Almost sixty years back, in a hilarious piece of dialogue in Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Jimmy Porter, with a patented combination of frustration and sarcasm, had informed Cliff about “an American professor from Yale or somewhere, who believes that when Shakespeare was writing The Tempest, he changed his sex…This professor chap is coming over here to search for certain documents which will prove that poor old W.S. ended up in someone else’s second best bed – a certain Warwickshire farmer’s, whom he married after having three children by him”. What Osborne was mocking was a certain strand of biographical scholarship that invents one chimera after another to sustain its own irrelevance. For hundred of years, before and after Osborne, curiosity regarding his identity and attempted discovery of who the real Shakespeare supposedly was has been relentless. From time to time, scholars and academics have credited his plays to Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, Edward de Vere, a syndicate of scholars and authors and even a Jewish woman named Amelia Bassano Lanier. Apart from such wild goose (and geese) chase, there have also been endless theories about the identities of the ‘fair youth’ and the ‘dark lady’ of the sonnets, about whether Shakespeare was a homosexual, whether he enjoyed a threesome, whether he was secretly catholic, whether he and his family members were involved in a plot to kill James I and more of the same. The latest in this line of Laputan gobbledygook is the claim of a team of researchers led by South African professor of anthropology, Francis Thackeray, that Shakespeare possibly smoked cannabis because four pipes, unearthed from the garden of Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon, contain traces of cannabis and date back to the 17th century.
He has gone on to state in an article published in The Independent that:
Shakespeare may have been aware of the deleterious effects of cocaine as a strange compound. Possibly, he preferred cannabis as a weed with mind-stimulating properties.
These suggestions are based on the following literary indications. In Sonnet 76, Shakespeare writes about “invention in a noted weed”. This can be interpreted to mean that Shakespeare was willing to use “weed” (cannabis as a kind of tobacco) for creative writing (“nvention”). In the same sonnet it appears that he would prefer not to be associated with “compounds strange”, which can be interpreted, at least potentially, to mean “strange drugs” (possibly cocaine).
It is quite obvious that the claims are based on shoddy analysis and flimsy assumptions. There is no earthly way of proving that just because certain pipes were found in his garden, Shakespeare himself had used them. This is almost like saying that just because there are channels in my television which show befuddling connivances being hatched by wives and mothers-in-law, must mean that I have stooped to watch them. How stupid can you get? Furthermore, anyone who has read sonnet 76 would know that the poem uses the term ‘weed’ to refer to dress or costumes and not to cannabis. In fact, it is quite unlikely that the term ‘weed’ was ever used in Shakespeare’s day to identify popular narcotics of today’s world. Furthermore, the article shows yet another soporific attempt to represent the medium of the text as a mirror for real life, for a reading of texts grounded in the biography, imagined or otherwise, of the author. By that logic, Shakespeare may very soon be identified as a murderous, raving, lunatic drunkard as his plays obviously include a fair sprinkling of murders, ranting, lunacy and drunken escapades of one shade or another. Such exercises in academic drudgery entirely dispense with that “negative capability” of Shakespeare, the “myriad-minded man”, which enabled him to cast off his own ego and voice the thoughts of his imagined characters. Furthermore, what is of eternal cultural value, is not the biographical identity of the man named William Shakespeare but the sheer unquantifiable, beyond-adjectives brilliance of his plays.
However, the stupidity street doesn’t stop here. Since the publication of the article, several other articles have been published all over the online word, asking whether Shakespeare was high when he wrote his plays or whether he was a stoner and so on and so forth. Such questions and captions reveal that persistent unease with the timeless grandeur of Shakespearean texts, an unease that was initiated long back by Ben Jonson’s snide comment about Shakespeare’s “small Latin and less Greek”. It seems as if the world still cannot get to grips with the fact that a bloke from Warwickshire with no university education had somehow managed to write, with his own industry, genius and experience such magnificent plays which continue to enthrall, provoke and console us in more ways than one. This is why conspiracy theorists have been trying to pass him off as either an English Lord or some University Wit in order to massage their own egos which Shakespeare’s astounding genius continues to wound. This latest South-African dope-trick, involving, we are told, state-of-the-art gas chromatography mass spectrometry, is yet another scheme of the same kind which seeks to suggest that however great Shakespeare’s plays may have been, he only stumbled into them in a sort of drug-induced funk with little control over his faculties. Had that been the case De Quincey, Coleridge or the likes of Kerouac and Ginsberg would have attained a similar position to that of Shakespeare in the literary pantheon. Only those who have no idea about the craftsmanship that goes into the production of literature can pronounce such cockamamie claims.
However there is also a deeper problem involved. When academics become involved in investigating whether the Bard of Avon had consumed cannabis or cocaine or the vaginal system of the flea (the title of a Cambridge PhD thesis Terry Eagleton had once spotted), they necessarily forgo the task of foregrounding ideas that have some bearing on the society at large. The article by Francis Thackeray and the various posts and spin-offs it has generated, starkly reminiscent of Jimmy and Cliff’s dialogues about a heated debate regarding whether Milton wore braces, is symptomatic of the passing away of a critical age and the failure of academics to take on the responsibility of the public intellectual. In the light of such developments, the abiding relevance of Jimmy Porter again comes to light and we are left with no other option but to either chant Jimmy’s ‘The Cess Pool’ or look forward in dismay.
P.S. I had a séance with Alexander Pope yesterday and before his departure, he left me this couplet:
Perhaps I’ll write a new Dunciad this day;
Th’name of its hero is Francis Thackeray.
– Abin Chakraborty