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Did Shakespeare Puff on "Noted Weed"?

A study of several 17th-century smoking pipes, including a number found in the garden of Shakespeare's home in England, has revealed traces of cannabis, according to South African scientists.

The South African Police Services Forensic Science Laboratory in Pretoria analyzed the stems and bowls of 24 clay pipes and found traces of tobacco, suggestive evidence of cannabis—and mysteriously, two of the pipes showed signs of what looks like cocaine.


William Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616 and wrote over 200 works of literature mostly plays and sonnets.

The results of the study have been published in the South African Journal of Science.

The analysis was made after a South African scientist had a hunch that reference to the "noted weed" in one of Shakespeares sonnets may have been the bard's way of extolling the effects of cannabis.

Low Concentrations of Cannabis

"There were very low concentrations of cannabis, but the signature was there," said Inspector Tommy van der Merwe, of the Forensic Science Laboratory.

The low concentrations could be attributed to the fact that cannabis begins to degrade after a short period of time, according to the scientist.

However, there is no doubt about the traces of cocaine. "The pipes we tested still had dirt in them which preserved the residues inside the stem and bowl," Van der Merwe said. Contamination was unlikely, he said. "The readings we got were the same as if it had tested a modern-day crack pipe."

One of the cocaine pipes came from "Harvard House" in Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of the mother of John Harvard after whom Harvard University was named.

Cocaine is thought to have not been manufactured before 1855, but the drug is derived from the South American coca leaf which some scientists believe was introduced to Europe in the 16th century, after the Spanish Conquest of Peru.

Others disagree.

Skeptical About Coca

"I am skeptical about the early use of coca," says Daniel Bradburb, professor of social sciences at Clarkson University, Potsdam, New York. "There seems little evidence that it was exported from South America; the Spanish were aware of it and used it in their mining operations there, however evidence for its European use comes much later."

Some historians believe that English seafarers like Sir Francis Drake, a contemporary of Shakespeare, introduced the coca leaf to England after they had seized the drug from Spanish galleons that were returning from Peru.

The use of cannabis was better documented in Elizabethan England. It was used in the manufacture of materials such as sails, rope, and clothing.

Other substances found in the pipes are a little more puzzling. Scientists detected traces of camphor, myristic acid, and quinoline.

Francis Thackeray, a paleontologist from the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, who initiated the pipe study, believes he might have an explanation.

"Myristic acid, which is found in nutmeg, has hallucinogenic properties, and camphor, perhaps, was used to hide the smell of tobacco or other substances," said Thackeray.

Evidence of quinoline, which contains quinine, is a bit more difficult to explain. The drug doesnt have any known hallucinogenic properties and is used in the cure of malaria.

"Maybe Elizabethans Were Experimenting"

"Maybe the Elizabethans were just experimenting with various drugs seeing what worked and what didn't," said Thackeray.

Thackeray started the pipe study after coming across a reference to the "noted weed" in Sonnet 76 of Shakespeare's poems. Thackeray thought it might be Shakespeare alluding to his use of marijuana.

To test his theory, Thackeray enlisted the help of Professor Nikolaas van der Merwe of Harvard University, and through the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon was able to obtain pipe fragments which had been collected from around the area. He handed the pipes over to South African Police forensic scientists for analysis.

Of the pipes that were found in the garden of Shakespeare's home at New Place, several tested positive for cannabis.

"We can't prove that Shakespeare smoked these pipes, but we do now at least know what his contemporaries were smoking," Thackeray says.

Thackeray and his team plan to continue analysis of the English pipes.

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