High Times in Elizabethan England
Shakespeare is often considered the high point of the English Renaissance. It turns out that "high" is an even better word choice than it might seem. Some enterprising scientists from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa got the idea to analyze the residue in fragments of clay pipes found in Shakespeare’s garden (and elsewhere) in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The scientists were trying to find out more about the "tobacco" (you’ll see the reason for the quotes in a moment) that England had imported by the boatload ever since 16th-century travelers were introduced to it in the New World.
But guess what? In the pipes that contained analyzable residue, eight had been used for smoking cannabis, two for Peruvian cocaine, and only one for tobacco. (Incidentally, one of the "cocaine" pipes came from the garden of Harvard House, the home of the mother of John Harvard after whom Harvard University was named.)
In Elizabethan English there was no verbal distinction between tobacco and cannabis: the word "tobacco" (along with the more vernacular "sotweed") appeared to refer to either or both.
In his often overlooked (deservedly) Sonnet 76, Shakespeare appears to admit that he finds "invention in a noted weed." The sonnet is about the contemporary criticisms of his other sonnets, and includes the lines,
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?
So which plays do we think Shakespeare actually wrote while drawing on a pipe of "noted weed"? The high jinks of the comedies, the high heroes of the histories, or the high drama of the tragedies?
And there we were, thinking that the most exciting thing that Raleigh brought back from the New World was a potato!