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Shakespeare, Chromatography and Cannabis — History, Tragedy or Comedy?

Sep 04 2015 Read 2434 Times

Recent stories in newspapers and magazines have reported that Shakespeare might have written some of his works whilst under the influence of drugs such as cannabis. The news reports have surfaced because of a recently published study that claims to have identified a true image of Shakespeare in a sixteenth century botany book — providing a tenuous link between Shakespeare and tobacco — and enough to excite editors during August.

The original claims, or statements, were examined in the light of several strands of evidence — and one of those strands used chromatography.

Subjective evidence

One of the elements that commentators have used to suggest Shakespeare used cannabis is subjective — it concerns evidence that can be interpreted in different ways depending on the point-of-view of the person making the interpretation.

It is suggested that Shakespeare knew the effects of different drugs or substances and used these effects, or commented on them, in his plays and sonnets — with examples like ‘noted weed’, ‘a journey in my head’ and ‘compounds strange’.

GC-MS investigates the smoking pipes

A 2001 study reported in the South African Journal of Science on the analysis of tobacco pipes found in Shakespeare’s garden and the surrounding area. In an article, Chemical analysis of residues from seventeenth-century clay pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon and environs, the team reported on the analysis of twenty four fragments of pipe that were thought to originate from the seventeenth century from Shakespeare’s garden and the surrounding area.

The first step was to extract any organic residues from the fragments using an organic solvent, chloroform. The extracted samples were then concentrated and analysed using gas chromatography in tandem with a mass spectrometer. Using helium as a carrier gas, a thermal gradient programme was used to separate the sample components before they were measured using MS. For advice on how different factors affect GC runs take a look at this article from Chromatography Today, Optimisation of Column Parameters in GC.

The residues were identified using their mass/charge (m/z) ratio from an online database of reference samples. The results indicated that although substances including nicotine, vanillin and cocaine were identified with a high degree of probability — cannabis was not.

So did he smoke dope?

The authors of the Stratford pipe paper show that although cannabis was not found, the analysis did find some residues that could indicate cannabis was used in the pipes, and no proof that Shakespeare used the pipes.

So we are left with the subjective arguments from Shakespeare’s texts. Does this prove cannabis use? Perhaps we should give the final word to Harvard University’s Professor Stephen Greenblatt, who told Harvard Magazine in 2001:

‘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. Shakespeare never mentions pipes, tobacco, or smoking anywhere in his poems or plays.’

Image by Martin Droeshout [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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