New Light on the "Dark Lady" ?


Professor Francis Thackeray © 2001
Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI), University of the Witwatersrand
PO WITS, Johannesburg 2050, South Africa

William Shakespeare, arguably the "man of the millennium", was extraordinarily productive and creative within his lifetime. Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, he was given an education that stimulated an interest in history and Graeco-Roman literature, which served as a basis for plots in many of his own plays. Shakespeare's prose and poems reflect the creativity of a man who was deeply aware of the diversity of human nature, and in Sonnet 81, he had referred to verse as being a "monument". The concept of eternity is central to several of the sonnets, as in Sonnet 18 :

      "Thy eternal summer shall not fade, When in eternal lines to time thou growest".

Scholars have long debated whom Shakespeare may have been addressing in the sonnets, and the identity of the so-called "Dark Lady" has been a vexing question. New avenues for research are open, taking into consideration the possibility that at least some of Shakespeare's writings may reflect an awareness of hallucinogenic stimuli. Was Shakespeare using hallucinogens of the kind that included Cannabis, a substance which is known to stimulate productivity and creativity among writers, and a sense of time-prolongation or eternity (Conrad, 1997) ? This question has been cautiously pursued by in an article entitled "The Tenth Muse: Hemp as a source of inspiration for Shakespearean literature ?" (Thackeray, 1999), published as an occasional paper by the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa.

Critics, perhaps horrified by the suggestion that the bard's image might be tarnished, have questioned whether Cannabis was even known in England in Shakespeare's time. The answer is simple. Hemp was used in Europe for the manufacture of paper, clothing, ropes and canvas sails even before Shakespeare was born. The King James Revised Version of the Bible was published on paper produced from fibre of the plant known as Cannabis sativa. Even Shakespeare's First Folio was printed on Cannabis fibre. Canvas sails used by Spanish, Portuguese and English explorers were made from Cannabis fibre; the durable hemp fibres withstood the effects of saline waters of the world's oceans. The word canvas is linguistically associated with Cannabis. Moreover, clothing made from hemp was durable (hemp is the word for a shirt in Afrikaans, spoken today in South Africa, derived from 17th century Flemish and Dutch). As industrial hemp, Cannabis sativa has no or very low hallucinogenic content (THC), but varieties of the same plant can have high THC concentrations that stimulate the brain. When used in excess, the results are debilitating. In moderation, the use of Cannabis is known to have stimulated the minds of writers and artists, at least within the last two centuries.

Did Shakespeare or his contemporaries ever use hallucinogenic stimuli ? One way of addressing this question lies in chemical analysis of clay pipes, which increased in popularity towards the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries in England. Bowls and stems of clay pipes have been recovered from excavations at New Place where Shakespeare lived until his death in 1616. Additional samples have been recovered from areas adjacent Stratford-upon-Avon. Samples of these have been made available by the Museums Curator of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and are currently being analysed in a forensic laboratory.

Professor N.J. van der Merwe of the University of Cape Town and Harvard has demonstrated from chemical analyses that clay pipes from Ethiopia, several centuries old, were used for the smoking of Cannabis. The effects of hallucinogens may well have been deleterious among those who used such substance(s) in excess, but it would seem possible that Shakespeare, if he used them at all, experienced them long enough to know when to stop. Perhaps he has a message for drug users in the lines "weed this wormwood from your fruitful brain" (Loves Labours Lost 5.2), interpreted by Thackeray (1999) to be a possible "exhortation to drop the habit of using drugs, and instead to use a 'fruitful' brain." In Shakespeare's sonnets 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" (Sonnet 5). The "show" of hallucinogenic plants may of course last long after the plant has died, when the products of certain plants are smoked or distilled. Imagery stimulated by hallucinogens and "translated" into written verse can last long after the death of the poet. Perhaps this is what was intended in some of Shakespeare's sonnets, adding new connotations to "your monument shall be my gentle verse" (Sonnet 81), and "Nature meant thou shoulds't print more, nor let that copy die" (Sonnet 11), bearing in mind that Cannabis paper was used for printing and publishing works of Shakespeare.

Conrad (1997) states explicitly that the use of substances such as Cannabis can lead to perceptions of "inner dialogue", whereby a person may "converse" with people perceived in altered states of consciousness. Perhaps the identify of the "Dark Lady" lies hidden within the texts of at least some of the sonnets, dedicated to "the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets", wishing the reader an "adventure" reminiscent perhaps of "voyages" which a poet may have had in his mind. In sonnet 27, Shakespeare writes "Then begins a journey in my head (cf a trip?), to work my mind . . ." and in the same sonnet he refers to images perceived in darkness, including jewel-like imagery which is potentially identifiable with geometric imagery of the kind described as "entoptics", perceived by subjects in drug-induced altered states of consciousness (Siegel, 1977).

Hallucinogenic substances may have been associated with witchcraft in the 17th century in Europe, and books associated with witchcraft were liable to be burnt. Aspiring writers would have seen sense to avoid making explicit reference to hallucinogenic "muses" or sources of inspiration, if their productivity and creativity were to have been adversely affected by regulations relating to the use and connotations of such substances. Perhaps this is why Shakespeare does not make explicit reference to any hallucinogen. Perhaps he made only metaphorical reference to such substances in at least some of the sonnets. Notably, in Sonnet 76, he refers to "invention in a noted weed". "Invention" in this context certainly relates to the act of writing. "Weed" is a term that can refer to a hallucinogen, cf "grass" today. Shakespeare then writes in the same sonnet "that every word doth almost spell my name", which is almost "that very word doth almost spell my name". Perhaps it is not coincidental that "shake" like "weed" is known to be a word for Cannabis.

That Shakespeare must have been aware of the link between assassinations and hemp (hashish) is suggested from the line "with the help of a hempen candle and a hatchet" (Henry VI, Part 2, Act 4, Scene 7), since assassins are known to have used hashish to do their deadly deeds, and the very words 'hashish' and 'assassin' are linguistically connected through the word 'haschichin' (cf French hache, axe, hatchet). Moreover, in Macbeth, before an attempted assassination, Macbeth asks "is this a dagger I see before me ?". The dagger is one of several hallucinations, associated with assassinations.


I thank Major Peter Gardner and Ann Donnelly for the opportunity to examine material curated at The Shakespeare Birthplace in Stratford, as well as Laurence Wright and Guy Butler for their encouragement.


Please note that this is not the same article as was published in Occasional Papers 1999 (see below), but it is a response to comments received by the author to that article.


  • Conrad, C. 1997. Hemp for Health: The Medicinal and Nutritional uses of Cannabis sativa.
    Healing Art Press: Rochester Vermont.
  • Siegel, R.K. 1977. "Hallucinations". Scientific American 237: 132-140.
  • Thackeray, J.F. 1999. "The Tenth Muse: Hemp as a source of inspiration for Shakespearean Literature ?" Occasional Paper, Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa.

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