Bite-sized knowledge for the hungrily curious

What is “eye of newt”?

The Answer

Mustard seed.

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.

Photo by Nisuda Nirmantha on Unsplash

In fact, many of the ingredients mentioned in that scene actually refer to plants.

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

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