The Bard and dope: was this such stuff as dreams were made on?

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What stirred the mind of William Shakespeare to such prodigious feats of creativity? The boundless vision of a natural genius, or something more exotic?

What stirred the mind of William Shakespeare to such prodigious feats of creativity? The boundless vision of a natural genius, or something more exotic?

Two South African scientists think they know the answer and are about to embark on a series of forensic tests to prove a case that will blow smoke in the eyes of traditional Shakespearean scholarship.

Dr Frances Thackeray and Professor Nick van der Merwe believe that the man who bestrides the classical canon was not just a genius, but a very early pot head.

They have commissioned scientists from the police laboratories in Pretoria to analyse the contents of several clay pipes retrieved from New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon - Shakespeare's home until his death in 1616. And, using gas chromatography, they hope to establish just what once burned in the 400-year-old relics.

Dr Thackeray, head of palaeontology at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, believes that Shakespeare's words themselves suggest a hallucinatory influence. This is, after all, the poet who wrote of "invention in a noted weed".

In a paper written for the Shakespearean Society of Southern Africa, he points to the Bard's use of complex imagery of jewellery, darkness and mental journeys - suggestive of a drug-induced vision - and argues that cannabis may help account for the writer's formidable productivity. Could the dark lady herself be a reference to the creative but dangerous forces of the weed, he asks?

"There are very few literary scholars who have recognised the potential link between Shake- speare and hallucinogenic stimuli. This project has Stratford agog," said Dr Thackeray.

"A close reading of his sonnets and some other lines suggests that he was aware of them and may have experienced the effects himself.

"We have reference to the effect of substances distilled from flowers, long after the plant has died. For example: 'But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet, leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.' At the very least there is a high probability that Shakespeare had a knowledge of hallucinogens."

The theory is lent more credence by the ready availability of the weed in 17th-century England. Cannabis smoking may not be well recorded, but it is far from implausible in a seafaring nation where ships relied on rope and canvas - all made from the cannabis plant itself in the form of hemp. Even the paper for the King James Bible was manufactured from cannabis fibre, as was paper for some of Shakespeare's early works.

"Was hemp known in Europe or used as a hallucinogen in Elizabethan times?" asks Dr Thackeray. "Certainly, Portuguese travellers in India were aware of hallucinogenic hemp in the 16th century. Notably, just one year before Shakespeare's birth, G da Orta in 1563 had written Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India, which included reference to the properties of resinous cannabis.

"European explorers passing through southern Africa were also aware of the use of cannabis among indigenous African populations," he said.

It is of course perfectly possible that the pipes were used for puffing tobacco,which was introduced into English society by Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1570s and 1580s. Not that that weed was universally well recieved. Witness King James's Counterblaste to Tobaccco, in which he famously described smoking as "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain and dangerous to the lungs".

Forensic tests may reveal the truth. Prof Van der Merwe said chemical analysis of dirt and residue from the clay pipes would be complicated. But it could establish what was smoked in Stratford at the time - he has, for instance, found cannabis in Ethiopian pipes dating to the 14th century. "I am just keeping a watching brief so that proper chemistry is done."