People did believe in witches, but as you can tell they were also afraid of them. Witchcraft is fun for us in modern times, and clearly there was a certain amount of fun in it in Shakespeare’s day, but there was also more fear.
I think you will find this review that I wrote a couple of months ago very enlightening: Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth. http://www.enotes.com/blogs/book-blog/2008-07/witches-and-jesuits/
If you are able, pick up a copy of the text. It will help you understand how integral witches are to the play.
Keep in mind, that the belief in witchcraft is still popular today. It is not a mainstream belief, but there are individuals who practice whats known as "wicca" and there are stores and websites devoted to the study of this "craft". The belief that people can control an uncontrollable world can be very tempting to some. And the ability to explain away the unfortunate - the death of a young child, the misbehavior of a teenager - can also be tempting. The strong religious beliefs at the time made witchcraft - Devil association - the likely outlet for such needs.
However, the belief in witchcraft was not as widespread, particularly in England, as some would suggest. Even the characters in the book has some hesistancy regarding the "witches" they meet. Superstitious Macbeth is so eager for power that he responds instantly to the "prophecy", but Banquo is amused and disbelieving:BANQUO: Were such things here as we do speak about?(95)
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?
Banquo is asking, teasingly, if he and Macbeth have taken some drug that has caused them to halluncinate. He doesn't buy what he has seen and heard.
This was true in much of England. Witch persecution was much less prevalent in England than in the rest of Europe, at least until King James I took over. James was infamously superstitious and scared of witches.
First of all, this was during a pre-scientific era in history. While science was making some inroads on superstition, scientific causes of events was not a focus. Psychosomatic results from a "curse" were proof of the power of witchcraft.
Also, through the teachings of the Church, the powers of evil (through Satan) were considered the cause of much that was wrong in society. The fear and superstition caused by lack of education to fully understand this teaching, caused people to believe that individuals could call upon the devil to work in their favor.
There was also some influence on this belief in the remains of pagan/nature religions. These were often made a part of Christian belief, and seen as evil.
heyy, im going to be doing a verbal assessment at school about Macbeth and was wondering if you could tell me why Shakespeare's contemporaries and a modern audience find Macbeth an ingaging Tragic hero ?