Shakespeare’s Drugs of Choice

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Many creative-minded people are known to use mind-altering substances; sometimes for the process, sometimes not. Shakespeare certainly drank alcohol (in Richard III, the Duke of Clarence is drowned in a butt of wine!), but his other possible vices remain unconfirmed. There is evidence that he at least had access to them at the time.

William Shakespeare. Portrait of William Shakespeare 1564-1616.
William Shakespeare. Portrait of William Shakespeare 1564-1616.

Upon digging at his home in Stratford-Upon-Avon, archaeologists discovered three smoking pipes. The pipes had laid untouched since placed there originally. Whatever drug traces they found would be from the pipes’ original user. Later researchers (led by Francis Thackeray) did find traces of tobacco, but this isn’t as surprising as the other three discoveries.

Francis Thackeray holding a clay pipe similar to the ones found. Image: Kevin Sutherland/Sunday Times
Francis Thackeray holding a clay pipe similar to the ones found.
Image: Kevin Sutherland/Sunday Times

Cannabis was found to be in one of the three pipes. The existence of marijuana in 16th century England is not surprising, it had been used for rope and canvas for over a thousand years. In fact, just 30 years before Shakespeare’s birth, King Henry VIII instituted fines on farmers who didn’t grow hemp! However, it’s use as a drug was much more prolific to the East. Finding it in a pipe in Stratford-Upon-Avon confirms that at least some smoked marijuana during the Renaissance.

Henry VIII of England by Joos van Cleve, painted around the time of the decree
Henry VIII of England by Joos van Cleve, painted around the time of the decree

Stranger than that was the traces of cocaine found in the other two pipes. In all likelihood, it was smoked coca leaves since cocaine would not be isolated until 1859. But how did it get to England? During the 16th and 17th centuries attempts were made to bring coca leaves to Europe, but all the shipments became too deteriorated to use. This shows that not only were some shipments successful, the product was strong.

“The readings we got were the same as if it had tested a modern-day crack pipe.”

Inspector Tommy van der Merwe, of the Forensic Science Laboratory

Nutmeg
Nutmeg

Also found in the pipes, Myristic acid, a fatty acid from nutmeg. Nutmeg can create hallucinations and delirium when eaten or smoked, but more often than not has awful (and dangerous) side-effects. Nutmeg at that time had to be imported from a small pacific island called Banda (near New Guinea). Although both the English and Dutch imported it during Shakespeare’s time, it remained extremely expensive. Only those with extra money on hand would have been smoking nutmeg.

Shakespeare's grave
Shakespeare’s grave

That expense would certainly indicate Shakespeare being a likely owner, as he had some cash to spend. But the only way to confirm any of this would be to exhume his body and inspect the remains. Particularly, it can be seen if he was a smoker by looking at his teeth. If there are grooves between the canine and incisor, he was chewing on a pipe! But it’s not going to happen considering the curse Shakespeare left on his grave…

Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare;
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

Whether or not it is confirmed that Shakespeare personally smoked these pipes, it is big news that these three drugs were used in England at all during that time.

Music: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61 – Scherzo by Felix Mendelssohn

Voice of Shakespeare provided by Alex Weitzman

2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Drugs of Choice

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