What role do the witches play in Macbeth?

The witches serve two main functions within the play. As witches, they immediately bring a supernatural element to the play, which furthers the theme of "fair is foul, and foul is fair." Additionally, they serve as the instruments of fate by delivering their prophecies to Macbeth, who is then motivated to pursue his ambition.

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The witches in Macbeth represent the influence of supernatural forces on human affairs. They are depicted as malicious within the play, and their activities are simultaneously tied up with themes of destiny and corruption. They serve as enablers to Macbeth, and in this capacity, they play a role in shaping his murderous rise to power (and also his eventual downfall). With that in mind, they have a critical role within the play, if not an active one: they take little decisive action on their own terms—in contract to a character such as Macbeth—but their manipulation and influence indirectly shapes much of the action that follows.

In act 1, scene 3, Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches, and it is here that they set Macbeth on his murderous path, referring to him as thane of Glamis, Cawdor, and king (remember, at this point in time, Macbeth does not yet know that he has actually been awarded the thaneship of Cawdor). These predictions ultimately set in motion Macbeth's murderous rise to...

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