Francis Thackeray, a South African anthropologist and the director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, has asked permission from the Church of England to exhume the remains of William Shakespeare. This would allow a team of researchers to study the cause of death of the Bard of Avon, as well as look for evidence of drug use, which depends on the presence of hair and finger or toe nails.

A study by Thackeray, performed in 2001, found remains of pipes in Shakespeare’s garden which carried traces of marijuana (Thackeray et al., 2001). In Shakespeare’s era, cannabis was used in England to make textiles and rope, and, as such, it was readily available. Both the uncovering of the pipes and some allusions (see Sonnet 76) made by the man himself have led some to wonder if Shakespeare used drugs for inspiration.

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 new-found methods and to compounds strange?
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?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
   For as the sun is daily new and old,
   So is my love still telling whatis told.
William Shakespeare's Sonnet 76 (Source:, bold by me)

If permission is granted, Thackeray and his team plan to use a technique called laser surface scanning. The resulting scans could be used to make 3D models of the bones and skull, which would enable the researchers to look for markers of health and disease. The teeth would also be chemically analyzed to reveal details about the diet, as well as smoking habits. If the man was a habitual smoker, there would have formed a groove between the canine and incisor teeth. All this would not require moving the bones. Perhaps for the best, since the grave of the poet carries an engraved curse (see figure 1).

Blessed be the man that spares these stones and cursed be he that moves my bones.

Figure 1: Shakespeare's engraved curse.


Determining cause of death, however, may be quite difficult, unless the man succumbed to a condition that left clear indications in or on his bones. And whether the knowledge that Shakespeare smoked pot really contributes anything substantial to our understanding of the man and his era, remains questionable. 


Pappas, S. (27th June 2011). Could Shakespeare's Bones Tell Us if He Smoked Pot? LiveScience. (Click here)

Thackeray, J.F.; Van der Merwe, N.J. and Van der Merwe, T.A. (2001). Chemical analysis of residues from seventeenth-century clay pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon and environs: research in action. South African Journal of Science. 97(1 and 2), pp. 19 - 21.