Shakespeare on pot

Two South African scientists have gotten Shakespearian scholars excited and confused. They claimed to have studied the Bard’s texts and found cryptic references to cannabis, and possibly other drugs, encoded in his writings.
Dr Thackeray, head of palaeontology at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, and his research partner Professor Nikolaas van der Merwe of Harvard University and the University of Cape Town, have suggested that old William not only used marijuana, but acknowledged the creative force of the herb esoterically in Sonnet 76, with a reference to “invention in a noted weed.”

“I have suggested that Shakespeare was being careful not to make explicit reference to hallucinogenic properties of hemp,” explained Thackeray, “on account of possible associations with witchcraft ? leading possibly to the burning of books.”

Cannabis and other medicinal herbs were generally banned by the Inquisition during the 12th and 13th centuries. 80 years before Shakespeare’s birth, Pope Innocent VIII proclaimed cannabis an unholy sacrament of satanic mass. Those who used cannabis for enjoyment or healing were often tortured and killed by the Catholic Church. If he had been more forward about his use of the herb, Shakespeare himself might have been burned alongside his own manuscripts.

With their well established academic credentials, Thackeray and van der Merwe were able to further test their hypothesis by commissioning police laboratories in Pretoria to analyse two dozen clay pipes that were retrieved from Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. Thackeray is careful to point out that “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.”

With the use of modern gas chromatography, they hoped to establish just what once burned in the 400-year-old relics. On March 1, 2001, the Transvaal Museum in South Africa released the findings of these tests, which showed the presence of not only tobacco residues on the pipes, but also cocaine, and evidence of marijuana.

Although the police analyst complained that “organic substances such as cannabis degrade after a short period of time and are affected by heating,” eight of the pipe fragments “showed suggestive evidence” of cannabis use.

Two of the pipe samples showed evidence of cocaine. One of the pipe samples with cocaine came from Harvard House in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of the mother of John Harvard after whom Harvard University is named. It was a pipe stem, still completely filled with the soil from her garden, which had sealed it against modern contamination. Material from the inside of the stem contained cocaine residue.

Cocaine would have been a rarity in Shakespeare’s time, but would have been available to some. It was first introduced to Europe in the 16th century after the Spanish conquest of Peru. Sir Francis Drake, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was one of many English captains who raided Spanish fleets, bring to England goods which had been taken originally from native peoples in Peru and elsewhere.

Academic disapproval

The results of the research was published in the South African Journal of Science, which is distributed worldwide.

As could be expected, this information was not easily accepted in Shakespearian academic circles. Georgianna Ziegler, head of reference for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, said scholars had no proof Shakespeare actually enjoyed toking up. “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.”

Professor Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the foundation which loaned the pipe fragments for the study, said the conclusions were “regrettable.” He complained that “it’s trying to suggest that Shakespeare was not a great genius, but somebody who produced his writings under an artificial influence… There are about 8 million cannabis takers in this country at the present time. Are they producing anything?”

Perhaps Professor Wells has been spending just a little to much time in the Shakespearian library, as a quick look at literary history shows that cannabis and other intoxicants have served as a source of inspiration for many of Europe’s most celebrated authors.

Francois Rabelais

Shakespeare (1564-1616) would no doubt have been familiar with the works of Francois Rabelais (1495-1553), the French monk and author who died about ten years before Shakespeare’s birth. Rabelais served as a literary beacon, leading Europe out of the Dark Ages at a time when virtually all creative writing was of an orthodox religious flavour.

Rabelais’ classics Gargantua and Pantagruel appear at first to be merely a humorous and bawdy tale of the adventures of a noble giant and his even nobler son. However, a deeper reading reveals a telling parody of Church and State, and also certain esoteric information.

Rabelais gave his readers broad hints at the forbidden knowledge he was revealing in his texts. “Following the dog’s example,” he writes, “you will have to be wise in sniffing, smelling and estimating these fine and meaty books; swiftness in the chase and boldness in the attack are what is called for; after which, by careful reading and frequent meditation, you should break the bone and suck the substantific marrow… in the course of it you will find things of quite a different taste and a doctrine more abstruse, which shall reveal to you most high sacraments and horrific mysteries in what concerns our religion, as well as the state of our political and economic life.”

Rabelais’ famed books contain many cryptic references to cannabis. In Pantagruel, Rabelais gives a distinct description of cannabis, which he referred to as “The Herb Pantagruelion,” a term used to avoid persecution from the church. “The leaves sprout out all round the stalk at equal distances, to the number of five or seven at each level; and it is by special favour of Nature that they are grouped in these two odd numbers, which are both divine and mysterious. The scent is strong, and unpleasant to delicate nostrils.”

Rabelais goes on to describe hemp’s unmistakable uses: “…all the cotton plants of Tylos on the Persian Gulf, of Arabia, and of Malta have not dressed so many people as this plant alone. It protects armies against cold rain, much more effectively than did the skin tents of old. It protects theatres and amphitheater against the heat; it is hung around woods and coppices for the pleasure of hunters; it is dropped onto sweet water and sea water for the profit of fishermen. It shapes and makes serviceable boots, high boots, leggings, shoes, pumps, slippers, and nailed shoes. By it bows are strung, arbalests bent, and slings made.”

Rabelias tells us that the hero of his tale, a giant named Pantagreul after his favourite herb, was sure to bring plenty of buds and pot-candies along on a voyage: “it was observed how he caused to be fraught and loaded a herb of his called pantagreulion, not only of the green and raw sort of it, but of the confected also.”

Most of Rabelais’ references to marijuana appear in Pantagruel, Book III, chapters 49-52. These chapters were for long periods banned by the Catholic Church, and even in many modern translations of Pantagruel they are still omitted.

The hashish club

No literary history of Europe is complete without mention of the Bohemian intelectuals that gathered in mid 19th-century France to consume a powerful preparation of hashish. “The Hashish Club,” which lasted from about 1844-49, was founded by Theophile Gautier, and included such famous literary iluminati as Alexander Dumas, Gerard de Nerval, Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, Ferdinand Boissard, Charles Baudelaire, Eugene Delacroix, Roger de Beauvoir (known as “the idol of Paris”) and many others.

This group made up some of the most brilliant minds in France and Europe at the time. These “high” initiates would gather at Paris’ Gothic Pimodan House, (Hotel Lazun) in Arabian dress, to partake of syrupy hashish blended into strong Arabic coffee. Many of them left detailed writings of their experiences, or incorporated hashish into their fictional tales.

Club members were clearly familiar with their pot-smoking literary antecedents. Club founder Theophile Gautier (1811-72) wrote of “pantagreulion dreams” passing through his consciousness.

Gautier formed the club after meeting Dr J Moreau – an expert on the effects of hashish. Moreau wrote about how cannabis allowed one to enter “an in-between land where the external life ends and the internal life begins.” Moreau also described hashish as “an intellectual intoxication,” preferrable to the “ignoble heavy drunkenness” of alcohol.

Famed poet and author Gerard De Nerval, life-long friend of Gautier, was amongst the first to join the Hashish Club. De Nerval was steeped in occult lore, and described the effects of cannabis as a “new life… liberated from the conditions of space and time.”

Alexander Dumas, author of such classics as The Three Muskateers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was at first shunned by fellow members of the club, as they considered him bourgeois, because he moved in a society of counts and countesses, and was a friend of King Louis Philippe. Although he left us nothing directly about his own visionary experiences under the drug, The Count of Monte Cristo includes an encounter with a hashish ingesting Sinbad the sailor, which shows an obvious knowledge of both the effects of the drug and its history.

Club member Honore de Balzac, who was considered to be one of the most brilliant men in France, at first pooh-poohed his friends’ claims about hashish. He considered it a deep shame to renounce one’s will over to any substance. Further, he claimed hashish would be unable to effect his powerful brain. Eventually his curiosity got the better of him and he tested some of the hashish, admitting that he heard celestial voices and saw visions of divine paintings before he left the group.

Famed author Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) came to join the club after being introduced to Gautier by painter Fernand Boissard, who himself joined to see music and hear paintings. Baudelaire wrote how after consuming cannabis, “on occasion the personality disappears. That concentration on the external, which is the hallmark of all great poets and master comedians grows and dominates your outlook.” Baudelaire rarely partook of the drug himself, preferring to observe its effects on his friends.

Baudelaire eventually penned a book about his experimentation with hashish and opium, called Les Paradis Atificiels, (Artificial Paradises), a name he felt reflected the “heaven” offered by these substances. Having been burdened with a load of Catholic guilt, Baudelaire was a man of great despair. Although admired by his peers, he considered himself a failure, was an alcoholic and an opium addict, and died of the syphilis he had contracted in his youth.

Other pot poets

Another experimenter with the inspirational herb can be found in the Belgium poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91). Rimbaud is said to have penned many poems while under the influence of hashish, including one called The Time of Assassins, in which he writes “To us promise was made that the Tree of Knowledge should be buried in the shade, that tyrannical respectabilities should be deported in order that our pure love should be indulged.” The poem concludes “The time of Assassins is here!”

The famous Irish poet and occultist WB Yeats (1865-1939) also experimented with hashish, and wrote about his experiences. Yeats was introduced into the writings of the members of the Hashish Club by friend and fellow poet Arthur Symons.

Contemporary and associate of the British poet Yeats, Lewis Carrol (1832-98) obviously had some knowledge of cannabis as well, as can be seen by the hookah smoking caterpillar in his classic Alice in Wonderland.

One of the greatest English playwrights of the time, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), wasn’t averse to a little pot smoking either. “Bosie and I have taken to hashish,” he once wrote about himself and his homosexual lover. “It is quite exquisite; three puffs of smoke and then peace and love.”

These are just a few examples of how many great writers have used cannabis to enhance their creativity and literary works. Writers of all languages have used pot for many centuries. Thus it isn’t unlikely that Shakespeare, England’s greatest playwright, also liked to burn a little bud.

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