Professor Francis Thackeray © 2001
Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI), University of the Witwatersrand
PO WITS, Johannesburg 2050, South Africa
"Flower" portrait
Note mark on Shakespeare's left lower lip.
Based on painting held by the
Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon.
"Chandos" portrait
Note mark on left lower lip.
Based on painting at
National Portrait Gallery, London.

Two portraits of Shakespeare are of interest in the context of recent suggestions that relate to the habit of smoking in the late 16th and early 17th century in England. One of these portraits is the so-called "Chandos" painting at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the other is the so-called "Flower" Portrait of Shakespeare held by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The "Flower" portrait is so named through a donor, Mrs Charles Flower. It has the date "1609" on the left side at the top of the painting, and it has been suggested that the portrait served as the basis for the well-known Droeshout engraving. However, there are reasons for suggesting that it was derived from that engraving, and that it was painted well after 1609. Nevertheless it may still represent a reasonable portrayal of Shakespeare at a time in his life when he showed a receding hairline, corresponding closely to the appearance of Shakespeare in the "Chandos" portrait.

Of particular interest in the "Flower" portrait is an apparent brown mark on Shakespeare's left lower lip. This is visible not only in the portrait as it was before restoration (see photograph published by Anthony Burgess (1970, Jonathan Cape, London, page 140) but also in the restored painting, from which darkened varnish was removed, partially exposing an underlying 14th century painting (of Madonna, child, St John and background features detected by X-ray analyses).

A similar brown mark would also seem to be apparent on Shakespeare's left lower lip in the "Chandos" portrait, although in this case it would seem to be less pronounced than a corresponding feature in the "Flower" portrait.

A question arising from these observations is whether they may relate to the use of a pipe, associated with the accumulation of tar from tobacco or other substances that may have been accessible to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It was of course Sir Walter Raleigh and contemporary explorers who had introduced tobacco to England from North America. There is evidence to suggest that Cannabis was also available in England not only for the production of paper, rope, and sails but also perhaps for use in pipes (J.F. Thackeray, N.J. van der Merwe, T.A. van der Merwe, South African Journal of Science, Volume 97, pages 19-21).

The smoking of tobacco and other substances, especially without the use of a filter at the tip of a pipe, can lead to staining on the lips of a smoker, especially if smoking is a habit for a prolonged period of time. Clay pipes of the kind that were smoked in England in Shakespeare's time were certainly filterless, and tar from nicotine (or other substances) would have accumulated at or near the narrow tips of the pipe stems. The effect of smoking on lips becomes visible as a darkened stain, especially if a filterless pipe is habitually smoked on one or other side of the mouth.

The darkened features on the lower lip of Shakespeare in the "Flower" portrait may (at least potentially) be associated with the use of a pipe, held on the left side of the mouth. The fact that a similar brown mark is also apparently present on the left lower lip of Shakespeare in the "Chandos" portrait would seem to support the view that Shakespeare had been a smoker at some time in his life. Furthermore, one may speculate that if Shakespeare wrote habitually with his right hand, perhaps he often used his left hand to hold a pipe, whether or not he was smoking while writing.

The possibility that Shakespeare used Cannabis as a "source of inspiration" or "Tenth Muse" has been considered by Thackeray (1999).

Whether or not Shakespeare and/or his contemporaries smoked Cannabis, sometimes referred to as "Indian" tobacco or "Indian hemp", is an open question that deserves attention, especially since initial chemical analyses of residues in 17th century clay pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon have led to the detection of substances that are consistent with the possibility of smoking Cannabis in addition to tobacco (itself indicated by the presence of nicotine). Suggestive evidence for the smoking of Cannabis has been found from eight out of 24 broken pipes that were part of the initial sample made available for chemical analysis (J.F. Thackeray, N.J. van der Merwe, T.A. van der Merwe, South African Journal of Science, Volume 97, pages 19-21).


The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust kindly made available samples of pipe fragments for chemical analysis.

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