Van Gogh's Cowboy Boys Shakespeare's Pot

ResearchBlogging.orgAlthough 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)

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Color me unimpressed. Even if "all the evidence" really does, there's not very much, is there? The sonnet quotes in the linked article are all vague, and anyway those are the best, if not only, ones they found in 150 sonnets? Please. The literary evidence here uses the same "consistent with" reasoning that the "Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare" proponents use. It might be suggestive but it's hardly convincing. And, FWIW, Shakespearean criticism is littered with dead hypotheses based upon otherwise-unwarranted readings of a very few lines, so skepticism here is not unwarranted.

I'm not sure what the attitude of the Shakespearean establishment has to do with anything. Assuming Van Gogh really was murdered, it has no bearing whatsoever on whether the Bard took some hits. The mountain gorilla proved to be real but it doesn't make the Loch Ness Monster more likely.

But what is most damning to my mind is the pot residue from "Shakespeare's garden" dating to "Shakespeare's time". If this is a reference to a Stratford house, it's worth noting that there are several houses where Shakespeare actually might have lived, that Shakespeare spent most of 20 years in London while his family stopped in Stratford, and that Shakespeare likely didn't spend much time in the house he retired in until the last 10 y of his life. On the other hand, if it's a reference to a London garden, he moved house in London even more often than in Stratford. The point is that, whether in Stratford or London, dope residue in "Shakespeare's garden" from "Shakespeare's time" could have come from many other people, and Shakespeare being a BMOC doesn't make it more likely that it was his, even considering those vague lines from the sonnets.

If the argument is that there's evidence that toking was not uncommon in Elizabethan England so Shakespeare probably did it, too, that's another thing; but in that case, the literary evidence is even less relevant and the residue-garden-date association little more than anecdotal.

So, as far as I can tell, the null hypothesis stands.

By drbubbles (not verified) on 21 Oct 2011 #permalink

Cris Ericson, I'm all for ending marijuana prohibition, but I can't see why that would require a constitutional amendment (which makes it much more difficult). You realize that the only reason it took an amendment to end alcohol prohibition was that there'd previously been an amendment to enact alcohol prohibition -- right? Marijuana doesn't have that problem.

drbubbles: The pipe bowls are much more closely linked to Shakespeare's residency than your argument makes them seem.

One can't prove who smoked the pipes, but they can be dated to a short time span, do not last long, and were manufactured, used, and discarded, almost certainly, during the time Shakespeare lived in the place they were found.

cannabis hemp makes good sailcloth. Manila hemp makes salt-resistant rope, but MH is related to Banana, not Cannabis. AS Buckminster Fuller said, a C16 ship started out with English Oak planks, but wasnt complete until once round the world - Batavia Teak deck, Manila hemp lines etc.