In Shakespeare’s time, witches did not just live on the stage; they were believed to be the Devil’s agents in everyday life. While the three Weird Sisters of Macbeth are very different than the “witches” Shakespeare’s audience knew, common superstitions and beliefs helped shape his play.
Believing in witches was not just a practice performed by the commoners; King James I, who took the throne in 1603 – three years before Macbeth debuted – was so enthralled with the study of witches that he published a book about them in 1597. His book –entitled Daemonologie – supported the practice of witch hunting; King James was famously involved in the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland in 1590, where 70 people were accused of witchcraft. Nearly 2,000 records of witch trials in Scotland between the years of 1620-1680 survive today and some scholars say that as many as 4,000 accused witches might have been killed in Scotland between 1560- 1707.
Any person could be accused of witchcraft, but most were poor, elderly women. These women were outcasts in society and because they were seen as different, it was easy for people to believe that they had supernatural abilities.
Defining a “witch” however, was not an easy task and while many Elizabethan sources define witches, their definitions are not consistent and even contradict each other. The most widely accepted definition is that witches were “above nature.” This loose definition of witches is what made it so simple for witch hunts to occur and rumors to run rampant.
Witches were mainly accused of selling their soul to the Devil and conspiring against those around them. They were supposedly selfish and partook in witchcraft for personal gain or to settle grudges and grievances. Almost every village had at least one woman with a reputation for being a witch. “Witches,” however, were really just scapegoats for anything that went wrong in a village.
While witch hunts were not popular during the era of the original Macbeth story – around 1040 – they were well established when Shakespeare began writing and undoubtedly inspired the playwright, who used this common knowledge along with other folklore to create his three, spooky witches.
Education Program Assistant