The best and worst thing about the dearth of information we have about Shakespeare’s life is that it leaves it open to conjecture. Did you know that Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone else? Did you know that Shakespeare was gay? – classic questions that just cannot be answered unless Sam takes a Quantum Leap and finds out for us, firsthand. That’s what a bunch of South African paleontologists intend to do.
The article begins with the standard Hamlet joke: “To dig… or not to dig? That’s the latest question” – eye roll, please. Oh, the internet. It teaches us new things every day, yet the unlimited space available allows for trite rubbish like that be published.
'Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter?'
At first, I thought that they were going to exhume his body from its place deep beneath Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. I was really annoyed about this, and gave my dear friend and partner in pedagogical crime, Miss Leah Dacks, a complete, profanity-filled lecture on this topic, mainly harping on the fact that a body buried nearly 400 years ago and covered in concrete probably wouldn’t come out so neatly. In a moment of silence-inducing, gravedigger-like wisdom, she assured me: “I’m sure his coffin is just as intact as the day before it was built.”
Luckily, it turns out that they’ve taken heed of Shakespeare’s epitaph: “Bleste be the man that spares thes stones / And curst be he that moves my bones.” Good call, fellas. Apparently, they intend to “perform a forensic analysis by digitally scanning the playwright’s bones, then ‘rendering a 3-D image reconstruction’.”
But what on earth could they be looking for? For starters, they’re going to take some DNA samples to confirm the Bard’s age, cause of death, and gender. Number one: who cares how old he was? Yes, the life expectancy was shorter back then. Move on. Cause of death? What kind of closure is that going to achieve? Could he have died of the plague? Possibly. Venereal disease? Of course. Cancer? Maybe. If it hadn’t been this, would he be alive today? …exactly. Shakespeare retired before he died – he gave the public as much or as little of his work as he chose. Even without exhuming his body, we keep his memory alive today in a way that even the biggest egomaniacs would appreciate: every once in a while we get musicians and movie stars who are conceived as “bigger than Elvis” or “bigger than the Beatles” – so far, nobody’s gotten quite as big as the Bard.
Gweneth Paltrow playing Viola de Lesseps, disguised as Thomas Kent
And what about gender? Let’s not get all Shakespeare in Love on ourselves. It’s embarrassing, really. Are we not liberated enough to respect particular men for being great men? Feminism is important but feminism with blinders is ignorance: Shakespeare was way ahead of his time in terms of his feminist, nay, egalitarian values, but he had share his chauvinist moments, too.
Anyhow, what’s giving this study the most publicity is that they plan to check if the Bard smoked weed. That’s right. Mary Jane, Dope, pot, sweet sweet cheeba. What inspired this grave-robbing? Apparently, in 2001, one of the members of the team found several 17th-century smoking pipes in the garden of Shakespeare’s home. The pipes revealed “traces of cocaine, cannabis and a hallucinogen derived from nutmeg.” …So that means they were his?
People look to Shakespeare’s writing for further evidence. There’s Othello’s line for starters: “O thou weed who art so lovely fair and smell’st so sweet that the senses ache at thee,” and then there’s 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.
Okay, so people assume that Shakespeare was one of those people who believes in herbal-induced literary inspiration. It wouldn’t be surprising but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
Can you inhale inspiration?
For those of you who are a bit fuzzy about how to appropriately use the term “anachronism,” this is the perfect example. We think of artists smoking weed and deriving inspiration today: Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, even Lady Gaga – but that doesn’t mean that people four hundred years ago did the same. Applying what is socially accepted or recognized as truth today to events of 400 years ago doesn’t always result in a perfect fit. It would be ignoring a whole handful of factors that provide an entirely different context to what we’re looking at. First off, just because we call it ‘weed’ today doesn’t mean that it was called ‘weed’ back then. Shakespeare lived in England. It’s a very, very wet country: there are plenty of weeds. We can’t expect him to have been thinking about what comes into our heads when we hear “weed” today. Number two: different plants were used as stimulants back then, and just because essences of marijuana and opium were in the pipes doesn’t mean that Shakespeare was planning to mellow out to some [nonexistent] reggae music and chowin’ down on pizza pops [also, unfortunately, nonexistent in the Bard’s time]. Nonetheless, the articles about this study are usually accompanied with a carefully chosen picture of the Bard rocking a ‘do that looks to be inspired by the Seth Rogen Jew-fro.
Pass the Cheetos, mate
This paleontologist suggests: “If we find grooves between the canine and the incisor, that will tell us if he was chewing on a pipe as well as smoking.” This is what you’re spending public funds on? Please. I care about arts education as much as the next Shakespeare scholar, but how is this going to benefit the nation’s youth? Do you want Stratford to become the Diaspora of Amsterdam, just months before the London Olympics? I’m just waiting for all the new strains to pop up – A Midsummer Night’s Weed, Much Ado About Chronic, and Coriolanus Kush.
Long story short: why do we care if Shakespeare smoked weed? I know people will continue to disagree with me on this topic, but I think it’s just as useless as the authorship debate. Why must we try to take such an out-freaking-standing playwright down a peg or two? Why are we trying to undersell the potential talent of our species?
…Or are we putting pot smokers on a pedestal? Are we doing the “smoking pot makes you more creative” thing? Because if so, the next formal line of reasoning is to consider that Shakespeare was a business man – he wore all the hats in Early Modern Drama field: he wrote, he acted and he was a shareholder in his theatre company. So now we’re saying that, to be highly productive human beings, nay, contributors to the cultural fabric of society, it’s preferable to smoke weed “because Shakespeare did it”?
What if these paleontologists do their thing and find out that, indeed, Shakespeare did die of the clap (he probably did)? Will this finding inspire a whole new demographic to practice safer sex? I can hear all those parents now: “Son, if you forget to wear a condom on prom night, you’ll wind up like William Shakespeare?” – that oughta scare ‘em straight.