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William Shakespeare on Drugs

04/23/2014 12:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2014

How high was Shakespeare? Research published in 2001 revealed residues of cocaine, marijuana and myristic acid, a nutmeg-derived hallucinogen, in 17th-century clay-pipe fragments dug up from the garden of his home. Of course, we won't let the fact that only circumstantial evidence links these pipes with Shakespeare get in the way of some good speculating.

Francis Thackeray, the anthropologist behind that analysis, applied in 2011 to exhume Shakespeare's skeleton to try to determine whether he was indeed a pothead, as well as his cause of death. The teeth could have been telling: "If we find grooves between the canine and the incisor, that will tell us if he was chewing on a pipe as well as smoking," said Thackeray. The Church of England has yet to grant permission.

And could that cause of death have been alcohol-related? John Ward, a vicar at the church where Shakespeare is buried, tantalizingly wrote, "Shakespeare, [poet Michael] Drayton and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted." But Ward's diary entry was made 50 years after the event.

Shakespeare's drunks alone could stock a tavern, including Sir Toby Belch of the "cakes and ale" party in Twelfth Night, and Falstaff, who appears--wasted--in three different plays and declares in Henry IV Part 2, "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack [fortified wine]."

His works contain other drugs, too--a shed-load if you include the poisons. Just don't expect too much of the consumption to be consensual.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Oberon, king of the fairies, tells his servant Puck to score him an obscure drug. "Fetch me that flower, the herb I shew'd thee once." Oberon plans to use the extract to play an ethically dubious trick on his fiery wife, Titania:

The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid / Will make or man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees.

Which, as Titania's luck would have it, is a man named Bottom, who has the head of a donkey.

Oberon then can't resist distributing the goods to four young Athenians who have entered the forest in the hope of sorting out their complicated love situations. Naturally, cases of mistaken identity ensue as Puck bungles the delivery. Modern chemists have tried to recreate "Puck's Potion," without achieving the desired effects.

Romeo and Juliet: Juliet is desperate: Romeo, has been banished and her oblivious parents are about to force her to marry someone else. Naturally, she seeks help from the trusted friar who presided over her clandestine wedding.

So tell us, Friar Lawrence, why do you--a holy man--happen to have a drug to hand that will knock a girl out for two days like some early form of GHB? He reels off the instructions and side-effects as smoothly as if he's reading out a modern medicine's prescribing information:

Take thou this vial, being then in bed, / And this distilled liquor drink thou off; / When presently through all thy veins shall run / A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse... And in this borrow'd likeness of shrunk death / Thou shalt continue two and forty hours.

Who wouldn't say yes to that plan? A recent BBC article suggests that Lawrence's potion "could have been Atropa belladonna, also known as sleeping nightshade."

When Romeo doesn't get the memo, he opts for suicide and to that end hits up a drug dealer/apothecary. "Come hither, man. I see that thou art poor," he winningly introduces himself. "Let me have / A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear / As will disperse itself through all the veins / That the life-weary taker may fall dead."

Mantua is in the grip of some Iranian-style drug policy: "Such mortal drugs I have," replies the apothecary, "but Mantua's law / Is death to any he that utters them."

Economics prevail and Romeo scores his poison of choice. And he uses his dying breath to praise not his beloved, but his dealer: "O true apothecary, / Thy drugs are quick."

Sonnet 76: Shakespeare's sonnets are supposedly the writings in which he most reveals himself. Speculation feverishly focuses on the "Dark Lady" and the "Fair Youth" to whom lots of these 14-liners are addressed. But scholars have also wondered what to make of the "compounds strange" and the "noted weed"--credited with "invention"--in this example. If it were a modern song, we'd have little hesitation in concluding, "Drugs!"

Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.


Read the full version of this article at Substance.com.

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