I realize I’m not jumping into a hot new fray by tackling the question of whether William Shakespeare smoked marijuana. The idea that he may have was hot stuff in 2001, when a South African archaeological team rooting around the Bard’s Stratford home uncovered some pipes that—apparently indisputably—contained residue not only of marijuana, but cocaine as well. Obviously, Shakespeare was not the only person who ever lived in that house, but carbon dating has, to the satisfaction of people with more expertise than I in such things, established that the pipes belonged either to Shakespeare or to one of the two people who lived there immediately before and after him. The reason I’m bothering with a blog about this is not because it’s news, but rather because, despite the fact that this has been out there for nearly a decade, every article about it is stupid (there are way too many to link to, but just Google the words “Shakespeare” and “marijuana”). Since this is something that new generations of Shakespeare fans, lit students, aspiring writers, and overconfident stoners are never going to stop Googling, it seems to me that they deserve a decent article about it. I can only hope that they manage to find this one.
Obviously, I’m not saying I know anything for a fact or am in a better position to prove my personal theories than anyone else. But I do feel as if, at least, I know the right questions to ask. Every source on this business I’ve been able to locate is far more sensational than scholarly, pitting old-guard educators who are sure that Shakespeare never touched the stuff against “High Times” types who are equally sure that he wrote every word of the plays baked off his ass. As a well-trained poet, an English professor, a devoted Shakespeare fan who has read the man’s every surviving word, and yes, as someone who has been known to enjoy a bit of marijuana from time to time, I think I can do better. Maybe, by the standards of the internet, “better” isn’t saying much, but here we are just the same.
I feel I should begin by pointing out that “The Whole ‘Shakespeare Smoked Weed’ Thing” is actually four questions:
1. Did Shakespeare ever smoke weed at all, even once?
2. If so, then how often, or for how long, or at what point in his life?
3. What, if anything, did this have to do with the work he produced?
4. Are there, as some have suggested, references to smoking weed in said work?
The first question is the easiest, and my answer to that one is Yes, and would still be Yes even if no-one had ever found those pipes. We know that pot smoking was a thing people knew about and did in England in Shakespeare’s time. As stoners are so fond of pointing out, lots of stuff used to be made out of hemp and it was a major cash crop. We know from assorted references that Europeans of the 16th Century were well aware that you could get high from smoking it (the Catholic Church, for example, went to the trouble of making a rule against it about 80 years before Shakespeare’s birth). And even if we didn’t have those references, history indicates it a safe bet that when people live someplace where something grows that can make you high, it doesn’t take long for someone to figure this out: even way back in the day, the people who lived where coca grew did cocaine, the people who lived where poppies grew did opium, the people who lived where peyote grew tripped on peyote, etc. There seems to be no historical instance of people living someplace where something grew that could get you high and having no clue about it, and all of those other drugs are way less intuitive when it comes to figuring out how to get high off them than marijuana is (no drying, no melting, no grinding, you just pick the damn thing and smoke it).
Now, obviously, just because someone in a certain place at a certain time did a particular drug, that doesn’t mean everyone did. But it’s not like Shakespeare was some square: he followed his dream to the Big City while still in his 20s, hung with artists, tapsters, pimps and hos, and seems to have gotten along with them just fine. Partly, this was a professional necessity: historians have long since conjectured that, at least while he was still young and poor, Shakespeare would have done a lot of his writing in taverns, since candles were expensive and a bar was just about the only public place one could sit where it was light enough to write (furthermore, the quality and freshness of a commoner’s food was so poor that people were obliged to drink steadily all day simply to avoid being doubled over with digestive pain). Certainly, enough of Shakespeare’s work celebrates the brassy bonhomie of one’s beloved local—most magically in the two parts of Henry IV—that it’s inconceivable he was a stranger to such haunts. And if marijuana wasn’t present in the London dives where the artists hung out, then where was it present?
If anyone in 1590s England knew about smoking pot, then the young William Shakespeare would have been among those in the know. The only way he wouldn’t have ever even tried it would be if he had some sort of principled objection, and there is no reason to believe he would have harbored any such reservations. We know he enjoyed drinking, and was even proud of the fact: almost uniformly throughout Shakespeare’s work, jolly merrymakers are celebrated, and abstemious teetotalers ridiculed: the lovable Feste and Sir Toby make sport of the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, the earthy passion of Antony and Cleopatra is exalted above the cold nature of Octavian Caesar, and Love’s Labours Lost pokes fun at the impossibility of forsaking the desires of the body for a life of stoic philosophizing (in fairness, I should acknowledge that a notable reversal of this trend can be found in Hamlet, wherein the melancholy prince speaks nothing but daggers for both his mother’s passions and his uncle’s drunken “rouse”—but since Hamlet condemns just about everything that makes life worth living at one moment or another, a condemnation by Hamlet cannot automatically constitute a condemnation by Shakespeare). And this wasn’t like the present day, where we’ve got this thick black “legal vs. illegal” line distinguishing alcohol from “drugs.” There was no such thing as an “illegal drug” back then, and therefore no reason to expect that Shakespeare or anyone else would have regarded getting high on marijuana as somehow morally or materially different from getting drunk. If anything, tobacco would have been the “weird new” substance on the block, since it had only just been discovered in the New World, but apparently everyone just said Whatever and started smoking that immediately.
It is a big leap, however, from acknowledgement that Shakespeare almost certainly tried marijuana once or twice to an assertion that he smoked it regularly and that it informed his work to the same extent that, say, LSD informed Sgt. Pepper’s. And this is the point at which I must disappoint somewhat the pot enthusiasts who must have been so heartened by the last few paragraphs. Whatever marijuana’s virtues, even its champions grudgingly admit that it is not exactly conducive to getting a massive amount of work done, day-in day-out, over extended periods of time. But Shakespeare did just that: he wrote 38 plays, most of which are artistically and intellectually superior to everything else ever written by anyone, in just over twenty years, which works out to a rate of just under two masterpieces every year for his entire adult life. And these were plays, remember, not novels or lyric poems, and writing a play is hardly all the work of putting on a play: Shakespeare ran and oversaw his own troupe and eventually his own theatre, and so had to deal with hiring and firing actors, coaching them and putting up with their crap, finding new set builders outside Home Depot at the last minute when the guys from yesterday showed up drunk, and all the other stuff people who produce theatre have always had to deal with, and oh by the way he also acted in his own and other people’s plays just for giggles and so had to turn up for rehearsal with everyone else. In short, most of William Shakespeare’s day-to-day life for his entire career was taken up with bullshit that distracted him from writing, and he still managed to write… well, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. If one thing is absolutely certain, it’s that this was not the life of a man in the habit of deciding that shit could wait until Monday.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say this sword cuts both ways, and that the above paragraph can be turned around on me—i.e., that if anyone who ever lived was such a genius that he could have done all that even though he was high, it was Shakespeare. Fair enough. But why would he have? Have you ever gotten stoned right before you had to do something laborious all day—like going to your shitty job at Dairy Queen or something—expecting that being high would make it better, only to discover that, instead of making something tedious and boring magically fun, being high actually makes it even more of a pain in the ass? Well, I would imagine that people who have jobs and know what pot is have been discovering the same thing for centuries.
Okay, so maybe it’s too easy to argue against the idea that Shakespeare was a daily smoker. No serious people were arguing that anyway. So what about the idea that, after Shakespeare had met with enough success to have underlings who dealt with bullshit and be able to spend more time writing in peace with his very own candles and everything, he judiciously incorporated marijuana into his process to some extent? I find this argument more compelling. After all, the pipes that started the debate were found at his home in Stratford, which he didn’t buy until 1597, around the time that he was wrapping up the Histories and getting underway on the greatest of the Comedies and on Hamlet.
However, I find nothing in the plays of this period aesthetically evocative of marijuana use (with the possible exception of the songs from As You Like It). Remember, pot doesn’t make you funnier; it makes other people seem funnier to you. The pastoral settings of the Great Comedies may seem “pot-ish” to us, but this is very much a modern association we foist onto the plays: the connection between marijuana and “back-to-nature” ideals is a largely a product of the 1960s, and Shakespeare was not only writing long before the ’60s, but 200 years before the Romantic Era that the ’60s cannibalized. Most importantly, the elements that make the Great Comedies so Great are all antithetical to what someone writing stoned would come up with: there are more characters, more interwoven plotlines, more incisive battles of wits between fully developed personalities with far less broad caricature and physical buffoonery, and—most significantly—far fewer instances of a single character stopping the play to meditate on an isolated concept. (Hamlet does this constantly of course but, paradoxically, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s only abstemious good guy, and his play is relentlessly sober; despite the similar sensations of being stuck inside one’s own throbbing head, there is a clear difference between being depressed and being stoned.)
As valuable as marijuana can be for composing outside the box on a word-to-word level, it does not lend itself to back-and-forths between two (or more) characters with distinct voices: it locks you in one mindset, albeit more deeply. If there were a period where marijuana had something notable to do with Shakespeare’s process—and I’m not saying there definitely was one, but if someone told me for a fact that there were and asked me to guess when—it would have begun in around 1605, after the composition of Hamlet and Othello, but before King Lear and Macbeth. The latter two tragedies are roomier, playing out in more of a psychological echo chamber. There are fewer central characters, and those characters are more isolated from one another: in Lear, Lear goes off and does Lear things while Edgar goes off and does Edgar things and Edmund goes off and does Edmund things, and Macbeth might all just as well be a nightmare trip that Macbeth himself is having. The verse itself is more anarchic too: speeches began incorporating tetrameter and trimeter lines, and rhyming internally and sporadically rather than either regularly or not at all.
Furthermore, Shakespeare’s track record from this point to the end of his career conforms to that of many other artists suddenly acquainted with chemical inspiration: a couple of new-style masterpieces right out of the gate (Lear and Macbeth), followed by uneven pieces containing isolated flashes of brilliance (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale), and the inevitable utter shitstorm (Pericles), which prompts a back-to-basics reboot (Coriolanus), before getting it together for one last home run that feels like a more personal, laid-back version of the initial new-style masterpieces (The Tempest). This would explain why Shakespeare began producing more slowly during this period—but then, this could just as easily be explained by the fact that he was already quite successful and could afford to take his time. (Even with recent artists on whom we have infinitely more documentation, such questions are not easy: starting in 1966, the Beatles put out one album a year instead of two or three, and were both wealthy and on drugs, so was the decreased output because of the wealth, the drugs, both, or neither?)
But even if we accept on this admittedly slight evidence that Shakespeare smoked marijuana at all in the last phase of his career, this still certainly does not mean that he composed even one play entirely while stoned. My estimation is that—if pot had anything at all to do with the composition, which I am not sure it did—the process was most likely to write plays sober and then fine-tune certain speeches while high. As mentioned earlier, pot is good for going deeper into one voice, but not so good for switching back and forth among several.
There may also have been a “notebook writing” element to his process during this period. Why assume, for example, that the Fool’s most riddling quips or the nightmarish litanies of the disguised Edgar’s mad speeches in King Lear were composed specifically to be spoken by those characters at those times? Shakespeare may well have had a special “crazy shit” notebook that he worked in pre-contextually and then dipped into whenever he needed some crazy shit (the Fool’s “great confusion” prophecy, for example, is both totally awesome and doesn’t really have jack to do with what is going on in the play at that moment, and this goes double for the songs from the Comedies), and he may have only used drugs when writing in that.
Of course, this sounds good but proves nothing. Arguments about which artistic works were “obviously” the result of experimentation with drugs can seem very compelling, but at the end of the day the only way we know that the Beatles smoked pot and took acid is because they came right out and told us they did (and as it turns out, the elements of the records that most aggressively evoke drug use were largely the work of producer George Martin, who didn’t take any). There is also the phenomenon of the genius who uses drugs when he is not working: contrary to popular belief, Sherlock Holmes did not use his seven-percent solution to aid in solving mysteries, but rather to replicate the natural high of sleuthing when no game was afoot: so even if we found a secret compartment full of paraphernalia with Shakespeare’s name written on all of it in his own handwriting, it might still be the case that he only used when he wasn’t writing.
Speaking of the white stuff, although every article highlights the marijuana theory and virtually all the discussion has been limited to this—perhaps because people who want to believe that every famous historical figure smoked weed are simply a bigger market—you may remember that the press releases mentioned cocaine residue on the pipes as well. Funnily enough, cocaine makes more sense aesthetically (in my opinion), but less sense historically. The rapid-fire, pun-laden battles of wits that pop up in virtually all of Shakespeare’s best plays are much more evocative of cocaine use than of marijuana. And the hand-in-glove relationship between Shakespeare’s obsessions and those of Sigmund Freud (who we know for a fact used cocaine) would seem to lend further credence to the notion that coke, rather than pot, was the Man from Stratford’s chemical assistant of choice.
The problem is, there is no historical evidence that cocaine (or, more accurately, the chewing or smoking of coca leaves, since the process for isolating cocaine as we know it wasn’t developed until the late 19th century) was in vogue in Shakespeare’s England. The parts of South America where coca grew were under Spanish control and, though the Conquistadores knew about and used coca, they wouldn’t have been sharing with the English (Shakespeare’s career precisely spans the 25 years immediately following the Armada). A few isolated stashes were doubtless appropriated en route by English privateers, but they would have become the property of the Crown, and anyone who wanted a fix would have needed friends in very high places. The natures of drugs and money being what they are, it can safely be assumed that there were Spanish smugglers bringing coca places besides Spain, but this must have been rare, as coca doesn’t seem to have been big business in Europe: unlike with pot, the Church never said a word about coca, and if the Catholic Church was ignorant of something going down in 16th-century Spain, then said thing must have been going down very secretly and very rarely—and rare in Spain would have meant virtually non-existent in England. Coke residue got on those pipes somehow, but it may have been a once-in-a-lifetime find, or the pipes may have been Spanish to begin with.
Finally, there is the fourth question: did, as so many of the articles about the finding of the pipes suggest, Shakespeare ever insert coded references to drugs in his work? My answer to this one is Absolutely not. Remember, we have to be careful of ascribing to Shakespeare modern motivations that would have made no sense to him: even if he did smoke pot, why would he have bothered to put hidden messages about this in his work? So teenagers would think he was cool? He was Shakespeare, not the Steve Miller Band. It was 400 goddamn years ago. If there are hidden messages in Shakespeare’s work, they are more likely to be about his sexuality or religious beliefs than about what he smoked—simply because he had no reason to think that people would ever care any more about what he smoked than about what hairstyle he had or where he bought his shoes.
There is also, not inconsiderably, the fact that all of the supposed pot references are obvious bullshit to anyone with even a cursory comprehension of the poems in which they appear. It is, I suppose, to be expected that all the most famous “references” are in the Sonnets, the go-to source for everything “secret” about Shakespeare. I am hardly the first to explain that this notion of the Sonnets as Shakespeare’s Diary is not supported by anything except our desire for there to be such a thing as Shakespeare’s Diary, but onward.
Nearly all the articles—and even the Wikipedia page about marijuana—make much of the reference to a “noted weed” in Sonnet 76, which also mentions “compounds strange.” Such terms may be suspicious out of context but, unfortunately for everyone else who has ever written about this, I am actually capable of following this poem.
Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quick change?
Why, with the time, do I not glance aside
To new-found methods or to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
….For as the sun is daily new and old,
….So is my love, still telling what is told.
Whatever the compounds strange are in line 4, the speaker is not only saying he doesn’t use them, but that every other writer does. So this would only make sense as a drug reference if we accept that every poet in 1590s England was on drugs except Shakespeare, and that his intended audience was aware of this, which seems unlikely, and in any case the line would be about not doing drugs, rather than about doing them. As for noted weed in line 6, that is more complicated… Just kidding, it’s not complicated at all: it means “clothes.” The argument of the poem, as you probably already know if you have gotten this far into a 4,000-word blog post about Shakespeare, is “Why do I keep writing about the same thing in the same style, instead of writing about fashionable new subjects in fashionable new styles? Because I love you and realize that you are the only thing worth writing about, and so writing about you never gets old.” The phrase keep invention in a noted weed means “continue to dress my creative output in the same clothes” (cf. Twelfth Night V.i.266 “And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds,” i.e., feminine clothing). Seriously, did the half-dozen reporters who cited this phrase bother to ask a Renaissance Lit professor about it first? Or even, say, a high-school student who scored a 4 or better on the English AP?
The second-most commonly cited “hidden pot reference” is Sonnet 38, addressed to a mysterious Tenth Muse who dost give invention light. Now, I guess I can’t prove that Shakespeare is not addressing pot here. But I also can’t prove that he’s not addressing autoerotic asphyxiation. The poem is addressed to someone or something that inspires the speaker. Ostensibly, if every single other one of the sonnets is any indication, it is a someone. (The early sonnets were commissioned by patrons, and what patron would have been paying Shakespeare to write poems addressed to marijuana—Duke Woody of Harrelson?) If this is a fake-out and it is a something, then there are a million other things it could just as likely be as marijuana. Why, for example, is it any more likely to be about marijuana than alcohol or tobacco? The fact that there are no even halfway-credible references to pot anywhere else in the works makes this even more dubious: why randomly compose one sonnet entirely about how amazing marijuana is, and then never mention it anywhere else even once? If popular music is any indication, artists who talk about pot at all tend to talk about pot often. And why even keep it a secret when it wasn’t illegal? I guess Shakespeare was just trying to hide how heartbroken he was when marijuana left him for a Rival Poet in Sonnets 78-86. Oh, wait, marijuana can’t leave you for someone else. I guess these are about a person after all.
In summation, I would be very surprised if William Shakespeare never smoked marijuana even once, but am also convinced that he didn’t find this as big a deal or as defining a personal attribute as modern pot enthusiasts seem to, and certainly didn’t bother dropping hints about it in his work. Whether he smoked pot with any regularity is anyone’s guess, but it seems incontrovertible that if Shakespeare did smoke regularly, he did so either extremely judiciously as one aspect of a carefully regulated creative regimen, or only very occasionally for recreation purposes in the brief and infrequent windows during which he was not working. It is certainly possible that marijuana had some influence on his work, but there is no indication that it was any more responsible for his style or worldview than alcohol was, and indeed a good deal of evidence that Shakespeare simply preferred drinking. The unmatched psychological insights in his work point to an author who was not only a “people person,” but a peerless observer of the habits and linguistic animi of every personality type imaginable. This is inconsistent with the habitual stoner’s propensity to live inside his own head: if Shakespeare did make use of weed creatively, he almost certainly came to it late enough in life that it represented a final twist on an already fully formed observational and compositional ethic. Had marijuana been important to Shakespeare’s artistic development from an early stage, he would have composed a greater number of meditative lyrics, as opposed to being apparently uninterested in them (even the Sonnets work far more like philological proofs rendered in verse, rather than “explorations” of “sensation” like, say, Keats’s Odes).
But I am completely sure of one thing, and it is the thing I consider most important to say on this subject: the question of whether mind-altering substances were a part of Shakespeare’s process is a valid one, important not only to literary scholars or historians but a form that falls across every human being’s sense of the relationship between his or her mind and the world it attempts to perceive. If Shakespeare did use drugs, would he have been less good without them, or only different, and different how? Or might he have been better without them and, when talking about Shakespeare, what could “better” conceivably even mean? If Shakespeare smoked pot, does that prove that everyone should? As with musings upon whether the phenomenon of existence itself was unavoidable or accidental, these are matters about which we can construct very beautiful arguments that reveal a great deal about ourselves the arguers, but next to nothing about their supposed objects. They must be approached at once with infinite faith and infinite doubt. Grade-school jailers who would subjugate Shakespeare to ideals of social propriety and counterculture dilettantes who would subjugate him to ideals of quick-fix rebellion equally do damage, not merely to Shakespeare but to the human experiment that is his lengthening shadow.