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Drugs clue to Shakespeare's genius

Elizabethans may have explored more than just the oceans  

STRATFORD, England -- William Shakespeare may have relied on more than his genius to write his plays and sonnets, scientists say.

Researchers have unearthed fragments of clay pipes dating back to the 17th century near the garden of England's greatest playwright which have shown traces of cocaine and hallucinogenic drugs.


The bard would join other illustrious English literary figures if the link was proven such as Coleridge and Byron who took their inspiration from drugs.

While there is no proof Shakespeare himself took drugs, evidence suggests he and his contemporaries might have had access to narcotics.

Cannabis sativa, the plant from which marijuana is derived was available in Elizabethan England to be used for paper, rope, garments and sails.

But it had not been realised that cocaine had been around at the same time -- records have only shown it existing up to 200 years ago.

The cocaine was discovered by South African scientists in two of 24 pipe fragments examined.

Dr Francis Thackeray, a paleontologist at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, who co-wrote the article which appeared in the latest edition of the South African Journal of Science, said the discovery was "really quite remarkable."

"The Spanish had access to it at that time in the Americas, but the fact that it was smoked in England at that time is a first. It is quite a find."

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon permitted researchers to perform chemical tests on its 24 pipe fragments from its museum collection.

They included samples from Shakespeare's house at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, and a number of other nearby sites.

The two pipe stems which bore unexpected traces of cocaine came from the Stratford home of the mother of John Harvard, the South African scientists say. The other was thought to be from Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

Other fragments showed signs of myristic acid, a hallucinogen derived from plants such as nutmeg, and cannabis, as well as tobacco and camphor.

Thackeray added: "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 17th century."

The scientists say their findings may lend weight to the hypothesis that "at least some of Shakespeare's texts were associated with the use or at least knowledge of the effect of certain hallucinogenic substances".

Sonnet 76, for instance, refers to a "noted weed" and "compounds strange", while in Sonnet 27, Shakespeare talks of "a journey in his head".

However literary critics have interpreted "noted weed" as meaning a well known garment or style of dress, and "compounds strange" to mean an unusual word construction or medicinal mixture.

But Ann Donnelly, curator of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust museum, remains sceptical -- and refuses to believe the Bard may have been inspired by drugs.

She said: "People love to come up with reasons for saying Shakespeare was not a genius. I don't think there's any proof that he was helped in any way by taking narcotic substances."

Reuters contributed to this report.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
The Official Royal Shakespeare Company Web site
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
South African Journal of Animal Science

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