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Much Ado About Nothing: Did Shakespeare Get High?

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To exhume or not to exhume? That is the question facing the Church of England right now as it considers an application to unearth William Shakespeare’s remains to determine if the poet smoked pot. Apparently, an anthropologist in South Africa really, really wants to know whether or not The Bard got baked.

Francis Thackeray, the director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the guy who submitted the application, began wondering about Shakespeare’s relationship with marijuana upon hearing a line in sonnet 76 that refers to a “noted weed.” Following a hunch that the weed in question could be pot, Thackeray obtained pipe fragments from Shakespeare’s home in 2001 and had them analyzed by forensic scientists. Several tested positive for traces of cannabis and cocaine. But there was no conclusive evidence that Shakespeare himself inhaled.

Now Thackeray wants to take the inquiry a step further and uncover the graves of Will and his family—which, by the way, are engraved with a warning that reads “Blessed be the man that spares these stones, and cursed be he who moves my bones”—to determine once and for all whether the Bard was a midnight toker. And I, for one, don’t get it.

I understand the fascination with Shakespeare. I’m a groupie myself, and I’m all for scholarly inquiry into his life. And to be fair, I should mention that Thackeray also hopes to gain insight into the cause of Shakespeare’s death by examining his bones, even though his peers say it’s a long shot. But the cannabis conundrum is the headliner, and there are a few reasons this curse-awakening pot excavation doesn’t jibe with me.

First of all, who in their right mind thinks Shakespeare didn’t at least dabble in drugs? I mean, are you high?! Elizabethan England was a bawdy, experimental moment in history, and if we are to use his writings as any indication, Shakespeare was well-versed in the trappings of counterculture. I’m not saying he toked at Cheech and Chong levels or that he was even a habitual user (iambic pentameter is not for the hazy), but the fact that there were psychotropic substances found in his home is about as surprising as finding Woody Harrelson cloaked in hemp. And given that it’s unclear whether the proposed testing could conclusively determine anything about the frequency of his use, I fail to see this potential discovery as exhume-worthy.

Secondly, even if Thackeray or some other scholar wanted to rattle The Bard’s bones to reveal something worthwhile, like for instance, evidence that proves once and for all that Shakespeare was the one and only author behind the famed folios, I’m not sure I’d be down with it. Call me old-fashioned, but the sanctity of graves should be respected—especially ones that threaten a curse. As far as I’m concerned, the only good reason to disturb a man in his final resting place would be to retrieve CSI-style tissue samples that could possibly free another man from prison or certain death. So unless Shakespeare’s relationship with pot somehow clears up the whole Leonard Peltier situation, I see no reason for the intrusion.  

Of course I’m no Shakespeare scholar nor am I a ganja-pondering anthropologist, so maybe I’m showing a shade of ignorance by arguing that there’s nothing worthwhile to gain from digging up Sir Will, but for what it’s worth, I say let The Bard rest in his maybe-pot-induced peace. What do you think? Are you dying to know if Shakespeare toked up?

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons


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