The literature community lost its collective minds recently as it was discovered that * gasp * The Bard, Willy Shakes himself, puffed of the wacky tobacky. But is this really shocking — or even surprising? Does knowing about his stoner status change anything we know about Shakespeare himself? Or his works? Or his legacy? I can’t see how — even if it turns out Shakespeare was a pothead.
Not everyone even believes William Shakespeare wrote the things he’s credited with writing. Long held rumors persist until this day, questioning whether it was actually Francis Bacon or Edward DeVere who wrote those plays and sonnets. Theatre was a thoroughly unworthy pursuit in Shakespeare’s day — the sort that could deny someone a Christian burial. So it wouldn’t be outlandish to suppose affluent men put out their plays under the name of an illiterate peasant. We do know none of Shakespeare’s children could read and write (well, one of them was able to sign her own name, but that’s it). Does it seem likely the so-called greatest playwright of all time had three illiterate children? If Shakespeare was a pothead, could that have contributed to his being a not-very-involved father?
For the sake of argument, let’s presume Bill Shakespeare did write everything credited to him. Let’s also presume Shakespeare was a pothead. How can we be shocked the guy who wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its loveable sprites and “it was all a dream” ending might have been a little stoned? Do sober people really write in lyrical rhyme about eye gouging, teen suicide, or whatever the hell Titus Andronicus got up to? Not too bloody often, they don’t.
With news of this dank-puffing revelation, many have speculated perhaps it was the kind bud that kept Shakespeare so prolific. But does cannabis really enhance creativity? Probably not. Quite the opposite, in fact. Studies show while cannabis lowers what’s called divergent thinking, it can make us feel far more brilliant than we are. More likely is the idea creative people are often drawn toward marijuana, mainly for the dopamine. With that in mind, the idea Shakespeare was a pothead makes a lot more sense.
It’s no surprise lots and lots of creative types were way into mind altering substances. From excessive caffeine to booze to harder drugs: writers, musicians, visual artists, actors, so many creative types think they find inspiration via chemical enhancement. Every so often, a creative person gets sober only to find their good ideas have not abated, and their productivity has gone way up. Could it be creative types are often prone to mental illness, and self-medicate with drugs to take the edge off? I bet so. That leads me to wonder what mental illness Willy Shakes might have been battling when he wrote, say, MacBeth. Or maybe he just wanted to turn the Globe Theatre into a giant bong.
Ultimately, the reason people are so shocked to learn Shakespeare was a pothead may lie in the fact his works are often seen as dry, academic, far too long, and to some, boooooring. Surely if we found out someone like Edgar Allan Poe smoked weed, no one would bat an eye. Poe’s work oozes insanity and addiction. But The Bard? The history we’re left with makes him seem as stodgy as the abusive professor in Pink Floyd, the Wall. If you’re the sort who thinks smoking cannabis makes someone extra cool — that probably doesn’t jibe with what you think of Shakespeare.