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Bad Will hunting: Prof wants to drug test Shakespeare’s bones for marijuana.

June 29, 2011

Is this the first truly accurate portrait of Shakespeare?

I have but one question for the South African anthropologist who wants to open Shakespeare’s tomb so he can run DNA tests to find out if the Bard was high on pot when he wrote the plays: Dude, what are you smoking?

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If Francis Thakeray, director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, is right, then maybe Judd Apatow should make a new series of Shakespeare movies, with, say, Seth Rogen as Hamlet, Kevin Smith as Falstaff, Chris Tucker as Othello, Anna Faris as Cordelia, and (of course!) John Cho and Kal Penn as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This is the looniest theory since the one about how someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays. And like that one, it can be refuted without leaving your armchair. A bit of clear thought is all that’s required.

As a child of the ’60s, I’ll admit back in the day I smoked my share of happy weed (and probably some of your share, too), and I still favor full legalization. But some years have passed since I put this particular childish thing away, so therefore I present myself as a champion of the “no-he-didunt” camp. And, uh, also an expert witness.

First the case for the prosecution: According to, scientist Thackeray found “evidence of marijuana residue” in “pipe fragments” he uncovered in Shakespeare’s garden in 2001.

Now, despite the famous doggerel on Shakespeare’s tomb, cursing “he [that] moves my bones,” Thackeray wants permission to open the grave so he can test hair and fingernail samples for traces of cannabis.

As Time magazine argues, cannabis sativa, used to make rope, textiles and sails for ships, was easily available in Shakespeare’s England. The Shakespeare Stoner camp also points to a couple of random quotes from the sonnets that seem druggy: One mentions a “noted weed,” while the other refers to “a journey in his head.’

Yeah, yeah. What claptrap.

First of all, Time  makes the common mistake of conflating marijuana with hemp. Sure, they’re both derived from the sativa plant, but the version grown for industrial purposes contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient, compared to five to 15 percent in marijuana grown as a recreational drug.

You could smoke that sh–, er, stuff all day without getting even the premonition of a buzz.

Second, two assumptions. One is that Prof. Thackeray is aware that almost 500 years have passed since Will died. The other: That the garden in question is at Shakespeare’s permanent home in Stratford.

As any schoolchild knows, Shakespeare spent almost all his working years in London. The pipes with that pot residue could have belonged to anyone. (I actually used this argument successfully on a pair of cops who pulled me over one night in a West Virginia university town, circa 1975.)

The final and most conclusive argument, however, is that Shakespeare would have been completely unable to produce the work that makes him our greatest English-language writer if he’d been a stoner.

Shakespeare wrote 38 five-act plays, plus two long narrative poems and 154 sonnets, in a working life that spanned only 23 years. Then he died, used up, at age 52. And he directed a theater company and ran side businesses. Oh-oh — and he was an actor.

I don’t know how the man found time to sleep, let alone toke up.

And if my personal research is reliable, while marijuana may spur some degree of creative activity in the mind (or, more likely, the illusion of creativity), its soporific effect is a well-known disincentive to, oh, you know — work.

So: Was Shakespeare a pothead? Signs point to don’t-you-have-something-better-to-do, Prof. Thackeray? Here’s hoping the Church of England, which has authority over the Bard’s grave site, denies his request to open the crypt.

Allowing this ghoul access to those famous bones would compound imbecility with indecency.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 12:14 pm

    It’s like what Lenin said… you look for the person who will benefit, and, uh, uh…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 29, 2011 4:20 pm

      Or, as Lennon said, “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”

  2. June 29, 2011 12:28 pm

    “Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs. Being purged a fire sparkling in lovers eyes, being vexed a sea nourished with lovers tears, What is it else? A madness most discreet, A choking gall and a perserving sweet.” Sounds like a commie pothead to me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 29, 2011 4:22 pm

      More Lennon: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”

      Also: “If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.”

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