Answers to a recent question about the superstition surrounding Macbeth linked to a Royal Shakespeare Company web page that claimed:

According to folklore, Macbeth was cursed from the beginning. A coven of witches objected to Shakespeare using real incantations, so they put a curse on the play.

The witches appear in only four scenes:

  • Act I, scene i
  • Act I, scene iii
  • Act III, scene v
  • Act IV, scene i

These scenes contain only two actual spells. Act I scene iii has the following:

The Weïrd Sisters, hand in hand
Posters of the sea and land
Thus do go, about, about,
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace, the charm's bound up.       (I.iii.33–38)

And Act IV, scene i has the much longer:

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.

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 owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.       (IV.i.4–38, speech headers omitted)

It is worth mentioning that the latter was possibly written not by Shakespeare, but by his collaborator Thomas Middleton, who is known to have recycled songs and other material from his play The Witch into Macbeth.

How close are these incantations to those actually used by those professing witchcraft in the 17th C.? Do we have any historical records documenting spells common among witches of the time, and if so, how do the conjurations in Macbeth map to those?

This question is purely about the scholarly record. I have also asked a different question about witchcraft practices in the present day vis-à-vis Macbeth and The Witch.

  • I wonder if you are having us on? If no woman was proven to be a witch (all "confessions" were the result of torture), how could there ever be "actual incantations" by 17th-century women who self-identified as witches?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Nov 28, 2021 at 21:16


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