Which Ingredients are Witch Ingredients?”

By Dana Schumacher-Schmidt, Siena Heights University

Over the last ten years or so teaching undergraduate Shakespeare courses, I’ve developed an exercise to enhance students’ exploration of Macbeth. I’ve found this activity to be effective for engaging the whole class in critical thinking and discussion, introducing recipes as primary texts, and connecting students to aspects of early modern English culture in which the play is situated. The exercise begins with a question: what’s the relationship between the concoction the weird sisters cook up out on the heath and what any housewife might have bubbling in her cauldron at home?

At the start of the class period, I give students a list of ingredients, about half of which are drawn from the contents of the weird sisters’ cauldron as described in Act 4, scene 1 of Macbeth and the other half from a selection of early modern medicinal recipes. Without looking back at the play text, students have to sort the ingredients into two categories: “witches’ brew” and “early modern remedies.” I make things a little more challenging by changing Shakespeare’s language to match the vocabulary and syntax commonly used in recipes (“root of hemlock digg’d in the dark” becomes “a quantity of hemlock,” for example).

Apart from easy ones like “the toe of a frog,” students typically are surprised when they struggle to categorize many of the ingredients. This difficulty is the point of the exercise—I want students to see that ingredients they consider to be downright “witchy” were used in domestic medicine. Sometimes it’s their lack of familiarity with an ingredient that presents a challenge. For instance, “dragon’s blood” sounds like just the sort of thing a weird sister would reach for to someone unaware that it’s a plant resin named for its red color and used at the time as a clotting agent.

With another ingredient, the bezoar stone, I play on the students’ potential familiarity with its two appearances in the Harry Potter series. Alas, their association of this ingredient with the wizarding world backfires in this particular activity, as it, like the dragon’s blood, comes from Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe for “The red powder good for miscarrying.” Even though (or maybe because) the list is kind of rigged against them, students tend to turn to each other for help and employ a variety of critical thinking strategies to figure out where the ingredients belong, two outcomes that contribute to the value of the activity in my eyes.

Image credit: Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book, MS 7113, Wellcome Library.

After students share their choices in whole-group discussion, it’s time for the moment of truth: we look at the play text and digitized images of the original recipes to see where the ingredients really belong. These revelations tend to evoke equal parts delight and disbelief from my students, especially when they get to place the powdered skull and mummy in the “remedy” category. In addition to seeing the ingredients in context, along with other ingredients and preparation techniques, this part of the exercise shows students how recipes were written and compiled in the past and familiarizes them with digital collections from the Wellcome Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library that they might use for future projects.

From here, we discuss how the activity impacts our interpretation of the witches and our perceptions of early modern domesticity. To help students frame their responses, I give them Jennifer Munroe’s “Recipes and the ‘Weird’: A Halloween Rumination” and excerpts from Wendy Wall’s book Staging Domesticity. Both texts help further contextualize the recipes in their own time and ours with regard to gender, domestic labor, and the history of medicine. It is new information to my students that these ingredients, which sound so strange to them, are not especially unusual in the corpus of early modern home remedies. At the same time, it is helpful for them to see that their initial distrust of these ingredients as medicine would have been shared by at least some part of the early modern audience and also stems from a centuries-long, often gender-biased, effort to raise suspicion against domestic medicine.

At the end of our discussion, I ask students to write answers to a couple of reflection questions on the day’s activities: What’s the most interesting thing you’ll take away from this exercise? What additional thoughts or questions do you have about home remedies, recipe books, or domestic work in early modern England? I address their comments and answer their questions at the start of the next class. Students appreciate this opportunity to step outside of Shakespeare’s play text and realize that recipes can enrich their understanding of the past.