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…”

It wasn’t Shakespeare’s creative approach to language (with or without herbal aids) that made the scholar Thackeray see green. It was a sonnet.

Sonnet 76:

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.

Besides the afore-cited “noted weed,” I could see how, in certain states of mind, phrases like “To new-found methods” and “compounds strange?” could be pot allusions. Especially after a bong hit. Two questions come to mind, however: Why is it there are some always eager to pin the inspirations of creative types on dope?

And secondly, who cares? W.H. Auden took benzedrine in the morning, seconal at night, but few mention it in the same breath as his poetry. Perhaps he is most qualified to speak to the hazards of reading between the lines of Shakespeare’s poetry – as he wrote in an introduction to the works:

“Probably, more nonsense has been talked and written, more intellectual and emotional energy expended in vain, on the sonnets of Shakespeare than on any other literary work in the world.”

Green Indeed is the Colour of Lovers.

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Daedalus Howell gets smoked at DHowell.com.