What Is Eye of Newt?

By Kristina Seleshanko ; Updated September 15, 2017
Eye of newt is an ingredient in a famous witch's spell.

"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." Most people recognize this quote at least vaguely. What they may not know is where it comes from, what it means and whether the ingredients -- including "eye of newt" -- are real.

Origin of the Quote

The "eye of newt" quote is from one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays, "Macbeth," written in 1606. The words are spoken by Witch 2, one of three witches in the play. During the dialogue, the witches are stirring a boiling cauldron and putting together a recipe to call ghosts into their world in order to manipulate Macbeth, the future king.

Eye of Newt Is Not an Animal Part

While it seems obvious the spell is full of animal parts, in fact, those who practice herbalism -- who, in Shakespeare's time, would have been called witches -- often wrote their "spells" or recipes in what could be called coded language. For example, "Adder's Tongue" is an old name for the plant dogstooth violet. And "Eye of Newt" is, depending upon which herbalist you consult, a daylily or mustard seed.

Author of Eye of Newt

Shakespeare's plays sometimes are shrouded in mystery. Many scholars are skeptical that he wrote all of them, in part because putting on a play is a highly collaborative process. In "Macbeth," the witches' rhyming spell contrasts with the language elsewhere in the play. According to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, some experts believe the witches' dialogue was written by someone else -- possibly Thomas Middleton, another playwright of the era.

Real or Fiction

Many people wonder if the eye of newt passage is a real spell or herbal recipe. No one knows for sure and probably will never have a definitive answer. It certainly is possible since the ingredients are real. However, it's also likely the author --- whether Shakespeare or Middleton -- simply chose ingredients and words that would rhyme, maintain a certain rhythm in the dialogue and sound spooky to the audience.

About the Author

Kristina Seleshanko began adult life as a professional singer and actress, working on both the West and East coasts. She regularly sang jazz in nightclubs, performed in musical theatre, and sang opera and pop. Later, Seleshanko became the author of 18 books, and has written for such publications as "Woman's Day," "Today's Christian Woman," and "True West." Seleshanko has also been a writing coach, a research librarian for "Gourmet" magazine, and a voice teacher.