Did Shakespeare Smoke Pot?

This week celebrates two milestones in the life of English playwright William Shakespeare. The Bard was baptized on April 26, 1564 and died on April 23, 1616. He is regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. He was certainly one of the most creative and prolific.

How did Shakespeare maintain his creativity? In various sonnets he writes about “a journey in my head,” a “Tenth Muse,” a “noted weed” and “compounds strange.” This has led some scholars to believe that the Bard used hallucinogenic drugs.

Several years ago, South African scientists tried to find out. They were given access to 24 pipe fragments from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. While it cannot be proven that any of these pipes were personally used by Shakespeare, they help historians understand what people were smoking back then.

The researchers used an Agilent (then HP) GC-MS system to analyze residues and sediments from the pipe bowls and stems. Among other compounds, they found nicotine, myristic acid (known to have hallucinogenic properties), nutmeg and several medicinal herbs. They found substances associated with cannabis, but could not positively establish its presence. On the other hand, they were surprised to find traces of cocaine, which was introduced to Europe from South America in the 16th century.

Historians know that 19th-century post-Romantics used narcotics to enhance their creativity. It’s fascinating to think this practice may have begun 300 years earlier.

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