A team of scientists in South Africa have discovered residue of cannabis on 400-year-old smoking pipes believed to have been owned by the 17th century English poet and playwright William Shakespeare. This suggests that the renowned literary figure could have used the psychoactive substance during the creation of some of his masterpieces.
In a study featured in the South African Journal of Science, University of the Witwatersrand professor Frances Thackeray led a group of researchers in analyzing the fragments of 24 tobacco pipes that were unearthed in the garden of Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon home. The smoking pipes, which were mostly made of clay, were provided to the team on loan from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Using a delicate process known as gas chromatography mass spectrometry, the Wits University researchers found traces of cannabis on eight samples of tobacco pipes from the Shakespeare's garden, two of the smoking instrument samples contained Peruvian cocaine made from the leaves of coca and at least one sample had residue of nicotine on it.
Experts theorize that the English playwright may have even been aware of the psychoactive properties of cocaine as an unusual compound, but that Shakespeare preferred the mind-stimulating effects of cannabis weed.
Subtle hints of this assertion can be found in some of Shakespeare's well-known work, such as in Sonnet 76 where the poet wrote about an "invention in a noted weed." Some believe that this line pertains to Shakespeare's willingness to use cannabis to help him in creative writing.
In the same sonnet, Shakespeare hinted that he did not wish to be associated with the use of "compounds strange," which could be potentially interpreted as strange drugs known today as cocaine.
Shakespeare's Sonnet 76 may be related to his command of wordplay, in part relating to drugs, such as weed and compounds, and in part to a writing style that is typically associated with literary compounds and clothing.
The analyses of the chemical traces on the 17th century smoking pipes confirm that several different kinds of plants were smoked by people in Europe. Evidence found through chemical science and literary analyses can help scientists understand Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries.