Spooky Nature: Shakespeare’s Creepy Creatures

Jill Staake

Last week, we learned about the Common Raven, a spooky bird made famous to many by the author Edgar Allan Poe. This time around, we’re delving back into literature to look at the creatures named by Shakespeare’s “Three Witches” in Macbeth. These three crones huddle over a steaming cauldron in Act IV, Scene i, preparing a brew that will help them answer Macbeth’s questions. The recipe is very lengthy, spelled out in three verses or so, and each new set of ingredients is more horrifying (and often mythical) than the last. The first verse is the one most quoted though, and all of the creatures contained within actually exist. So, without further ado, here are the creepy creatures used by Macbeth’s witches in that well-known verse:

Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake / In the cauldron boil and bake;
A “fenny snake” is any snake found in The Fens, a marshy area in eastern England. Though much of it was drained centuries ago, during Shakespeare’s day most of The Fens still survived. The largest and probably most frequently encountered snake of The Fens is the Grass Snake (Natrix natrix), so that’s who we’ll choose here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eye of newt and toe of frog,
There are three native newts in England and two native frogs. I like to think the Witches would have chosen the Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus), for its warty skin and overall creepy appearance. As for the frog, the Pool Frog (Rana lessonae) seems to have always had a very small population in England, so to be on the safe side, we’ll assume the Witches used the tiny toe of the Common European Frog (Rana temporaria).

     

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
England has a whopping 17 species of bat, and the Witches were pretty vague with their “dog” description.  Macbeth takes place in Scotland, so we’ll narrow the bat list down to the nine bats known to live there, and from there we’ll choose the little Common Pipstrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) since it’s the most common and widespread. And the dog? Well, dog breeding has been going on for thousands of years, so it’s hard to say what breed if any might have been indicated here. But perhaps Shakespeare was envisioning the Irish Wolfhound, well-known in England even at that time and perhaps thought to be vicious because of its wolf-hunting abilities (though it’s actually quite gentle).

      

Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
These species are much easier to identify. The Common European Adder (Viper berus) is the only venomous snake in England, and the fork of course refers to its tongue. The Blind-Worm (which is neither blind nor a worm) today is usually called the Slow-Worm (Anguis fragilis) and is actually a non-venomous legless lizard. Like other lizards the Slow-Worm can shed its tail in self-defense, and although this tail is harmless, it seems likely that this shed tail is what the Witches meant by “sting”.

     

Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
There are only two other lizards in England, and one is very rare, so the lizard referred to here would be the Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara), found throughout Europe and into Asia. This cool lizard species gives birth to live young, rather than laying eggs as other lizards do.  England has more variety in owl species, though, with at least nine being considered native. There’s no way to know what Shakespeare pictured in his head when he penned those lines, but earlier in the play (Act II, Scene ii), Lady Macbeth comments “Hark!…It was the owl that shrieked…”, and that most certainly describes the Barn Owl (Tyto alba), known for its piercing call.

     
For a charm of powerful trouble / Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Simmer 60 minutes over high heat, presumably.

This is all the supposition of someone with a degree in English, a love of nature, and an active internet connection for research, so of course I could be way off base. If you’re an expert in Shakespearean creatures or those of the British Isles, please do give us your own opinions in the comments below – actually, go ahead and give us your opinion even if you’re not. This is a fun topic for speculation, especially during the spooky season!

Enjoying the Spooky Nature? Be sure to check out other posts from October, including Creepy Caterpillars, Eerie Flowers, and Raven Facts. We’ve got one more spooky Wednesday left – be sure to check in on Halloween for one more post!

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