Okay. Back to Shakespeare. Not everybody has heard of Banquo or Lady Macbeth, but virtually everyone has heard of the three witches, and especially of the brew that they're stirring up in a cauldron as Macbeth approaches them over the “blasted heath,” whatever that is. You'd think that after teaching this play, and viewing several versions on film, and seeing at least two different live performances (one at the Shakespeare Folger Library in downtown Washington D.C. with special effects by Teller of the magician duo Penn and Teller) that I'd know just about all there is to know about the play, but I don't remember ever actively researching the witches and their brew before now. So here's a sampling of what I've found out:
First, Shakespeare's source material had Macbeth being greeted by fairies or nymphs instead of by witches. He changed these beings to witches for (it seems likely) a couple of reasons. First, what's eerie about cute little fairies? The witches are much more atmospheric, and Shakespeare really has fun with his descriptions. When we first meet them in Act I we are told that they have “skinny lips” and, although they seem to be women, they also have “beards,” obviously a reference to those pesky chin hairs that seem to crop up with age. But they really come into their own in their second appearance, at the beginning of Act IV, where they have their famous cauldron scene. Here's where the wording comes for our selection. We sing only a small sampling of the actual ingredients listed, which also include a poisonous toad, parts of a shark, a tiger's entrails, and baboon's blood. It may seem very farfetched that there could really be such an assemblage of materials, but medieval medicine often used extremely strange ingredients. For instance, the song mentions “witches' mummy,” and, while it may strain your credulity to think it, actual mummies (the best being the Egyptian ones) were crumbled up and ingested for various ailments. The French king Francis I (who lived at the same time as Henry VIII) carried around ground-up mummy in a pouch, just in case he was wounded while hunting. Medieval and Renaissance Europe was sort of obsessed with mummies and their supposed magical or medicinal powers. So the witches' brew has at least one ingredient that really was used. Other things may have been herbs that were given code names to keep ingredients of potions secret, or simply because the herbs bore a resemblance to an animal's body part. We sing about the “tongue of dog” and “adder's fork,” both of which are known to be plants.
Getting into the whole history of witch-hunting and the tragic executions that followed, both in Europe and America, is beyond the scope of this post. What seems clear is that there were certainly woman, often elderly, who were known as brewers of potions, usually made from herbs. Some of these mixtures were legitimately medicinal; if you couldn't afford to go to an apothecary's shop in town, you might visit a local herbalist and get her to give you something to help you with your aches and pains. It seems clear that at least some of these herbalists trafficked in less-wholesome products, though, including poisons and love potions. It was against the law for anyone to sell poison. (Remember that scene in Romeo and Juliet scene in which Romeo buys poison to kill himself because he thinks Juliet is dead, offering a huge sum of money to the apothecary, who first objects, saying that Mantua's law forbids it, but finally says, “My poverty, but not my will, consents”?) Also, keep in mind that Macbeth is set in Scotland, with all of its intriguing Celtic traditions. We may find the witches rather funny today, but the audience at the time would almost certainly have been seriously creeped out. (That is, if they were paying attention, what with all the talking, flirting, and orange-eating that would have been going on during the play.)
As far as the actual selection we're singing, that's from the third film in the Harry Potter franchise, HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The piece is performed by the Frog Choir, a group that doesn't appear in any of the actual books but which J. K. Rowling really loved when she saw them in the movie. They originally perform at the welcoming feast that begins the new school term and each carries a toad, one of which croaks during the song. (Why aren't they called the Toad Choir? I don't know.) The music is, of course, by John Williams. Isn't everything?