In the comedy "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (ca. 1597) by William Shakespeare - who died 400 years ago today - the character Ford tells the audience that he would like to "drink in pipe wine" that evening. For some scholars, that reference is likely an allusion to tobacco - a relatively new recreational substance in Shakespeare's England, but those who think that the bard and his contemporaries also puffed cannabis might read that line differently.
In the summer of 2015, Dr. Francis Thackeray - an anthropologist with the University of the Witwatersrand - published an article in the South African Journal of Science claiming that an analysis of smoking pipes unearthed from Shakespeare's garden revealed traces of cannabis as well as tobacco. There's no proof that the pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but the finding fuelled speculation about the bard's alleged marijuana use.
Other scholars aren't convinced. When Thackeray first proposed the theory in 2001, eminent Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt told Harvard Magazine, "I suppose it's remotely possible that Shakespeare and his family were getting a buzz from what they were smoking. But I very much doubt that it played any meaningful role in his life. Alcohol is a much more likely stimulant for Shakespeare's imagination, and even that is probably unimportant."
James Shapiro - a professor of Shakespearean literature at Columbia University - is even less convinced than Greenblatt. In 2015, Shapiro told The Christian Science Monitor, "If you ask me what's extraordinary about Shakespeare's productivity, it's what he didn't use. Neither tea nor coffee was available. No double espresso. Forget about the weed."
But Elizabethans did use cannabis medicinally
Shapiro doubts Shakespeare smoked cannabis for recreational purposes, but it's possible that he consumed it in the same manner as his contemporaries. Shapiro says that Shakespeare would have known about cannabis from the reference to "canna indica" in John Gerard's book The Herball (1597). Contemporaries, Shapiro explained, knew of cannabis as a cure for earaches and a stimulant to make hens lay more eggs.
Contemporaries were also familiar with the non-psychoactive cannabis plant hemp, which was used in Shakespeare's England to make rope, sails, clothes and folk remedies for depression. In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), author Robert Burton mentioned many alleged cures for depression. One included a drink made of hempseed and other spices that people used in the English countryside.
Shakespeare seems to mention that medicinal use of hemp in "Henry VI Part II" (ca. 1591) when the rebel Jack Cade threatens a sick nobleman: "Ye shall have a hempen caudle...and the help of hatchet."
Cade is offering to cure the illness by beheading the sick man, but the reference to "caudle" - which Merriam-Webster defines as "a drink (as for invalids) usually of warm ale or wine mixed with bread or gruel, eggs, sugar, and spices" - seems to allude to the sort of medicinal cannabis use that Burton said was practised among Shakespeare's contemporaries.
And Shakespeare might have made a similar link between medicine and death in "Henry V" (ca. 1599) when the comic character Pistol denounces hanging by saying, "let man go free / And let not hemp his wind-pipe suffocate."
On the surface, Pistol's talking about the use of hemp to make nooses. But Shakespeare - a notorious punster who has entire books dedicated to his wordplay - could have been punning on the harsh feeling that cannabis can leave on the throat.
Unfortunately, Stephen Greenblatt is on sabbatical, so he was unable to comment on our reading. We'll let you know what he says once he gets back to us. In the meantime, you can celebrate the bard's life by watching The Beatles - who certainly did smoke marijuana - perform scenes from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (ca. 1595).
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