In Shakespeare’s time people believed in witches. They were people who had made a pact with the Devil in exchange for supernatural powers. If your cow was ill, it was easy to decide it had been cursed. If there was plague in your village, it was because of a witch. If the beans didn’t grow, it was because of a witch. Witches might have a familiar – a pet, or a toad, or a bird – which was supposed to be a demon advisor. People accused of being witches tended to be old, poor, single women. It is at this time that the idea of witches riding around on broomsticks (a common household implement in Elizabethan England) becomes popular.

There are lots of ways to test for a witch. A common way was to use a ducking stool, or just to tie them up, and duck the accused under water in a pond or river. If she floated, she was a witch. If she didn’t, she was innocent. She probably drowned. Anyone who floated was then burnt at the stake. It was legal to kill witches because of the Witchcraft Act passed in 1563, which set out steps to take against witches who used spirits to kill people.

King James I became king in 1603. He was particularly superstitious about witches and even wrote a book on the subject. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth especially to appeal to James – it has witches and is set in Scotland, where he was already king. The three witches in Macbeth manipulate the characters into disaster, and cast spells to destroy lives. Other magic beings, the fairies, appear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Elizabethans thought fairies played tricks on innocent people – just as they do in the play.

Did you know?

There are still Elizabethan superstitions that we follow today:

  • don’t walk under a ladder – they are bad luck because they are linked to gallows (the wooden frame for hanging people)
  • say ‘Bless you’ when someone sneezes – this is to stop the Devil entering your body through your mouth
  • don’t spill salt – salt was very expensive in Elizabethan times, so spilling it was very bad luck
  • black cats are unlucky – they were associated with witches

And some ones we don’t:

  • if you can touch a condemned man, that’s good luck
  • losing your hair suddenly was a sign of bad luck to come