Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, in the cauldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a Hell-broth boil and bubble…Macbeth – William Shakespeare
No, the three witches in Macbeth did not take the eyes of a semiaquatic salamander for their magical brew. “Eye of newt” is actually a less well-known name for mustard seed.
In fact, many of the ingredients mentioned in that scene actually refer to plants.
- Eye of Newt is mustard seed
- Toe of frog is buttercup
- Wool of bat is moss
- Tongue of dog is plant called houndstongue
- Adder’s fork is adders tongue (a type of fern)
- Blind-worm’s sting is knotweed
- Lizard’s leg is ivy
- Howlet’s wing is garlic, and
- Fillet of a fenny snake is jack-in-the-pulpit (arisaema tryphyllum).
Why such weird names?
When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, herbalists (often though of as witches at the time) used such code-names for common herbal ingredients to prevent others from growing them on their own. If only the herbalists/witches know what eye of newt is, no one else would be able to replicate anything they make.
These menacing-sounding names only enforce the dark, spooky tone that’s associated with witches, but Shakespeare used that tone to full effect, creating a scene that’s remembered hundreds of years later.
Originally published May 17, 2020