What did the people think the witches' powers were?
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In Elizabethan times, people were very superstitious. They believed in the power of witches and feared them. People believed that they could affect the weather, put curses on people, and have all kinds of supernatural powers to create evil. In fact, Macbeth’s audience feared even the witches in the play because of these beliefs. Apparently, Shakespeare included real chants from witches of the day. You could imagine the reaction to this.
In Shakespeare's day, Europe was engulfed in a witch craze that spanned many years of the 16th century, primarily in France, Germany and the British Isles, and it eventually found its way to the North American Colonies in the latter half of the 17th century (specifically the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-3).
A book penned in 1486 by two Germans (Kramer and Sprenger) functioned as a sort of manual for witch-hunters (or witch finders as they were also called): The Hammer of Witches or Malleus Maleficarum. The book gave many tell-tale signs for identifying witches, tips for extracting confessions, and other practical advice, but was also a misogynistic diatribe that included statements such as "All witchcraft stems from carnal desire, which in women is insatiable." The sexual nature of witches was well known in Shakespeare's day, and this sexual undercurrent can be seen in the way that Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband to plan his rival's murder.
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