Today’s post comes from Stephanie Appleton, Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at the University of Birmingham.
“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...
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.” (Macbeth, 4.1)
This cauldron is made of bronze (or copper alloy, as it is more commonly known today), dates from around 1575 – 1625 and is currently on display in Shakespeare’s Birthplace. As the image illustrates, a cauldron of this size would have been suspended over a fire to enable its contents to be boiled or cooked accordingly. Smaller cauldrons, like the one below, also in the Birthplace, had feet on the bottom so that they could be stood directly on the hearth as required.
This smaller example (dated around 1600) is thought to be of continental origin due to its angled handles and feet.
Cauldrons were commonplace domestic items during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and were used by the women of the household for cooking meals for the family. In fact, we find cauldrons mentioned in the wills and inventories of some of the women of Stratford at this time: one widow called Joyce Hobday who died in 1602 actually differentiates between her ‘best cawdren of brasse’ and her ‘second brasse cawdren’ in her will. Perhaps her ‘best’ cauldron was newer and therefore less damaged by the wear and tear of daily use.
The cauldron was tied up with the idea of female domesticity at this time, and Shakespeare uses this to great effect in his portrayal of the three witches in his 1605 play Macbeth. These women are not providing for their families by cooking food in the cauldron, as they should have done; they are instead using it to brew potions for their own evil ends. The detail Shakespeare includes about the sorts of gruesome ‘ingredients’ the witches use (‘Eye of newt and toe of frog’) reminds us that these are not ‘ordinary’ women, and that they are to be feared. The image of the witches with their cauldron is so powerful that it has become the archetypal representation of witches: even in movies today, any witch worth her salt will have an enormous cauldron adorning her lair.