SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS AND SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
Professor Francis Thackeray © 2001
Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI), University of the Witwatersrand
PO WITS, Johannesburg 2050, South Africa
Robert Paul (2000) uses the first 19 of Shakespeare's sonnets as a basis for discussing nature and culture in terms of "the intersection of just three elementary components: people, genes, and signs", in the context of "an anthropology that, moving freely and without respect for boundaries among these three perspectives, preserves the largeness and complexity of vision that one finds most consistently and elegantly manifest in the work of Shakespeare". In response to Paul's article, I look further into Shakespeare's sonnets and explore the possibility that at least some of the 154 sonnets relate to metaphors for perceptions associated with altered states of consciousness induced by one or more hallucinogenic plants, including Cannabis sativa, otherwise known as marijuana, "weed", bhang (in India) or "shake" (in England). This possibility is examined as an example of how the study of Shakespeare's sonnets and other literature can be approached by anthropologists who are not themselves "pigeon-holed" into one or other field of specialisation. Here I draw on evidence from many fields closely associated with anthropology, including neuropsychology as well as the study of prehistoric art, botany and literature, with special reference to Shakespeare's sonnets and stimuli for creativity in both literary and artistic contexts.
In the last century French writers belonging to the Club de Haschichin made use of Cannabis. It is probably not coincidental that this club included creative and productive writers such as Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo, since Conrad (1997) states explicitly that resinous Cannabis, smoked or eaten, can stimulate creativity, encouraging "allegorical connections" and "nonlinear thinking". Thackeray (1999) questions whether Shakespeare was at least aware of the stimulating effects of compounds such as Cannabis, and reference to a "noted weed" (Sonnet 76) has been discussed in the context of Cannabis and the sonneteer's appeal for a "Tenth Muse"(Thackeray, 2000).
In classical literature there were nine "Muses" or sources of inspiration for poetry, music and other components of what may be termed "culture". An article entitled "The Tenth Muse: Hemp as a source of inspiration for Shakespearean literature?" (Thackeray, 1999) stimulated a study which brings together aspects of "culture" and "nature", in the sense that chemical analysis of organic residues from 17th century clay pipes from England have been undertaken (Thackeray et al, 2001) to test the possibility that at least some of Shakespeare's sonnets relate to metaphors and imagery associated with altered states of consciousness and perceptions of a "Tenth Muse". The subjects of study for chemical analysis are clay pipes of the kind which were smoked in Shakespeare's time in Stratford-upon-Avon, Oxford and London. The subjects for literary analysis include lines by Shakespeare in sonnet #76, notably "Why with the time do I not glance aside to new-found methods and to compounds strange?' recognising that in other Shakespearean contexts, the word "compounds" can refer not only to literary combinations (Duncan-Jones, 1997) but also to chemical compounds, including drugs extracted from plants that were brought to Europe at a time of exploration by 16th and 17th century sailors and merchants.
Results of chemical analyses of a sample of 17th century clay pipes have the potential to determine what hallucinogenic substances were used in Shakespeare's time. Although it cannot be certain that any of the pipes available for analysis were smoked by Shakespeare himself, there are several texts that support the suggestion that he expressed metaphorical associations relating to hallucinogenic stimuli, their use, the effects of abuse, as well as concepts associated with addiction and remorse. Some of these are listed below as examples of the need to examine Shakespearean literature in multidisciplinary contexts :
In Sonnet 76, the sonneteer states that he prefers not to turn to "new-found methods and to compounds strange", preferring instead "invention in a noted weed", which could potentially be associated with Cannabis as a substance far less damaging than some other drugs of the kind that were introduced to Europe in Shakespeare's time (Thackeray et al, 2001).
The dedicatory lines to Shakespeare's sonnets deserve special attention, since they refer to "The well-wishing adventurer in setting forth". One can explore the possibility that the term "adventurer" refers not only to a "traveller" in a literal sense, but also to a "journey in the mind", a view supported by a definition of the term traveller as a "a person who explorers the effects of psychedlic drugs" (Shulgin and Shulgin, 1997).
Pyschedlic imagery of the kind described in modern contexts by Siegel and by Shulgin (1997) are potentially relevant to interpretations of sonnets such as # 17, in which Shakespeare writes that "in an age to come", sceptics would say "this poet lies, such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces. Such verses may well allude to psychedelic imagery of the kind perceived in a "trip", recognising that in Sonnet 27 Shakespeare writes :
which may be interpreted to refer to imagery perceived in altered states of consciousness.
These interpretations of extracts from Shakespeare's sonnets serve as examples of how such literary texts can be examined in the context of a multidisciplinary approach to literature and anthropology.