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

Commenting on fragments of "curiously shaped clay tobacco pipes" excavated from the site of New Place, Law (1922) states that "Shakespeare never mentions tobacco, and was probably not a smoker of it". Although it cannot be claimed that such pipes were necessarily used by Shakespeare himself, chemical analyses have been undertaken on 17th century clay pipes from New Place and elsewhere in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, in order to determine what substances were smoked by Shakespeare and/or his contemporaries (Thackeray et al, 2001). Not surprisingly nicotine was identified. Suggestive evidence of Cannabis was also obtained.

Was Shakespeare aware of the hallucinogenic properties of Cannabis ? This has been suggested by Thackeray (1999), but there is no proof that Shakespeare used it or even wrote about it explicitly. In the 16th century Rabelais made cryptic reference to Cannabis in his Pantagruel after Pope Innocent VIII had issued an edict that books would be burnt, or worse still, the writers themselves would perish at the stake if they were charged with use of Cannabis, associated with witchcraft (Bennett, 2001). At least in some environments, 16th and 17th century authors would have been wise not to mention Cannabis except in the context of rope, sails and garments ("weeds") manufactured from the plant which has variable concentrations of the hallucinogenic component known as THC.

References to "tobacco" in early accounts are sometimes misleading. "Indian tobacco" could refer to Nicotiania from Virginia and elsewhere in the New World, associated with so-called "American Indians", but "Indian tobacco" or "Indian hemp" can also refer to Cannabis.

In 1604, King James I published his "Counterblaste to Tobacco", which may have had a temporary impact on the import of tobacco leaves from Virginia to England. Subsequently, King James would have realised that England benefited from taxes on tobacco, which became increasingly popular in the 17th century.

Although Shakespeare makes no reference to tobacco in any of the works generally attributed to him, there is a line which refers to a substance "more chargeable than Cane-tobacco" in a play called "The Merry Devill of Edmonton", printed in 1608 by "Henry Ballard for Arthur Johnson, dwelling at the signe of the white horse in Paules Church yard, over against the great North doore of Paules", and which had been acted "by his Majesties Servants, at the Globe, on the banke-side". It appears in Brooke's (1908) compilation of plays "ascribed to Shakespeare". It had evidently been based in part on a document by Antony Brewer, entitled "The Life and Death of the Merry Devill of Edmonton" (Brooke, 1908, p. 431). The engraving on the title page of the "Merry Devill of Edmonton" (1608 edition), is identical to that which appears on the title page of the Sonnets (published in 1609). There is reference to the "Merry Devil of Edmunton" being performed in1604 (Brooke, 1908, p xxxvii), although it was not officially registered until October 22, 1607. The play is a well-written comedy which includes reference to Stratford, but it cannot be claimed that it was necessarily written by Shakespeare. However, it does seem curious that the name of the author does not appear in the title page of the 1608 publication (a copy of which is housed in the Trinity College library, Cambridge), nor was the author listed in the Stationer's Register when the play was formally registered in1607. Perhaps the author deliberately chose to be anonymous, for reasons that are currently not fully understood.

The Merry Devill of Edmonton was registered in 1607 as follows: "Arthur Johnson Entred for his copie under the handes of Sir George Buck knight and The Wardens". The play had evidently been well received since the title page of 1608 states that it hath been "sundry times acted, by his Majesty's Servants, at the Globe, on the bank-side", and the play was reprinted in 1612, 1617, 1626, 1631 and 1655.

Whether or not The Merry Devill of Edmonton was written by Shakespeare, the question arises as to what substance was considered "more chargeable than Cane-tobacco" (Act 1, scene 1, line 75), and what exactly was "Cane-tobacco"? Perhaps "Cane-tobacco" refers to the manner in which tobacco leaves were rolled up, like a cigar. More uncertain is the identification of the substance considered to be "more chargeable" than tobacco. "Chargeable" in this context may refer not only to substances that were more expensive than tobacco (Nicotiana) imported from the New World, but also to substances that had a greater effect than regular tobacco: possibilities that come to mind include Cannabis. This suggestion is based on results of chemical analyses of 17th century clay pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon and environs (Thackeray, 2001).

Substances such as Virginian tobacco were certainly brought to the court of Queen Elisabeth I through Sir Walter Raleigh and his contemporaries, and Sir Francis Drake was another traveller who shared the company of the Queen and her court. A scenario in which Shakespeare interacted with Drake, Raleigh and others in restricted quarters of high society is not inconceivable. Sir Francis Drake had travelled around the world and had collected many commodities. Cannabis, imported from the East, could be grown in England in spring and summer months. Queen Elisabeth I had decreed that Cannabis should be grown by farmers owning more than 60 acres of land. It was certainly accessible in England in Shakespeare's time, primarily for the production of clothing, rope, paper and canvas for ships' sails. Even the First Folio and the King James Revised Bible were printed on paper produced from hemp fibre. The smoking of Cannabis in England during the 16th and 17th centuries is a subject which deserves to be explored through more literary analyses and additional chemical analyses of well-dated clay pipes, supplementing results obtained from initial analyses which were stimulated by readings of certain Shakespearean texts (Thackeray et al, 2001).

I am grateful to Prof Peter Knox-Shaw for his comments on a previous draft of this manuscript.

  • Bennet, C. 2001. Shakespeare on pot. Cannabis Culture June/July volume, 24-25.
  • Brooke, C.F.T. 1908. The Shakespeare Apocrypha, being a collection of fourteen plays which have been ascribed to Shakespeare. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
  • Law, E. 1922. Shakespeare's Garden. Selwyn and Blount, London.
  • 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., van der Merwe, N.J. and van der Merwe, T.A. 2001. Chemical analysis of residues from seventeenth-century clay pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon and environs. South African Journal of Science 97. 19-21.

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