to debunk something than to create something worthwhile oneself.

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The mindset behind such an outlook is the really depressing thing. People like to imagine Shakespeare freebasing and rolling up joints because they see him as an establishment figure. As such, portraying him as a junkie causes amusement and indignation because of our modern attitude to substances that allows certain kinds of intoxication but not others. Shakespeare would not have understood our simultaneous and hypocritical prudishness and excess. He was, in his time, a radical, a novelty and far more dangerous to the establishment with his damning indictments of royalty in King Lear, Richard III and King John among others than any of our media starlets. The idea that you can be anti-establishment by becoming incapable of thinking properly is pretty out of date anyway. And, as the worst excesses of post-Sixties fiction, music and art have proved, ‘mind-altering’ does not necessarily mean ‘art-improving’.

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Ann Donnelly, the curator of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was unimpressed with the evidence from the pipes and claimed that people are always trying to “come up with reasons for saying Shakespeare was not a genius”. This may be something of a spoilsport attitude, but it is a fair one. Everyone in England is forced to read Shakespeare at school, and plenty of other countries have a similar policy regardless of the fact that Shakespeare is hardly the easiest entry point into the English language. However, one suspects that if cream buns and Britney Spears were forced on pupils as Shakespeare is, they too would become distrusted at an early age. As such, Ms Donnelly is right in saying that people often look for a way to knock Shakespeare off his high horse. There was the school of thought that said that Shakespeare was not even the author of the plays published under his name but that, in fact, an aristocrat wrote them. Others have claimed that Ben Jonson and other worthies of the age were responsible.

Generally, it seems that people have a problem accepting that one man wrote so much, let alone so much great literature. What we are effectively saying in insisting that Shakespeare probably smoked drugs is that given the task of trying to write all the plays Shakespeare did we would probably turn to narcotics. The fact is that reading the Bard’s works or going to see a good production of one of his plays is infinitely more rewarding than taking drugs. Thankfully, Shakespeare’s plays are also cheaper and more freely available.

 


 

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