In "Macbeth", what did the Elizabethan people think about the three witches?

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sullymonster eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The play itself can not directly reveal what the audience felt about it.  However, the way the characters react can indicate what the audience might feel.  Also, research into the time period can reveal the same.

Macbeth and Banquo are the only two who see the witches.  They don't show "awe and wonder" at the appearance of the "sisters"; however, they don't dismiss the idea that these sisters might be witches.  Banquo reacts with humor and disbelief - but he does accept the possibility that this is a supernatural event.  He asks this question:

I' the name of truth,
Are ye fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly ye show?

He is asking them directly, as they greet Macbeth with good possibilities, if they are witches and capable of these predictions.  Later, Banquo will become much more devout a believer as events transpire.  Macbeth, of course, accepts immediately.

The reactions of these characters seem to coincide with the beliefs of the time period.  During Elizabeth's reign, there were 270 witch trials - so people certainly believed enough in witches to allow this to happen.  However, there was a push to abandon this superstition.  Macbeth was actually written during the reign of James I.  James wrote a book - before taking the throne - called "Daemonologie", which explained how witches could exist.  However, as King, he reportedly condemned witch trials.  The split reaction of Macbeth and Banquo would have most likely been the split reaction of the public.