Shakespeare’s Drugs Habit – Much Ado About Nothing?

Photo: CC0 Public Domain
by Christopher Burn

Shocking news emerged in 2015 – sixteenth-century clay pipes containing tobacco and marijuana traces were dug up in the garden of Shakespeare’s house in Stratford upon Avon.

Did the Bard indulge in Wacky Baccy? Or other dodgy substances? Did addiction to drugs or alcohol enter his life at any stage?

We know for a fact that addiction was on Shakespeare’s mind, simply because he was the first person to write the word ‘Addiction’ in the English language: ‘his addiction was to courses vain’ (Henry V Act I, Scene 1). Could such a word have come into being, without personal experience?

He was certainly aware of the mood-altering effects of alcohol – ‘Give me a bowl of wine. In this I bury all unkindness…’ (Julius Caesar Act IV, Scene 3) and undoubtedly drank it, probably as heavily as many of his contemporaries. His fellow playwright and friend Christopher Marlowe was killed in a drunken tavern brawl in 1593 and Shakespeare’s own death is recorded like this:

“Shakespeare, Drayton and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” (diary of John Ward, the vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, where Shakespeare is buried).

Some have perhaps read more into his writings than is reasonable, portraying for example, the Three Witches’ chant in Macbeth as that of drug dealers peddling their wares:

…Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble…

Fanciful perhaps, but on the other hand, what are we to make of this Sonnet – a very strange poem indeed ?

Why is my verse so barren of new pride?

So far from variation or quick change?

Why with the time do I not glance aside

To new-found methods and to compounds strange?

Why write I still all one, ever the same,

And keep invention in a noted weed,

That every word doth almost tell my name,

Showing their birth and where they did proceed?

O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,

And you and love are still my argument;

So all my best is dressing old words new,

Spending again what is already spent:

For as the sun is daily new and old,

So is my love still telling what is told. (Sonnet 76)

Is the Bard not saying here that he knows of a ‘compound strange’ and a ‘noted weed’ that can help his creativity, if he cares to use it? It would seem so.

Opium, Cocaine and Marijuana were all certainly available, in a limited way, in Shakespeare’s time and he shows his knowledge of them, as in Othello for example:

…Not poppy nor mandragora

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owedst yesterday… (Othello Act III, Scene 3)

Can we then say that Shakespeare saw a creative value in the use of drugs? The answer to that is probably ‘Yes’, from the evidence of his writings as seen above. This makes it likely that he at least experimented with various mood-altering substances though probably concluding that they were not worth the hassle of the negative side effects, as he famously puts it in the ‘Scottish Play’, concerning alcohol:


What three things does drink make a man do?


Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes. It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery. It makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.

(Macbeth Act II, Scene 3).

All this ado about the Bard prompted several learned investigations into the general link between drug use and creativity.

Probably the most significant of these are the findings of Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, and colleagues. Writing in Psychology Today (February 2017) he concludes : ‘The frequently discussed view that the use of psychoactive substances leads to enhanced creativity was by no means confirmed.’

Though it is a common perception that drug use directly affects the creative process (think of the Beatles and many, many others) yet Dr Griffiths and his colleagues could find no empirical evidence for this, saying in their conclusions: ‘ It is more likely that substances act indirectly by enhancing experiences and sensitivity, and loosening conscious processes that might have an influence on the creative process. This means the artist will not be more creative but the quality of the artistic product will be altered due to substance use. On the other hand, it appears that psychoactive substances may have another role concerning artists, namely that they stabilize and/or compensate a more unstable functioning.’

Dr Griffiths is saying here that there is no proven direct link between the taking of drugs and the enhancement of creativity. Just possibly, Shakespeare sussed this out 450 years earlier.

We will probably never know if Shakespeare ever used drugs – even exhuming his corpse against the precise warning written on his tomb: ”Bleste be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones”, might not provide an answer. This most enigmatic of figures has raised yet another unanswerable conundrum. Of such stuff…dreams are made on.

Chris Burn

Chris Burn

Chris Burn is a Writer, Psychotherapist and Chartered Accountant. His daily website promotes the idea of change through an awareness of poetry, history and spirituality – subjects that are fast disappearing from many school curricula. His books - Poetry Changes Lives and The Fun We Had, show how life should be enjoyed.Chris is married with three children and lives in the Scottish Borders and London.
Chris Burn

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