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Of poetry, pot and The Bard

Doobie, or not doobie? No, that’s not an existential query from Sonoma’s Doobie Brothers manager Bruce Cohn. That is the question that circulated the Internet a couple years ago when anthropologist Francis Thackeray, the director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, suggested that William Shakespeare might have sought creative inspiration by smoking pot.

In 2001, a study conducted by Thackeray found marijuana residue in pipe fragments unearthed in Shakespeare’s garden, reported the journal Live Science. Though cannabis was cultivated in England during Shakespeare’s day for rope-making and other textiles, it’s unclear if it was used recreationally. It was possible that references in Shakespeare’s work itself encouraged Thackeray’s line of inquiry, says Live Science:

“Some Shakespearean allusions, including a mention of a ‘noted weed’ in Sonnet 76, spurred Thackeray’s inquiry into whether Shakespeare may have used the mind-altering drug for inspiration.”

Three years ago, Thackeray apparently contemplated petitioning the Church of England to open the Bard’s grave and undertake a chemical analysis of his hair and nails in search of traces of marijuana in whatever keratin might still remain in the samples. There has been little mention of the project since. Because, I surmise, Thackeray is no longer high.

Of course, poets and their alleged interest in mind-altering substances goes back for millennia. Some have been prouder of the association than others. Beat poets come to mind. 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire was a card-carrying member of a Hashish Club, which was sort of like today’s medical marijuana clubs, I suppose, but with more emphasis on creating what the poet termed an “artificial ideal.” If Shakespeare indeed sought this same ideal, it was an apt combination of bon mots and pot that resulted in a lot of artificial words. These neologisms have since entered our official English vocabulary and become real words, some of them stonier than others. Just imagine saying “man” after each one and you’ll ask yourself why Tommy Chong has yet to play the Bard.

“Majestic” is one that derives from “majesty,” (as in “your majesty,” Shakespeare’s boss) but it wasn’t a thing until Ferdinand uttered, “This is a most majestic vision” in “The Tempest.” Another one is “radiance,” which King Lear shoehorned into common parlance a la, “For by the sacred radiance of the sun.” Finally, “zany” is apparently Shakespeare’s misspelling of Zanni, which is a diminutive of “Giovanni,” somehow, and makes less sense in context via Biron in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”: “Some carry-tale, some please-man, some slight zany…”


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