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 :

  1. Many of the sonnets relate to concepts associated with time and eternity. Conrad (1997) states that one of the most common perceptions associated with the use of Cannabis is a sense of time-prolongation.

  2. Sonnet 5:

    Were not summer's distillation left,
    A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
    Beauties effect with beauty were bereft.

    These lines can be associated potentially with the distillation of plants, including those with hallucinogenic properties inducing imagery of the kind which are called "entoptics" and which have been the subject of interest in the fields of prehistoric rock art (e.g. Lewis-Williams and Dowson, 1988), neuropsychology (Siegel, 1977) and literary interpretations (Thackeray, 1999).

  3. Sonnet 119:

    What potions have I drunk of siren tears
    Distilled from limbecks foul as hell within...
    How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted
    In the distraction of this madding fever?"

    These lines can be interpreted in the context of the effect of drugs including those distilled from alembics ("cf "limbecks")

  4. Sonnet 125:

    Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
    Lose all, and more, by paying too much rent,
    For compound sweet forgoing simple savour
    Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent"(emphasis mine)

    "Simples" and "compounds" relate to the distinction between various substances, including drugs, as in the title of the book entitled "Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India", which was published in 1563 by da Orta, a Portuguese explorer and himself a medical doctor. In it he describes Cannabis and other drugs.

  5. Cannabis is an appetite stimulant (Conrad, 1977). In Sonnets 1, 56 and 118 there are references to gluttony and appetite. In Sonnet 125 we have reference to "compound sweet", and Conrad (1997) notes that Cannabis can be associated with sweet substances, as in "sweet meats". In Sonnet 118 we have :

    Being full of your ne'er-cloying sweetness,
    To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding
    And, sick of welfare, found a kind of meetness...

    which can be interpreted in the context of the use of Cannabis followed by the use of a bitter substance (cf Artemisia) to "frame" (cf contain) "my feeding" (see below).

  6. Bitter substances such as plants belonging to Artemesia were recommended by Culpeper in the 17th century to offset the adverse effects of hallucinogenic drugs. Plants of this genus are themselves known to have hallucinogenic properties. Reminiscent of homeopathic principles, Sonnet 118 includes the lines "we sicken to shun sickness...", and in the same sonnet, the final rhyming couplet states :

    Thence I learn, and find the lesson to be true,
    Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.

    Attention can be drawn to the possibility that by referring to "you, thou" or "him", the sonneteer is addressing imagery associated with perceptions in altered states of consciousness induced by one or more drugs. This approach has the potential to cast new light not only on the identity of the so-called "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets, but also on that of the so-called "rival poet", especially if more than one hallucinatory drug was associated with literary allusions in at least some of Shakespeare's sonnets.
Sonnetts #153 and #154 refer to the need for a "cure" for "strange maladies", which could potentially relate to the effects of excessive use of hallucinogens. The sonneteer believes that his cure will not be found in a bath, but rather in "my mistress' eye" (Sonnet 153). A new avenue of exploration is opened now by recognising that Shakespeare's "mistress" is not necessarily a person in real life, but is instead an entheogen, associated with imagery perceived in states of mind associated with one or more hallucinogens, at least one of which may be associated with a "TenthMuse" (cf "invention in a noted weed" in Sonnet 76, in which the term invention certainly relates to writing). We have strong indications that moderate use of Cannabis can stimulate creativity and writing, inspiring "allegorical connections" (Conrad, 1997). It would seem possible that another hallucinogen, apart from Cannabis, may be alluded to in the context of a "rival", recognising that new hallucinatory drugs were being introduced to England within Shakespeare's lifetime, when Spanish, Portuguese and English explorers were travelling around the globe in search of exciting new commodities.

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 :

Then begins a journey in my head...
Looking on darkness which the blind do see
Save that my soul's imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view

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.

  • CONRAD, C. 1997. Hemp for health: The medicinal and nutritional uses of Cannabis sativa. Healing Art Press: Rochester, Vermont.
  • DUNCAN-JONES, K. 1997. Shakespeare's Sonnets. The Arden Shakespeare, London.
  • DA ORTA, G. 1563. Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India. (Reprinted 1913 by Henry Southern, London).
  • LEWIS-WILLIAMS, J.D. AND DOWSON, T.A. 1988. The signs of all times: Entoptic phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic art. Current Anthropology 29: 201-244.
  • PAUL, R.A. 2000. Sons or sonnets: Nature and culture in a Shakespearean anthropology. Current Anthropology 41,1: 1-9).
  • SHULGIN, A. AND SHULGIN, A. 1997. Tikhal: The continuation. Transform Press, Berkeley.
  • 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.
  • THACKERAY, J.F. 2000. Shakespeare, Hallucinogens and a "Tenth Muse": New light on the "Dark Lady"?
  • THACKERAY, J.F., VAN DER MERWE, N.J. AND VAN DER MERWE, T.A. In preparation. Chemical analysis fof residues from seventeenth century clay pipes from Startford-upon-Avon and environs. South African Journal of Science 97, 19-21

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