Cannabis has been in use for thousands of years, and was not criminalized in the U.K. and the wider world until the early 20th century, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that its use was accepted before then.
But it is interesting, nonetheless, that some of the greatest works of literature in English history may have been influenced by the oft-maligned drug. Research has suggested that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) may have smoked cannabis, and there are a few excerpts from his work that back-up the claim.
A team of South African scientists performed forensic analysis on 400-year-old tobacco pipes dug up from Stratford-upon-Avon, including Shakespeare’s garden. Of the 24 fragments of pipe, eight contained traces of cannabis, four of which were from Shakespeare’s property. Two also contained traces of cocaine, but these were not found on his property, and Shakespeare is not thought to have used cocaine.
The findings, led by Francis Thackeray of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, are not new. They were carried out in 2000, but recently republished in the South African Journal of Science after the debate on whether Shakespeare smoked cannabis was reignited by an article written by Mark Griffiths in Country Life.
Griffiths suggests that a play called "A Country Controversy" was written by Shakespeare, and in the short play a reference is made to an herb "that which maketh time itself wither with sondering."
Speaking to IFLScience, Thackeray said: "I suggest that this is a cryptic reference to cannnabis, which is known to have the effect of making time 'slow down' – as perceived by a person smoking cannabis."
A technique known as gas chromatography mass spectrometry was used to pick up the traces of narcotics in the original forensic study, a technique that can detect them even after such a long period of time.
“Chemical analyses of residues in early 17th-century clay ‘tobacco pipes’ have confirmed that a diversity of plants was smoked in Europe,” Thackeray wrote in The Conversation. “Literary analyses and chemical science can be mutually beneficial, bringing the arts and the sciences together in an effort to better understand Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
“This has also begged the question whether the plays of Shakespeare were performed in Elizabethan England in a smoke-filled haze?”
Looking back at some of Shakespeare’s work, he does seem to leave a few clues that he may have been under the influence. As Shakespeare-Online points out, in his Sonnet 76, he alludes to using “a noted weed” for “invention” (writing), but shies away from “compounds strange,” which may refer to cocaine.
We may never know the whole truth, but the findings do at least suggest Shakespeare may have used a bit of assistance when writing some of his 38 plays and 154 sonnets.