Was the Bard truly a pothead like scholars hypothesize? In honor of Snowdown 2023, we’re finding out.
Hark, fair maidens and noble gentlemen, it’s Snowdown time! Tis the year of the question-able but solidified Shakespeare theme, so we’re going with it. Shan’t you gather ‘round and attend to me, for I bringeth tidings of a most curious nature.
‘Tis said that the bard himself, William Shakespeare, didst make reference to that notorious plant, commonly known as cannabis, in his plays. (What that means is that Snowdown ain’t just for ye olde booze anymore!)
Some scholars doth speculate that references to “noted weed” in his works may be allusions to the said herb, but alas, this is but mere conjecture and not widely accepted. Verily, in thine time of Shakespeare, the use of cannabis was not as prevalent as it is in these modern days, thus, ‘tis unlikely that he had access or didst partake thereof.
But fear not, for there be other references to drug use in his plays that some scholars doth interpret as allusions to other forms of inebriation. But alas, this too is a subject of ongoing debate among scholars, and not all agree on the matter.
And lo, Shakespeare was not alone in his possible allusions, for other historical authors such as Homer, Rumi, and Baudelaire have also been said to have made references to drug use in their works.
But let us not forget, dear friends, that these are but mere speculations and should be taken with a grain of salt.
(We are so, so sorry for that introduction. It felt appropriate at the time. If you’re lost, here’s the gist: In this article, we’re taking
a look at whether Shakespeare
was indeed a fan of ye olde can-
nabis, as has been hypothesized
time and again.)
What’s the deal with the supposed Shakespearean nods to weed?
So, let’s get straight to it. In the spirit of Snowdown, let’s ask the question we all want the answer to: Was Shakespeare a pothead?
While it’s a widely debated topic, there are scholars and researchers who believe that, yes, there are references to cannabis in Shakespeare’s writing. Those beliefs are due to certain language and imagery used in his plays that appear to be indicative of drug use.
Take, for example, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which the character Bottom describes a dream in which he
is “translated” and “metamorphosed” into an ass. This has led some scholars to interpret the ass scene as a reference to the psychoactive effects of cannabis. (Not sure about you guys, but this has never happened to us. Maybe weed was more potent back then?)
Additionally, the characters in “The Tempest,” another one of Shakespeare’s revered works, are described as “raven-ing” and “consuming” a “strange and pernicious weed.” This has led some scholars to interpret it as a reference to cannabis use.
And, honestly, that sounds a lot more legit to us. The ass is questionable, but the strange and pernicious weed? Well, that’s about on par.
And, there’s more! In Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the character Falstaff says, “Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Green Sleeves, hail kissing-comfits, and snow ervils; let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.”
Some scholars suggest that “ervils” is a reference to “hemp-seed” or “hempen-seed” — and that the line is a reference to the use of cannabis.
We agree. When we’re stoned, we’d also like it to rain potatoes from the sky, preferably of the fried kind, if the sky would be so kind as to placate our wishes. And, we’d also like it to thunder to the tune of Green Sleeves, but only if that means it’s going to rain potatoes AND weed. That would be awesome.
(Clearly we are not Shakespearean scholars. It’s fine.)
But weed isn’t the only plant that may have made an appearance in ye olde Shakespeare plays. There are also several references in Shakespeare’s writing that are believed by some scholars to be references to other types of drug use. Here’s the breakdown of supposed drug references in the Bard’s tales:
In “The Winter’s Tale,” the character Leontes becomes delirious after seeing his wife and friend together. In this delirium, he describes how he feels “brain-sick”, some scholars believe this could be interpreted as a reference to the effects of hallucinogens.
Our verdict: Sounds legit.
In Antony and Cleopatra, the character Cleopatra is described as “drunk with thy breath.” This has been interpreted as a reference to the effects of alcohol.
Our verdict: Feels obvious, unlike the potatoes and Green Sleeves stuff.
It should be noted, however, that this is a subject of ongoing debate among scholars and not all agree that these references are indeed to drugs. Some scholars believe that these references may be metaphorical or symbolic, rather than literal references to drug use. We’re erring on the side of caution, and by that we mean we’re assuming he’s talking about drugs because his plays make no damn sense to us.
Other cannabis-loving historical authors
Aside from Shakespeare, there are several other historical writers and authors who are believed by some scholars to have included references to cannabis in their work.
In ancient Greek and Roman literature, the historian Herodotus and the poet Virgil described the Scythians using cannabis in a ritual steam bath. That sounds like the best kind of steam bath to us, but it’s apparently frowned upon at the hot springs these days. Ask us how we know. ASK US.
In medieval Arabic literature, the Persian poet Rumi wrote about the use of hashish in his poetry. And honestly, who wouldn’t want to write a love ode to weed? We get it, Rumi.
And, there’s more! The ancient Chinese writer, Shen Nung, wrote about the medical benefits of cannabis in the Pen Ts’ao Ching, a pharmacopeia dating back to around 2700 BCE.
The Persian physician, Avicenna, wrote about the therapeutic uses of cannabis in his book “The Canon of Medicine” in the 11th century.
In the 19th century, the British author, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote about his experiences using cannabis for medicinal purposes in his personal letters.
The famous American author, Jack London, wrote about the effects of smoking cannabis in his book “John Barleycorn” in 1913.
Oh, oh! And in the 20th century, the American author, Aldous Huxley, wrote about his experiences with cannabis in his book “The Doors of Perception.” If you’re reading this nonsense, chances are good you’ve also read Huxley’s work. He did…not hide his love of the substances.
It’s not just cannabis, either
But it wasn’t just cannabis that made an appearance in historical texts! There are several other historical authors who are believed by some scholars to have included references to drug use in their work.
In ancient Greek literature, the poet Homer’s “Odyssey” describes a plant called “moly” — which some scholars believe was a reference to a psychoactive plant. Could be anything, we guess. There are lots of psychoactive plants to choose from, but we prefer the green kind filled with THC.
The Greek historian Herodotus also wrote about the use of opium by the ancient Scythians — which…is not surprising. Opium wasn’t exactly a hard no-no globally until very recently. Just look
up when opium dens were outlawed. It’s pretty shocking. Also, there’s that whole opium-smoking caterpillar in very contemporary literature and kid-friendly pop culture or whatever. Opium was very much a thing.
In the Renaissance, the English poet Ben Jonson wrote about drug use in his play “The Staple of News” — and the French poet Rabelais wrote about it in his book “Gargantua and Pantagruel.” What drug use? You got us. But it was drugs nonetheless.
And, in the 19th century, the French poet Baudelaire wrote about his experiences with hashish in his collection of poems “Les paradis artificiels” — while the English writer Thomas de Quincey wrote about his opium addiction in his book “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.”
So many drugs to make nods to!
We wish Shakespeare had been this transparent about his supposed drug nods. It would be a hell of a lot easier to determine whether he was a pothead. But while Shakespeare’s supposed love of ganja is up in the air, we can always play pretend this Snowdown season and TELL everyone that he was a pothead anyway. With the sheer amount of chaos that happens during Durango’s annual festivities, chances are that there won’t be anyone who’s even slightly interested in calling your bluff.