What role do the witches play in Macbeth?

The witches serve two main functions within the play. Because they are 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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When the witches first appear in William Shakespeare's Macbeth, the role they play is to set the scene for the play, introduce some suspense—"When shall we three meet again?" (1.1.1)—draw attention to Macbeth, and lend a supernatural tone to everything that follows.

Some scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, and included the witches in particular, to solicit the favor of King James I, who ascended to the throne of England in 1603 after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. While he was King James VI of Scotland, before becoming King James I of England, James displayed a notable interest in demons and witchcraft. He organized notorious "witch hunts, " personally conducted interrogations of suspected witches, and attended witch burnings—some of which were no doubt the result of his own "witch hunts" and interrogations.

In 1597, James I wrote a treatise about demons and witches entitled Daemonologie, first published in 1597 in Scotland. James had the treatise republished in England in 1603 after he became King of England. Shakespeare very likely read it, since he lifted some of the elements of witchcraft in Macbeth directly from Daemonologie, including the ingredients of the famous cauldron in act 4, scene 1, "Round about the cauldron go:/ In the poison'd entrails throw," and the belief that witches could fly and that they were invisible while they were flying through the air.

BANQUO. Whither are they vanish'd?

MACBETH. Into the air, and what seem'd corporal melted
As breath into the wind (1.3.83–85).

In any event, the witches in Macbeth aren't Shakespeare's invention; they predate Shakespeare and King James by a few millennia. The story of the witches appearing to Macbeth and making prophecies to him occurs in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, which recounts Macbeth's reign in the 11th century.

It fortuned as Macbeth and Banquo journeyed towards Forres ... met them three women in strange and wild apparel, resembling creatures of elder world ... the first of them spake and said, "All hail Macbeth, thane of Glammis!" ... The second of them said, "Hail Macbeth thane of Cawdor!" But the third said, "All hail Macbeth that hereafter shalt be king of Scotland" (Chronicles, Vol. 5).

Aside from that, Shakespeare's acting company, known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men during Elizabeth I's reign, were made The King's Men in 1603 by royal decree when King James I ascended the throne and became the company's patron. Shakespeare and eight other members of the acting company even participated in James I's coronation procession.

Shakespeare didn't write Macbeth until 1605–1606, long after James I assumed the patronage of Shakespeare's acting company. It's more likely that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth as a "thank you" for James I's patronage than as a solicitation for his favor. Shakespeare didn't have to solicit James I's favor; he already had it.

The second time that the witches appear in Macbeth, in act 1, scene 3, they make prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo, and these prophecies arouse Macbeth's ambitions to be King. There's nothing in the scene to indicate that the witches have evil intent in making these prophecies. At the beginning of the scene, the witches are discussing witch things like "killing swine" (1.3.2) and a severed "pilot's thumb" (1.3.29) that have nothing to do with Macbeth. They don't even mention Macbeth until they hear drums announcing Macbeth's entrance in the scene.

During the scene with Macbeth and Banquo, the witches waste no time making their prophecies, and then they disappear, witch-like, "into the air" (1.3.84). Macbeth wants them to stay to explain the prophecies, how they acquired the knowledge of the prophecies, and why they're making these prophecies to Banquo and himself at this particular time. Macbeth gets no answers to his questions, and neither does the audience.

It's not until much later in the play, in act 3, scene 5, that the audience can gain any insight regarding the witches' motivation for making the prophecies. Even then, the motivation for the prophecies isn't revealed by the witches themselves, but by Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft and the three witches' boss, who scolds the witches for involving themselves "In riddles and affairs of death" (3.5.5) without her.

Not only that, says Hecate, but the witches involved themselves in Macbeth's affairs without evil intent.

HECATE. And, which is worse, all you have done
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful: who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you (3.5.10–13).

The rest of Hecate's speech, in which she gives reasons for making the prophecies to Macbeth, seems misplaced, coming so late in the play as it does. Hecate goes on about how she's going to

raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion (3.5.27–29).

By now, however, the damage has already been done. Macbeth has risked everything to murder Duncan and usurp his throne, and he's ordered the death of Banquo, whose ghost recently appeared, uninvited, at Macbeth's coronation feast.

Hecate's speech seems misplaced because the scene was later added to Macbeth, and Shakespeare probably didn't write it. Thomas Middleton is the most likely author of this scene, because of its remarkable similarity to scenes in Middleton's appropriately-titled play The Witch. Middleton probably also contributed Hecate's other appearance in Macbeth, in act 4, scene 1, which serves no purpose in the play whatsoever.

Hecate's speech doesn't belong in this scene, or anywhere else in the play for that matter, because it simply confuses the witches' role in the play.

It appears as if the three witches' involvement in the play begins innocently enough—innocently enough for witches—with the witches making prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo for no particular reason, except perhaps to amuse themselves, for which Hecate calls them to task in act 3, scene 5. With the arrival of Hecate, however, the witches are reminded of their essential role with regard to their dealings with humanity, and the whole witch business in the play turns sinister.

The newly-sinister intentions of the witches appear to be played out in act 4, scene 1, the "apparition scene" when the apparitions give Macbeth equivocal information—even more equivocal than the initial prophecies—that Macbeth accepts at face value, as Hecate said he would.

HECATE. He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes ’bove wisdom, grace, and fear (3.5.30–31).

The witches instigate Macbeth's great adventure by arousing Macbeth's ambition to be King with their prophecies in act 1, scene 3, then facilitate and insure Macbeth's ultimate self-destruction through the words of the apparitions in act 4, scene 2.

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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 power, and also his betrayal and murder of Banquo and the attempted murder of Banquo's son. Even so, their influence is of an indirect nature: they do not force Macbeth to murder Duncan and usurp the throne, but they play a role in putting those thoughts in his head.

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In Macbeth, the witches play a number of important roles. Firstly, they add a supernatural element to the play, which also introduces the reader to the theme of deception. The famous line "Fair is foul and foul is fair," for example, encourages the reader to not accept people and events at face value, and this sets the tone of the play. 

Secondly, the witches play an important role in bringing Macbeth's ambition to the fore. Their prophecies, for example, open Macbeth's eyes to the possibility that he can be more than just a thane, that he can take the throne for himself. This idea exerts a powerful influence on Macbeth and his wife.

While Banquo is skeptical about the witches and their prophecies, Macbeth is clearly drawn in by them, as shown by the fact that he visits with them for a second time in Act IV to seek their guidance. They, therefore, also play a role in driving the course of the plot, because they inform Macbeth's actions as king.

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The witches, or "weird sisters," as they are often called, play a pivotal role in Macbeth. Macbeth himself is obsessed with their prophecies, and repeatedly consults with them. The witches also represent a struggle between the supernatural and the natural world that is at the heart of Macbeth. On the one hand, it is Macbeth's actions that create the bloody chaos of the play. On the other, it is the witches' prophecy that first motivates him to consider murder as a way to the throne, and there is little doubt that they are using their dark powers to influence the proceedings. Hecate herself predicts correctly that Macbeth will come to the witches to learn his future, and says that she will use her magic to create apparitions that will push him toward his destruction:

[I]Shall raise such artificial sprites 
As by the strength of their illusion 
Shall draw him on to his confusion. 
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear 
His hopes ’bove wisdom, grace, and fear. 

The "artificial sprites" are the apparitions that the witches conjure for Macbeth that inform him that he cannot die except by a man not woman born and when Birnam Wood (a forest) marches on his castle. These predictions make Macbeth overconfident and eager to seek battle with his opponents. In this way, Hecate and the witches directly influence the actions of Macbeth. To be sure, he did not have to act on their prophecies, but when he did, his death was sealed. This conflict between man and the supernatural runs throughout the play, and is one of its most important themes. The witches are also instrumental in creating the overall tone and mood to the play, notably in the first act, when they inform the audience amid the crash of thunder that "fair is foul/foul is fair." 

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The role of the witches in William Shakespeare's Macbeth is three-fold. First, the witches part in the play is included given Shakespeare's desire to please King James. King James' curiosity regarding the supernatural led Shakespeare to include a supernatural (or three) elements in the play. Second, the characterization of the witches is also included in order to parallel the characterization of Macbeth. Third, the inclusion of the witches support the tone of the play.

The parallel of the witches to Macbeth is included in order to show Macbeth as an evil character. Led by his ambition, Macbeth is willing to do anything to possess and keep the throne. First murdering Duncan, Macbeth continues to spill more and more blood upon the land. Essentially, the relationship between Macbeth and the witches illuminate the idea of the paradox, which resonates throughout the play. The famous line, "foul is fair, and fair is foul," resonates time and time again over the course of the play. Proving that not all things are as they seem, the witches prove to be far less wicked and evil than Macbeth (shown to be quite good in the opening).

Lastly, the inclusion of the witches illuminate the dark and ominous tone of the play. Given the witches occupy the opening scene of the play, they set the tone for the remainder of the action. From this scene out, much of the action is both dark (the multiple murders and insanity) and ominous (the inclusion of the witches and the apparitions).

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