What do we discover about the witches in the opening scene of Macbeth?

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hgarey71 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act I, Scene I of Shakespeare's Macbeth, we learn that at least two of the witches have "familiars," which are spirits that appear as animals. The first witch calls to Graymalkin, a cat-like familiar. The second witch calls to Paddock, who is like a toad. The third witch's familiar is not described. 

We learn that they plan to meet again, in a field, after the battle is over. We can infer that they have predictive powers at this point, because the third witch proclaims "that will be ere the set of sun" in reference to when the battle will end. 

We also learn that they are planning to meet Macbeth after the battle. Later on in the play, the witch's prophesy about Macbeth's future. 

This is all we learn about them in the opening scene. The witches appear again in Act I, Scene III, where we learn more about their appearance. Banquo speaks to them, saying,

"How far is’t called to Forres?—What are these
So withered and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th' inhabitants o' th' Earth,
And yet are on ’t?—Live you? Or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so."
We learn that they are able to able to change form. The first witch says, 
"But in a sieve I’ll thither sail, And like a rat without a tail, I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do."
We learn that they can control the wind when the second witch tells the first she'll give her the wind to help her accomplish her antics against the sailor's wife. We learn the prophecy the witches give Macbeth and Banquo in this scene, as well. 

There are three witches who symbolise a dark trinity. In the opening scene it's not so much about what they say, but more about what they do. The witches are there to show that the supernatural is a key theme within the text, they are also there to create suspense and tension - Macbeth is mentioned in Act 1 Scene 1, but he is not seen. This technique is also used in Romeo and Juliet (Romeo is mentioned but not seen until line 183). Although the witches do not give much away, we know that they are there to foreshadow something dire.