About Shakespeare: Beliefs & Superstitions


Almost everyone in England in Shakespeare’s day was Christian. Everyone would go to church on a Sunday, or even more often. Most people believed in Hell as a very real place, and that the Devil was a specific person.
Queen Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII, broke away from the Catholic Church in Rome and became head of the Church in England. Across Northern Europe at this time groups of people ‘protested’ against the Roman Catholic Church – they were known as ‘Protestants’. They did not obey the Pope. In England people were martyredon both sides. They were often burnt at the stake.
Religion was a big political issue – being the wrong religion at home could get you imprisoned, tortured or executed. It also affected relations with other countries. Spain, a Catholic country, wanted England to return to Catholicism and the Spanish king sent an Armada – a fleet of ships – which tried to invade. Because religion was so closely associated with politics, playwrights had to be very careful. Shakespeare avoids talking directly about Christianity, but throughout his plays we see references to Heaven and Hell. Hamlet, for example, can’t bring himself to kill his uncle while he is praying, because he will go straight to Heaven – the opposite of what Hamlet wants!
There were a few small Jewish communities too. King Edward I expelled the Jews in 1290, but some Jews had returned to England. Outwardly they had to pretend to be Elizabethan Christians and go to church. There was a lot of prejudice against Jews. This is reflected in The Merchant of Venice which features a law case between a Jew and a Christian at its centre. The case is settled with the Jew being punished by being forcibly converted to Christianity.

Did you know?
  • The Queen is still the head of the Church of England.
  • In Shakespeare’s time the law said that you had to go to church every week.
  • One of the main translations of the Bible still used today is called the King James Bible – King James I, Elizabeth’s successor, ordered a ‘modern’ English version in 1611.

The Great Chain of Being

Elizabethans believed that God set out an order for everything in the universe. This was known as the Great Chain of Being. On Earth, God created a social order for everybody and chose where you belonged. In other words, the king or queen was in charge because God put them there and they were only answerable to God (the Divine Right of Kings). This meant that disobeying the monarch was a sin, which was handy for keeping people in their place! It also led to the idea that if the wrong person was monarch everything would go wrong for a country, including whether the crops would be good, or if animals behaved as they should. The Elizabethans were very superstitious.
The Great Chain of Being includes everything from God and the angels at the top, to humans, to animals, to plants, to rocks and minerals at the bottom. It moves from beings of pure spirit at the top of the Chain to things made entirely of matter at the bottom. Humans are pretty much in the middle, being mostly mortal, or made of matter, but with a soul made of spirit. The theory started with the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, but was a basic assumption of life in Elizabethan England. You were a noble, or a farmer, or a beggar, because that was the place God had ordained for you.
The Great Chain of Being is a major influence on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth disturbs the natural order of things by murdering the king and stealing the throne. This throws all of nature into uproar, including a story related by an old man that the horses in their stables went mad and ate each other, a symbol of unnatural happenings.


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 Macbethespecially to appeal to James – it has witches and is set in Scotland, where he was already king. The three witches in Macbethmanipulate 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

The Body

Medicine in Shakespeare’s England followed the theory of the ‘humours’. These were four liquids in your body – blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm (pronounced ‘flem’) – which needed to be in balance for you to be healthy. Each liquid gave off vapours, which entered the brain and altered the person.
If someone was ill, you could treat them by altering the amount of the humour they had in them. You might give them an emetic (something to make them throw up), or you might bleed them, to take excess blood away.
Each humour was supposed to correspond to a type of personality.

  • If you were ‘sanguine’ (dominated by blood) you would be jolly, optimistic and fat.
  • If you were ‘choleric’ (yellow bile) you would be short-tempered, red-haired and thin. You might also be ambitious.
  • If you were ‘phlegmatic’ (phlegm), you would be slow, pale, and lazy.
  • If you were ‘melancholic’ (black bile), you would be thin, yellowish, and tend to spend a lot of time thinking and worrying.

Many of Shakespeare’s characters correspond to one of these types – and he often makes specific reference to the name of these types. Characters use sanguineas an insult – Prince Hal does in Henry IV Part I. Today we might call someone sanguine if they were very relaxed about things – Prince Hal uses it to mean someone who is so laid back that he is a coward and a lazy person. In The Taming of the Shrew Petrucchio shouts at his servants for serving mutton because it is choleric– and he and his wife Katherine are already bad-tempered enough!

Did you know?
  • This is where the idea of someone being ‘good-humoured’ or ‘bad-humoured’ comes from.
  • To cure excess blood – if you had a fever for example – healers would apply leeches to your skin to suck the blood out. Leeches have made a bit of a comeback in recent years – they are used now to help heal patients who have had skin grafts.