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It is easy to find dozens of sites claiming, generally without attribution, that the ingredients in the famously gruesome witches' brew from Shakespeare's play Macbeth are herbalist jargon for common plants. For instance, according to Aldersbrook Resort:

The witches scene in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” describes a concoction that consists of “Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog…” Luckily, these terms refer to plants, not actual animal parts. Eye of newt is a pseudonym for mustard seed.

Or from How Stuff Works:

Eye of newt – mustard seed,
toe of frog – buttercup,
wool of bat – holly leaves,
tongue of dog – houndstongue,
adders fork – adders tongue

These claims can even be found in books:

The eye of newt boiling and baking in the cauldron of witches in Macbeth is no other than the brown mustard seed.

Mustard: A Global History (Google Books)

However, besides these claims generally not referencing any primary sources that establish the use of these terms in Elizabethan England, it seems that there are reasons to doubt that the terminology simply refers to mundane plants. The witches are portrayed as agents of demonic powers who engage in unpleasant rituals, not laid-back herbalists. After all, the other ingredients in the brew are pretty explicitly said to be "swelter'd venom sleeping got" from a "toad, that under cold stone, days and nights has thirty-one," the "finger of [a] birth-strangled babe," and so forth. Next to these ingredients, perhaps "eye of newt" could be nothing more than what it seems.

Are the listed ingredients merely code for common plants? Or are they what they appear to be?

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    I think the only part of the question we could answer here is whether "eye of newt" was already an established term for mustard seed, and so on. What Shakespeare intended it to mean is a matter of literary analysis, maybe, but not of scientific skepticism. Even so, English.SE may be a better place to ask anyway. Sep 2 at 22:46
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    @NateEldredge - Perhaps the word "code" produces a misimpression. "Jargon" might be more accurate. The question is not about whether Shakespeare secretly meant these to be common plants and was employing metaphor, which would be a question for literary analysis, but whether that is simply what the terms meant. That's a question that could be answered with reference to linguistic works and cited research about Macbeth. In addition, establishing that the claims only emerged in the 20th or 21st century (or contrariwise, that the "true meaning" was noted by contemporary critics) would help.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 2 at 22:49
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    @NateEldredge - As a side note, "newts" of various types can conspicuously regenerate their eyes after almost full removal (and even more conspicuously, their limbs), something that could have been noted by people keeping them in ponds, captivity, and so forth. It is speculation, but if actual eyes of newt were used in concoctions, that might have been the reason.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 2 at 23:02
  • The only question that can reasonably be answered here is whether the terms were in common usage meaning plants. Shakespeare was writing fiction and chose poetic terms for grotesque effect. He wasn't writing a herbalist's manual. Realism was never the point.
    – matt_black
    Sep 7 at 15:46
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Macbeth dates back to around 1606.

Tongue of Dog

While the most common name for the plant seems to have been hounds tongue, there are a few instances of it going by another name: Dogs tongue.

I found “Dogs toong” in the The Herball Or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), page 337.

Here’s another quote, from the ME translation of Guy de Chauliac's Grande Chirurgie (?a1425):

Lefes of lingue canis i. dog tonge

However, the phrase also had its literal meaning at the time, so it could still be literal — or perhaps a reference to both meanings.

Blind-Worm's Sting

The unreferenced sources don't even tend to claim this is a plant. Sting means fang. It is most likely that blindworm refers to the slow worm (which is neither slow nor a worm nor blind nor deaf nor a snake: it is a lizard without limbs). Otherwise, blindworm sometimes refers to a kind of water snake or serpent. Or maybe a venomous snake.

Blind-worms and newts: Shakespeare's other works

The language of the witches is similar to that in Timon of Athens:

Engenders the black toad and adder blue,
The gilded newt and eyeless venom'd worm,

And yet again in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.

These are the only occurrences of "newt" in Shakespeare's works. Every time the word appears, it's paired with the blind-worm (which also isn't poisonous, despite the popular belief). And in all the other sources there is no connection to any plant (or witches or herbalism) that would make sense.

Yew, Hemlock

They are poisonous plants, no matter how you look at it. The dark, nighttime digging of the root was said to make it more poisonous. Poison is a common theme in many of the ingredients.

Other ingredients

Even after searching some, the closest I got to a connection between plants and the other ingredients is that the name “adders tongue” is also attested from around the same time period (eg in Historie). There really are a lot of plants that are referred to as tongues.

I don’t expect that you would be able to find even a hint of an alternative explanation for some of the ingredients being plants. For example, I don’t see another possibility for “witch’s mummy”: they’re calling for a bit of embalmed flesh or fluid. I don’t know about witches, but “mummy” was a common enough ingredient in medicine in the past. Taking again from Chirurgie:

Mummia is flesh of dede men balsamate [embalmed]

In fact, Johnson (of dictionary fame) lauds the scene for how gruesome many of the ingredients are:

It has been already mentioned in the law against witches, that they are supposed to take up dead bodies to use in enchantments, which was confessed by the woman whom King James examined, and who had of a dead body that was divided in one of their assemblies, two fingers for her share. It is observable that Shakespeare, on this great occasion, which involves the fate of a king, multiplies all the circumstances of horror. The babe, whose finger is used, must be strangled in its birth; the grease must not only be human, but must have dropped from a gibbet, the gibbet of a murderer; and even the sow, whose blood is used, must have offended nature by devouring her own farrow. These are touches of judgment and genius.

Origin and explanation of the claim?

The originator of this claim may have been Wiccan author Scott Cunningham. I can't access the book where it likely first appeared (Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, 1985), but he definitely did claim that every one of those ingredients in the brew is a plant. I can access most of his list of what he calls 'tentative "translations"' in Google Books (and what seems to be the entire list is on Quizlet).

The best explanation for the claim can be found in More than “toil and trouble”: Macbeth and medicine (the list of suggested alternatives is slightly different). The reasoning for some is that one word matches between the phrase used by the witches and an attested form of some plant (e.g. "scale of dragon" becomes dragon's blood). In some cases, the author doesn't even get this close to a tentative connection, and makes an association because they feel the plant resembles what the witches said (e.g. mustard seeds being "eyes of newt"). And for the rest, there's no connection that I can even guess.

These methods, of course, ignore specific wording when it is given, such as the fact the "finger" comes from a babe whose entire (albeit short) life is described in the recipe (the website's suggestion is that this is either Bloodroot or Cinquefoil, while Cunningham says it's "roots from a young dead tree"). By doing so, this eliminates all possible wordings for anything you could brew that is meant to be taken literally as not a plant. How such a person would explain away the other historical context (such as mummies) is beyond me.

What I do agree with: "Drawing any conclusion from a list like this requires many layers of assumption and speculation".

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    Might be worth researching the line of reasoning in the comment here: continuum.umn.edu/2017/10/shakespearean-recipe-witchs-brew Sep 4 at 9:45
  • The OED aims 'to document every word…'… so I wonder why the angle "ˈdog's-tongue 2. A king of flat-fish, prob. Platessa cynoglossus. 1611:" is left unexplored? Plus the frame-challenge: "Are they…" needs to be read as "might they be". Sep 4 at 18:04
  • @LangLаngС Added information from that comment, plus more. (I can no longer access the OED, though I will say that it's very much an incomplete and outdated work in my experience. Some pages are up to date and could not be higher quality but many more aren't. But it really is a fantastic tool.)
    – Laurel
    Sep 4 at 22:05
  • It seems extraordinary to me, though not implausible, that a Wiccan author would invest such effort in proving that the ingredients in the witches' brew in Macbeth are innocuous herbs in order to demonstrate the inoffensiveness of witchcraft (as if the Weird Sisters were real witches?), without addressing more minor points such as their rejection of all things good and exaltation of evil ("Fair is foul, and foul is fair") or their torture of innocent people whose relatives offended them ("I’ll drain him dry as hay, sleep shall neither night nor day, hang upon his penthouse lid").
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 4 at 22:45
  • As a side note, the claims are not in the Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Also, I am impressed with his audacity in claiming that the "liver of blaspheming Jew" is actually a plant, and butcher's-broom, no less. Apart from the evident absurdity of the claim, without the epithet, one is left with nothing more than "liver," so he could have claimed that it was liverwort or chopped liver, but no, it was some unrelated plant.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 4 at 22:46

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