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Analytical Chemistry

Adventures in analytical chemistry: Looking for Shakespeare’s inspiration and finding protein with pop

by Marc S. Reisch
June 27, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 26


High times for Shakespeare

Credit: Shutterstock
Pothead bard: Shakespeare may have summoned his muse by smoking Cannabis, or maybe not.
Credit: Shutterstock
Pothead bard: Shakespeare may have summoned his muse by smoking Cannabis, or maybe not.

Could the dynamic combination of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry help prove the theory that William Shakespeare drew literary inspiration from a pipe full of marijuana? The answer, according to Francis Thackeray, a paleoanthropologist with a wicked sense of humor, is a resounding “maybe.” Residual evidence from early-17th-century pipe fragments, discarded in and around Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon gardens, suggests the Bard was a pothead, claims Thackeray, who is based at the University of Witwatersrand.

Smoking tobacco, recently introduced from the Americas, was wildly popular in Elizabethan England. But some of that tobacco may actually have been today’s mind-expanding weed of choice, Thackeray maintains. So he and his colleagues—this was a joint research effort—borrowed 24 smoking pipe bowl and stem fragments from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and sought analytical help from no less an authority than the South African Police Service’s Forensic Science Laboratory.

In a recent note on the evidence, published in the South African Journal of Science, Thackeray says the “state-of-the-art forensic technology” used to analyze residue in the clay remnants “indicated Cannabis in eight samples” (2015, DOI: 10.17159/sajs.2015/a0115). However, the analysis also indicated nicotine from tobacco “in at least one sample” and “definitive evidence for Peruvian cocaine from coca leaves” in two samples, he points out.

Apparently, Shakespeare’s neighborhood attracted a lot of high-minded people. But what’s to prove Shakespeare actually smoked weed and not tobacco or cocaine? Or that he could have put his lips to any of the pipe fragments analyzed? Thackeray turns to the literary evidence, of course.

In a thoroughly modern interpretation of Sonnet 76, he points to Shakespeare’s mention of “invention in a noted weed,” as evidence that the Bard was willing to smoke a certain weed to summon his muse. Many scholars read Sonnet 76 as Shakespeare’s defense of his poetic style and not the state of his mind while writing.

Shakespeare’s poetry, like his life, is often the subject of interpretation and reinvention. Some scholars say Shakespeare was actually the Elizabethan statesman Francis Bacon or the playwright Christopher Marlowe.

The late-19th-century U.S. author Mark Twain got involved in the “who is Shakespeare?” speculation and wondered, “Is Shakespeare dead?” Maybe the better question to ask is, “What was he smoking?”

Putting soft drinks to good use

Credit: David Martin
Partners in drink: University of Dundee students Gilmour (from left), Bell, and Ball were spurred to invention by a bottle of pop.
Credit: A.G. Barr
To dye for: A Scottish drink is an economical protein stain.
Credit: A.G. Barr
To dye for: A Scottish drink is an economical protein stain.

While we don’t really know what the Bard was smoking, we do know what three Scottish chemistry undergraduates were not drinking when they sought to economize on an analytical technique for protein characterization. They were not drinking Irn-Bru, a popular ginger-flavored Scottish soft drink.

Instead, Lisa Ball, David Bell, and Katie Gilmour, all third-year University of Dundee life sciences students, decided to see whether they could replace Ponceau S, a red azo dye, with Irn-Bru to stain, size, and identify proteins. Irn-Bru contains Ponceau 4R, a food dye that is chemically similar to Ponceau S.

“Our project was not expected to work,” Gilmour says, “but it did. It’s a kind of a science hack.”

Economically, Irn-Bru is a winner. Ponceau S, Gilmour points out, costs about $3.60 for a bottle. Add in a hefty delivery price and the cost of the lab reagent zooms to over $25. A similar-sized bottle of Irn-Bru costs $1.45 at local stores.

For the purpose of staining samples, Irn-Bru can also be chugged straight out of the bottle, Gilmour says. But Ponceau S needs to be diluted with acetic acid, which adds additional complexity and cost. Another bonus to using Irn-Bru, she says, is that “there was no real difference in the staining between the normal and sugar-free” versions of the stuff.

Gilmour confesses that “while experimenting with Irn-Bru and smelling it for hours at a time, none of us were in a rush to drink a bottle.” But now that the proof is in, “we’ve all had some since,” she says.

Marc S. Reisch wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to



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