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

In Sonnet 118, Shakespeare refers to an appetite stimultant ("to make our appetites more keen"). Commenting on a study of appetite stimulants, Mechoulam and Fride (2001) state "Cannabis users are well aware of the appetite-enhancing effects of the drug". It may not be coincidental that Shakespeare refers to appetite in the context of "compounds", a word which was used in Shakespearean contexts to refer to drugs (3). This association is found in Sonnet 118, which also relates to a need to suppress appetite (to "frame my feeding"). Two other sonnets refer to appetite and gluttony (Sonnets 1 and 56).

It has been suggested that at least some of Shakespeare's sonnets reflect his awareness of the effects of Cannabis (Thackeray, 1999). The possibility that he and/or his contemporaries had access to it has been suggested from chemical analysis of residues in 17th century clay pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon and elsewhere in England (Thackeray et al, 2001).

The fact that Shakespeare was not explicit about Cannabis may have related in part to a decree by Pope Innocent VIII, associating Cannabis with witchcraft (Bennett, 2001). In the 16th century, the French author Rabelais had written (cryptically) about Cannabis in his book called Pantagruel. In the 16th and 17th centuries, writers using Cannabis as a stimulant ran the risk of having their books burnt, or worse, could have been themselves burnt at the stake on account of associations with witchcraft.

Shakespeare's reference to appetite and gluttony in his sonnets are among several indicators which point to possible associations with Cannabis, without being explict about the plant (Thackeray, 1999).

  • Bennett, C. 2001. Shakespeare's "noted weed". Cannabis and Culture.
  • Mechoulam, R. & Fride, E. 2001. Nature 410, 763-765 (2001).
  • Onions, C.T. 1919. A Shakespeare Glossary, 2nd edition. Clarendon, Oxford (1919).
  • Thackeray, J.F. 1999. The Tenth Muse: Hemp as a source of inspiration for Shakespeaream Literature? Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa, Occasional Paper.
  • Thackeray, J.F., van der Merwe, N.J. and van der Merwe, T.A. 2001. South African Journal of Science 97, 19-21 (2001).

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