A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Sonnet #76 and Marijuana


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 newfound methods and to compounds strange?

Compounds strange. Gee - doesn't that sounds like chemical compounds, or drugs! Advocates of increased drug use, or decreased drug illegality, or increased de-illegality, have seized on this phrase and a few others in Shakespeare in order to enlist the Bard in their support. Similar advocates also hyped the unearthing of old pipes that contained marijuana and cocaine residue and that were found in the vicinity of Stratford-on-Avon, the home Shakespeare almost never lived in. Never mind that the pipes (pipes that are smoked) could not be dated within an accuracy of more than two hundred years.

Bardseye comes more to bury this feverish speculation than to praise it. But the issue does provide an opportunity to read Shakespeare as historical detectives rather than imbibers of literature.

While hemp, derived from the marijuana plant, was known at the time and grown for its fiber, people hadn't caught on to the idea of smoking it. Just as people didn't immediately catch on to the idea of smoking cotton. Let's continue with sonnet #76:

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?

Actually, the pot advocates have grasped onto the phrase "noted weed" with even greater joy than "compounds strange," and have assigned Sonnet 76 as Shakespeare's drug sonnet as a result. But in both cases, they are guilty of assigning today's meaning to the day before yesterday's language. The most likely etymology – or word history – of "weed" in this context is suit or clothing, as in widow's weeds, usually plural but not always, and indeed here the plural case would destroy the rhyme.

Moreover, this meaning fits the overall meaning of the stanza, which is a complaint that the writer is never able to vary his writing style, which is so recognizable that it betrays his authorship. (The first stanza means much the same, with the "compounds strange" most likely referring to his poetic phrases being compounded of different words). That's the meaning that fits, while the drug-related meaning is the meaning that doesn't fit.

If readers wish to puzzle over hidden meanings, let them wonder at the writer's hinted desire to conceal his identity, which he frets is betrayed by his pen. That seems a more likely subtext of the poem. But the far more fertile subject of Shakespeare's identity is a matter bardseye will leave for another day.

Pot promoters must be a little dismayed, and pot demonizers delighted, at the lack of persuasive citations in Shakespeare relating to drug use. In A Midsummer's Night Dream Oberon sprinkles the pollen from a magic flower onto Titania's sleeping eyelids, and when she awakens, she falls in love with Bottom, a mere mortal, whom she will love even when a further spell transforms him into an ass, in the etymological sense of a donkey. A potion will cast Juliet into a temporary coma, and a duke is subjected to a sleeping spell by Ariel in the Tempest.

And Bardseye welcomes other examples from advanced Bard-readers.

But when it comes to mood alteration, Shakespeare's preferred agent is love, or despair, or moral outrage or any number of actual states, as opposed to fake ones.

I've left alcohol out of this discussion, since it is so wedded to our and Shakespeare's civilization as to be taken for granted as a part of it. Its presence in Shakespeare runs from the meeting between Cassius and Brutus in Act III of Julius Caesar, where its use reflects the decadence of their rebellion, to the exuberant drinking of Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night and of Falstaff in every play he's in. But all of these drinkers are ultimately shown as dissolute, and Shakespeare's final verdict on drinking is a dismissive one.

Speaking of compounds strange, those who want a new drug will be pleased to learn that a new compound strange has been developed that replicates the effect that marijuana has on the brain.

It's been developed a bit too late for me. I've found my drug. It's what I'm blogging about.

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