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GCMS reveals what Shakespeare was really smoking: using highly sensitive GCMS, researchers analyzed 24 pipe fragments found in Shakespeare's garden for evidence of cannabis and cocaine.

To be, or not to be- that is the question." When William Shakespeare wrote that line in Act III, Scene I of Hamlet, he most likely didn't envision that--400 years down the road--his mindset would be questioned and thoroughly examined.

It's not his physiological state Dr. Francis Thackeray is interested in, though--it's what Shakespeare was smoking at the time he penned some of his most famous plays and sonnets. The answer to this question affects not just Shakespeare, but all of upper class 17th century England. New forensic analysis reveals clues as to what substances and drugs were introduced to England in the 16th and 17th century from the New World.


Thackeray is a trained chemist from South Africa who obtained his Ph.D. in anthropology from Yale University. Prior to that, he studied at the University of Cape Town, where he received a science degree that included chemistry, physics, mathematics and zoology components. Despite his talent for science, Thackeray always had an affinity for English literature.

"I decided I would read all of Shakespeare's poems (Sonnets 1 through 154) in one sitting," Thackeray explained to Chromatography Techniques. "I had a eureka moment when I reached Sonnet 76, where Shakespeare refers to drugs ('compounds strange'), but he prefers a 'noted weed' in the context of 'invention' (which can refer to creative writing). Immediately I had a hunch that Shakespeare might have been referring to cannabis. It was a hypothesis I knew I could test via chemical analysis."

So, Thackeray turned to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which loaned the professor 24 pipe fragments that had been excavated from Shakespeare's garden and adjacent land at the site of New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, home to the literary scholar in the early 17th century.

While most of the pipe fragments had been cleaned by museum curators, black and gray substances were still adhered to the interior pipe walls in some circumstances. Additionally, a few pipe bowls and stems retained soil with black flecks.

According to Thackeray's paper--recently updated in the South African Journal of Science--substances like cannabis degrade within short periods of time and can be difficult to identify after combustion in clay pipes. However, traces of compounds derived from cannabis, like cannabidiol and cannabinol, can be identified, even after 400 years. In fact, in unrelated work, African clay pipes from more than 600 years ago have been previously shown to have cannabis residues.

Method and experimentation

A total of 24 pipe fragments were analyzed by gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS). Residues and sediments from the interior of bowls and bores of pipe stems were treated in 5-mL chloroform to extract organic compounds. The organics were then concentrated in 0.2-mL solvent and analyzed by coupled GCMS using an HP 5890 gas chromatograph interfaced with a 5890 mass selective detector.

The gas chromatograph was equipped with a 30-m, 0.25-mm internal diameter, J&W DB-5 capillary column. Helium was used as the carrier gas. The injector temperature was kept at 250 C and that of the transfer line at 280 C. The oven temperature was programmed as follows: 50 C initial temperature for 1 minute, increased to 110 C at a rate of 30 C per minute and kept at 110 C for 2 minutes, then increased to 280 C at a rate of 17 C per minute and kept at 280 C for 10 minutes.

Identifications were based on EI spectra expressed in terms of mass:charge ratios (m/z) and relative abundances of compounds in reference samples.


Sensitive GCMS analysis found 11 mass:charge ratios in the pipe fragments that are indicative of compounds derived from cannabis. Cannabidiol and cannabinol were both detected, associated with m/z values of 310 and 314, respectively. However, Thackeray is quick to point out that the effects of heating and age could influence positive identification--the intensities associated with these measurements were low.

Among the other substances positively identified in the study were nicotine, myristic acid and isopropyl myristate, cocaine, cinnamaldehyde, vanillin, quinolene and butyl quinone, borneol and other forms of camphor, pyrene, phenol, toluene and naphthalene. All of these substances were identified with a high probability relative to reference specimens.

"In this particular instance, I was expecting to find nicotine and just maybe cannabis. But we got more than we bargained for," said Thackeray. "We found evidence of the smoking not only of nicotiana (from North America) and cannabis (originally from Asia), but also coca leaves (with cocaine residues) from Peru in South America. Peru had been visited by Sir Francis Drake, a contemporary of Shakespeare."

All in all, results of the study indicated cannabis in eight samples, nicotine (from tobacco leaves) in at least one sample, and definite evidence for Peruvian cocaine from coca leaves in two samples.

Of course, the authors do not assume that any of the bowls and stems analyzed in the study were from pipes used specifically by Shakespeare.

"However, this study supports the suggestion that at least one hallucinogen was accessible in England in the 17th century, and may have been used by writers," said Thackeray.


Chemical analyses of residues in early 17th century clay pipes have confirmed that a diversity of plants was smoked in Europe. According to Thackeray, literary analyses and chemical science can be mutually beneficial, bringing the arts and the sciences together in an effort to better understand Shakespeare and his contemporaries by using high-tech technologies and instrumentation of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Beside Sonnet 76 (described earlier), Thackeray believes Shakespeare alluded to drug use in numerous other contexts as well. For example, in May 2015, the short play "A Country Controversy" was attributed to Shakespeare.

"The play has to do with a garden, in which a certain kind of herb is grown," explained Thackeray. "The plant is not identified by Shakespeare in explicit terms. It is said to be 'that which maketh time wither, in wondering.' I hypothesize that this is a cryptic reference to cannabis, which has the effect of making time seem to slow down (or 'wither'), as reported in a description of the biochemical effects of this herb published in the June issue of National Geographic. Elsewhere, in Sonnet 118, Shakespeare writes about the craving 'to make my appetite more keen,' and cannabis is known to be an appetite stimulant."

Additionally, in Sonnet 27, Shakespeare refers to "a journey in my head," potentially associated with a "trip" experienced in an altered state of consciousness. In Sonnet 38, he refers to a "Tenth Muse" as a source of inspiration, possibly a hidden reference to cannabis.

Thackeray said he plans to expand on this research, which he began in 2001, by including the chemical analysis of a larger sample of tobacco pipes from England and elsewhere in Europe.

After all, "evidently more than one kind of 'tobacco' was smoked as a weed, including cannabis, in the time of Shakespeare," concluded Thackeray.

Michelle Taylor, Editor-in-Chief
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Author:Taylor, Michelle
Publication:Chromatography Techniques
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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