Although one can not be certain, all the evidence points to the fact that William Shakespeare smoked pot. This is not a new story. My good friend and colleague, Dr. Francis Thackeray, who has never smoked pot in his life but who has acted in Shakespeare’s plays numerous times, led a research team that put 2 and 2 together and came up with narcotic literary munchies. In Shakespeare’s time, land owners were required to grow pot in order to provide fibers for making the rope needed hoist the sails and flags over the increasingly powerful British Navy and merchant vessels. One of the better depictions of Shakespeare’s face shows the well known smoker’s mark, a feature that forms when one habitually smokes with a kaolin tobacco pipe. Thackeray masterfully identifies numerous passages in Shakespeare’s work that strongly indicate that he partook of the weed but not of stronger narcotics such as cocaine. But, that was all mentioned in code; Elizabethan England did not exactly have “drug laws” as we know of them today (though substances were controlled, legal, or not legal, depending). The main problem was that drug use was considered Witchcraft, and even though smoking various things was either legal or not depending on which Monarch was in charge, Witchcraft was always going to get you … well, stoned. As in crushed by them. (Or hung or burned at the stake, though rarely the latter … why waste good fuel.)
Oh, and Thackeray’s research team got their hands on a series of kaolin tobacco pipe bowls excavated from Shakespeare’s garden, dated to Shakespeare’s time, which on careful analysis contained numerous interesting exotic substances including molecules that could only have come from Cannabis. Shakespeare … busted.
When this research was first disseminated, Shakespeare scholars by and large rejected the findings as impossible, absurd, highly unlikely and so on and so forth. Why? Because they did not already know it to be true. Well, maybe not, but that’s my assessment. By the early 21st century, there was not much about Shakespeare that could be known that was not known. Gallons of ink spilled, a hurricane’s worth of breath expelled, tons of gray matter expended; Science could not tell Shakespeare scholars something new, and nothing so unexpected or odd could possibly be newly discovered.
I have a sense that this is similar to the reaction Van Gogh scholars are having to the recent assertion by two Pulitzer Prize winning authors that the painter did not in fact commit suicide, but rather, was shot accidentally by a young man with an obsession for American Western Cowboy Culture and a rusty old six shooter. I’m not going to argue one way or another for this alternative theory of Van Gogh’s death, other than to note that it is rather interesting that a physician at the time stated that the bullet wound was not made from very close range and was at a strange angle to have been self inflicted. I’m not sure that Van Gogh scholars are snubbing this new idea because it “can’t be true.” I’m not saying anything. I’m just sayin’
Getting back to Shakespeare’s pot; The requirement that landowners of the day grow a certain number of pot plants on their property seems to provide opportunity. However, those not interested in entertaining the idea that Midsummer Night’s Dream was a trip in more ways than one like to point out that this would have been hemp, the non-narcotic variety of cannabis, the variety used for making rope, and thus would not have been smoked.
But this is not true. In those days, pot was pot. The range of varieties we see today, with ultra strong narcotic varieties on one end of the spectrum and essentially useless1 hemp on the other, did not exist then. There probably was variation in product, as a result of different strains being grown in a variety of ways, but there was almost certainly not a hemp that you would not smoke.
And now, new research helps us to understand the difference between cannabis that gets you stoned and hemp that gets you rope.
A team of researchers led by Drs Jon Page and Tim Hughes from Canada sequenced DNA from the potent Purple Kush (PK) marijuana strain … The PK genome and transcriptome … were then compared to those of ‘Finola’ hemp, and scanned for differences which might explain why marijuana produces tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), the active ingredient of cannabis, while hemp strains lack THCA but contain the non-psychoactive cannabinoid, cannabidiolic acid (CBDA).
The transcriptome held the clues to solving this genomic puzzle. Dr Page explained, “The transcriptome analysis showed that the THCA synthase gene, an essential enzyme in THCA production, is turned on in marijuana, but switched off in hemp.” Dr Hughes continued, “Detailed analysis of the two genomes suggests that domestication, cultivation, and breeding of marijuana strains has caused the loss of the enzyme (CBDA synthase) which would otherwise compete for the metabolites used as starting material in THCA production.”
Ah. So that’s how it works.
The fact that both Van Gogh and Shakespeare figure prominently in the Dr. Who mythos would certainly be a coincidence. If we believed in coincidence.
1Well, useless except for making rope, paper, for cooking, and dozens of other purposes.
Harm van Bakel, Jake M Stout, Atina G Cote, Carling M Tallon, Andrew G Sharpe, Timothy R Hughes, & Jonathan E Page (2011). The draft genome and transcriptome of Cannabis sativa Genome Biology, 12 (R102)