Should we dig up Shakespeare's body to find out if he smoked pot?

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That's the question currently before the Church of England, as an archaeologist has proposed examining William Shakespeare's remains. If nothing else, this is our chance to find out whether Shakespeare wrote the greatest works in the English language...on weed.

South African archaeologist Francis Thackeray says he recently submitted the relevant proposals to the Church of England, on whose lands Shakespeare's grave is located. Thackery is the director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and he's also pretty much the world's foremost expert on whether Shakespeare smoked marijuana.

He first brought the subject into the academic community with a 2001 study that discovered trace evidence of marijuana in pipe fragments found in what had once been Shakespeare's garden. It's an interest result, and cannabis was grown in England in the Elizabethan era, but it's hardly evidence that Shakespeare wrote while high. (For that, Thackeray points to things like an allusion to a "noted weed" in Sonnet 76, which if anything is even less convincing.)


Thackeray says that if there is any hair or nail fragments left on the corpse, his team would be able to perform chemical analyses that could detect even highly minute quantities of marijuana. Thackeray says he plans to use laser surface scanning, which could image the skeletons of Shakespeare, his wife Anne Hathaway, and his daughter Susanna without directly disturbing them. There's also the possibility of taking DNA samples from the bard's teeth, which could also reveal what Shakespeare's diet was like.

But Thackeray has at least one crucial opponent in the quest to dig up Shakespeare, and that's William Shakespeare himself. The Bard had an inscription placed above his grave that reads, "Blessed be the man that spares these stones, and cursed be he who moves my bones." Thackeray argues he can conduct all his research without disturbing Shakespeare's bones (and teeth don't count as bones, which offers another loophole).


Still, insofar as we can have any idea what Shakespeare wanted nearly 400 years after his death, it seems like he wanted his remains left in peace. The archaeological ethics of this proposed research are, at best, questionable. What's more, other archaeologists question the merit of this research, and there's an argument that is more about what one might call "celebrity history" than something that can really add to our understanding of the time period.

As University of North Carolina anthropologist Kristina Killgrove puts it:

"I'm not a big fan of opening up the tombs of Mona Lisa or Shakespeare to see how they died. I'm not really sure what it will tell us other than the lifestyle of somebody in Elizabethan England."


This wouldn't be the first time a famous figure's corpse is exhumed in the name of unusual research. Back in 1991, college professor Clara Rising managed to convince the closest living relative of 19th century President Zachary Taylor to exhume his body on the grounds that he might have been secretly assassinated. As it turns out, he wasn't. (This incident also inspired the story of my all-time favorite Simpsons episode, "Lisa the Iconoclast", in which the remains of Jebediah Springfield are exhumed in the hopes of finding evidence of a silver tongue.)

Anyway, the decision will now rest with the Church of England, so don't expect any movement on this anytime soon - indeed, the Church isn't even confirming that they've received Thackeray's applications. For now, we'll just have to keep wondering whether Shakespeare wrote Hamlet while occasionally smoking pot. No, I don't know how I'll be able to stand the suspense, either.


Via LiveScience. Image by David Jones on Flickr.