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Pipes Show Cocaine Smoked in Shakespeare's England

by Ed Stoddard

picture of William Shakespeare

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Was William Shakespeare partial to a good deal more than a pinch of tobacco while composing his sonnets?

While there is no proof the bard delved into narcotics, clay pipe fragments excavated from his Stratford-upon-Avon home and of the 17th century period show conclusively that cocaine and myristic acid -- a hallucinogenic derived from plants, including nutmeg -- were smoked in Shakespeare's England.

The findings, published in the latest issue of the South African Journal of Science, also show hints of residues of cannabis or marijuana, but this has not been proven. Nicotine, unsurprisingly, was one of the compounds firmly identified.

``The cocaine was found in two of the 24 pipe fragments examined, which is really quite remarkable,'' Dr. Francis Thackeray, a paleontologist at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria who co-write the article, told Reuters.

``The Spanish had access to it at that time in the Americas, but the fact that it was smoked in England at that time is a first. It is quite a find,'' said Thackeray, who is a distant relative of the famous 19th century English author.

``Cocaine was recorded in Europe about 200 years ago, but to our knowledge never this early,'' he said.

``...apparently no chemical analyzes have been undertaken to determine what substances other than tobacco may have been smoked in England during the 17th century,'' the article said.

It said cannabis sativa, the plant from which marijuana is derived, ``was certainly accessible in Elizabethan England for paper, rope, garments and sails.''

The fragments, which were lent to Thackeray by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, were examined with the help of Inspector Tommie van der Merwe of the South African Police Service's Forensic Science Laboratory.

DRUG-INDUCED POETRY AND PROSE? The findings are certain to spark tantalizing speculation that England's favorite writer may have been inspired to write his enduring classics while under the influence of substances associated with bohemian authors of the 20th century.

``There is some suggestive evidence in Shakespeare's own writing,'' said Thackeray.

``In sonnet 76 he refers to a 'noted weed' which may have been a reference to cannabis,'' he said.

``In the same sonnet, he refers to 'compounds strange' and the word compounds is a known reference to drugs,'' he said.

``But I think Shakespeare, who may have experimented with these substances, is saying he would rather turn away from them. I would not read it as an endorsement of drug use,'' he said.

Source: Reuters
Date: March 3rd 2001

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