Did Shakespeare Inhale?

William Shakespeare AP

Several 17th Century clay pipes found near the home of William Shakespeare contained a hallucinogenic substance and several others may have been used to smoke marijuana, South African scientists said Thursday.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon in England allowed the researchers to perform a chemical analysis on 24 pipe fragments at the Forensic Science Laboratory in Pretoria. The results showed traces of tobacco, camphor and myristic acid, which has hallucinogenic properties.

"We do not claim that any of the pipes belonged to Shakespeare himself. However, we do know that some of the pipes come from the area in which he lived, and they date to the seventeenth century," said Francis Thackeray, of the Transvaal Museum, one of the researchers in the project. "The results suggest that at least one hallucinogenic substance was accessible to Shakespeare and his contemporaries at a time when smoking was a novelty in England."

Though marijuana degrades over time and it is difficult to identify it with much certainty after many centuries, eight of the 24 pipe fragments analyzed showed signs suggestive of marijuana, the scientists said.

Georgianna Ziegler, head of reference for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, said scholars had no proof Shakespeare took narcotics.

"I'm not saying that Shakespeare would never have drunk, or eaten, or smoked marijuana, because it was used as a medical remedy at the time. But we have no evidence that he ever used it for pleasure," she said.

Thackeray said the use of narcotics in Shakespeare's time may have inspired his Sonnet 76, in which he refers to a "noted weed" and "compounds strange."

Shakespeare scholars interpret "weed" in the context of the Sonnet to mean clothing or a uniform, and "compounds strange" refers to new literary ways of saying things, Ziegler said.

"Most scholars say he is talking about words there, rather than smoking pot," she said.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of the word 'weed' to refer to marijuana only in 1929 in the United States.

Two of the pipe samples tested also showed evidence of cocaine.

One of those pipes came from the home of the mother of John Harvard, after whom Harvard University is named.

"It's possible that some coca leaves were smoked by people in Britian in the 17th Century. Coca leaves contain a small amount of cocaine," said John Henry, toxicologist and professor at London's Imperial College of Medicine, who was unaffiliated with the study.

Cocaine itself did not come to Britain until around 1900, but coca leaves, chewed by many Incas in the 1500s, were transported to Europe in the 17th century by Spanish explorers.

The results of the study have been published in the South African Journal of Science.



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