What were the attitudes towards witchcraft in Shakespeare's time?

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marvy23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare wrote during the English Renaissance—a time in which humankind thirsted for knowledge in many areas (sciences and arts being two of the more prominent)—but it is true that the Elizabethans were a suspicious lot who often depended more on emotion than erudition. In addition, the influences of the Catholic and Anglican churches of the time encouraged people to believe in a spiritual realm, and not just one that housed peaceful, benevolent, angelic spirits. Furthermore, people of Shakespeare's time considered astrology and astronomy to be the same science, so they were just as willing to accept the concept that Romeo and Juliet were "star-crossed" as they were to accept they were hormone-charged teenagers. With the combination of these elements in full force, people in Shakespeare's time were very willing to accept that there could be malevolent forces in the world and also believed that these forces could be called forth by those who wanted to utilize their dark powers. The witches in Macbeth are partial evidence of this willingness to believe in the power of witchcraft; however, Shakespeare carefully crafted the three witches so they could be viewed as "secret, black, and midnight hags" with little power of their own just as easily as they could be viewed as controlling creatures in contact with a dark, occult underworld. When it came to witchcraft during Shakespeare's time (and thus, within Shakespeare's plays), the willing suspension of disbelief was not always a necessary component. Many audience members would have considered appearances by witches and spirits to be completely plausible reasons for misfortune in the lives of real people as well as characters in a play.