“Whether the spirit of greatness / Or of woman I know not, but it shows / A fearful madness. I owe her much of pity”. Cariola’s choric commentary at the end of Act 1 Scene 1 of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ reflects her uncertainty of whether to see the Duchess’ bid for self-determination as “greatness” of spirit or as “madness”, for she is moving beyond the bounds of socially accepted behaviour with no clear path to guide her. As Joseph Swetnam wrote in ‘The Arraignment of Lewd, Froward and Unconstant Woman’ (1615), “it is more easy for a young man or maid to forbear carnal acts than a women”, reflecting the early modern 17th Century view that widows, as sexually experienced women, were especially susceptible to this feminine vice. Hence, as the Duchess remarries she is transgressing the social norms of the 17th Century by “making her own choice” independently of her brothers. However, this essay will explore the idea that the desire for self-progression will inevitably result in disappointment – for ambition is a cursed goblet: too much, and grave consequences will be brought upon you.
As viewed in characters such as Richard III and the Redcrosse Knight, one’s desire for greater power can not be fulfilled without a greater or equivalent force preventing it, resulting in their ruin. As Richard voices in his first speech, “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain”. He believes that the acquisition of power is a fair exchange against his unattractive physical condition that he was born into, demonstrating how Richard’s entire mentality is focused on both achieving the crown and retaining it by any means necessary. However, it is Richard’s over-ambitious desire for power that causes Henry to rise against him to overthrow him. There isn’t another character who plans so selfishly to obtain power, despite having some characters such as The Duke of Richmond only seeking power only to save the country from the horrible condition it has lead to under Richard. Through his rhetoric Richard III is able to manipulate other characters to do his will and perform odious acts, to later face their repercussions. For example, through his promises of power and adulation he was able to seduce Lady Anne, despite her better judgment. This depiction of Richard III can be explained by the fact that living as a playwright in England in the 16th Century, Shakespeare had to court the approbation of the Tudors in power who could arrest him if he were to slander them. As a result, Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III as a cruel, power driven man is in part in means to set up an illustrious victory for Henry VII – but ultimately it is Richard’s unending quest for more power that causes his downfall.
Contrary to Richard III, the Redcrosse Knight, trying to lead the life of a chivalrous, Christian and virtuous knight finds himself in a world full of temptation and desire. However, the benefit of living in a world comprised of desire is that it allows the knight the chance to resist said desires. Even though he does prove to be the holy knight he set out to be, Book I of the Faerie Queene does explores the limits of human holiness as the Redcrosse Knight does become tempted by the glory of battle. This desire for glory can be seen early in Book I when they came to “a hollow caue, Amid the thickest woods” – Errour’s cave. Despite Una warning Redcrosse against his impetuousness, declaring, “Oft fire is without smoke, / And peril without show: therefore your stroke / Sir knight with-hold, till further triall made” he arrogantly decalres, “Vertue gives her seife light, through darkenesse for to wade”, illustrating how it was through his recklessness that upset the physical force of Errour, almost leading to his downfall. The significance of Redcrosse’s battle with Errour is how unnecessary it was and how easily it could have been avoided. However, it was in spite of warnings that he ventured into the cave, as a result of his pride and his originally selfish desire to achieve glory as a knight. At this point in the book both Redcrosse’s faith and chivalry is arguably dead, which provides him with the selfish ambition to explore the cave, and ultimately to attain honor through the use of ‘puissaunt armes”. Hence, it can be argued that in one’s quest for more power they are usually met with some greater power that brings torment and inevitably results in their undoing.
On one’s quest for power they tend to utilise immoral methods; a trait which the playwright usually punishes them for, leading to their downfalls. This leads to characters such as the Cardinal harming others such as the Duchess to achieve his goals, and by doing so he consents to these immoral actions, which stems from his vain desire to maintain his position of power. This can be seen in Act I Scene I when Antonio describes the Cardinal as someone who “lays worse plots for them than ever was imposed on Hercules”. This might be explained due to the popular work of Niccolò Machiavelli, a 16th Century Italian political advisor. He wrote ‘The Prince’, which advises rulers that the acquisition and effective use of power might require an unethical approach to maintain said power. This book ran contrary to contemporary teachings which implored rulers to act in a virtuous and altruistic manner. Because of the Duchess’ remarriage, it placed Antonio in a position of power which made him a threat to the Cardinal, as well as polluting the “royal blood of Aragon”, and so to maintain this position of power he and Ferdinand ordered that the Duchess to be “hung bu the neck ’til death”. Again, this ambitious maintenance of power ultimately resulted in the Cardinal’s disappointment because it also turned Bosola against him for both the murder of the Duchess and the frequent misuse of the Cardinal’s power to manipulate. As said in Act 5 Scene 1, Bosola would “join with thee [Antonio] in a most just revenge” against the Cardinal. To further this point, it resulted in the Cardinal’s downfall because John Webster wanted to reassert those moral values in their neglect of virtuosity, which shows that those who selfishly place themselves before others at the others’ expense, they will face their consequences.
This compares to Barabas, who is one of the first Machiavellian stage villains defined by their cunning ambition and unprincipled desire for revenge. When his possessions are impounded and his home transformed into the nunnery, Barabas resorts to revenge, attacking anyone else who gets in his way. For example, he orchestrates Lodowick’s demise and then goes onto poison Abigail. Having learned the language of religious persecution from Ferneze, Barabas proceeds to employ it to further his revenge. This can be seen in the beginning of Act IV, with Barabas celebrating his success in his scheme to kill the nuns by declaring “There is no music to a Christian knell! / How sweet the bells ring now the nuns are dead” – it is this blasphemous evil that eventually is punished by the playwright. As Machevill declares in the Prologue, ‘religion [is] but a childish toy.’ Instead of religion and the power of Divine Providence, many characters place their trust in schemes and strategies. Although the Prologue satirises Machiavellian scheming, the rest of the play suggests that statesmen must manipulate to protect their own interests. For example, Ferneze is only able to survive and free Malta by outmanoeuvring Barabas. This explains why at the end of the play, after Barabas meets the Turkish leader and brings him and his soldiers to the gallery, Ferneze instructs the cord to be cut and Barabas falls into the boiling cauldron that he ironically set up before. T. S. Eliot comments that this scene is filled with “terribly serious even savage comic humour”, as if to imply Barabas falling into the cauldron represents him falling into the fire in hell. Therefore, characters who partake in immoral actions in order to achieve their over-ambitious desires are met with disappointment, as the playwrights will punish them for it.
Finally, characters such as Antonio and Titiana are met with disappointment and ultimately failure because of the ambitious manipulation from other selfish characters. For Antonio, the audience learns in Act I Scene I of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ that he was the “great master of [the Duchess’] household”, which means that up until that point he had achieved great respect and bureaucratic success as the Duchess’ steward. However, John Webster makes clear that part of the Duchess’ proposal includes the self-advancement it entails. This is because at the time of her proposal, the Duchess was a widow. A widow in the 17th Century was not only rare but very powerful for a few reasons. Being a widow meant that she had no male authority figure socially controlling her, and it means that she inherited all of the wealth of her dead husband. This means that at that point she had the ability to make her own choice independently of her brothers, as she told Antonio to “not think about them” in Act I Scene I. Therefore, the Duchess transformed the Renaissance society’s notion of female conduct – by exercising her own opinion in a matter of personal and sexual choice, which was considered a dangerous thing. This led to some critics such as Muriel Bradbrook and Clifford Leech to state that the Duchess overturned a social code and defied the teachings of the Catholic Church. Because of this, it could be said that the Duchess caused, and maybe even deserved her death. Thus, Antonio marrying the Duchess marrying the Duchess promised social advancement. In Act I Scene I, when the Duchess proposes Antonio comments saying “There is a saucy and ambitious devil / Is dancing in this circle”/ By using the circle as a metaphor in which a devil is dancing, it not only conveys his desire for upward social mobility but also his concern that if they are too ambitious, they will meet their downfalls. This is exactly what happens, for after Ferdinand finds out who his sister’s lover is, he tricks her into thinking that he’s killed him, making her shake a “dead man’s hand” in the madhouse.
This is shown in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, through the suffering of the fairy queen Titania caused by the jealous fairy king Oberon. When Shakespeare first introduces Oberon and Titania they in heated debate, with Oberon declaring “Tarry, rash wanton: am not I thy lord?”, leaving the audience presented straight away with an instance in which Oberon’s pleas to win over his wife again are failing. Oberon’s calls for Titiana to allow the “little changeling boy to be [his] henchman” are similar to Venus’ requests, in that both declarations have the intention to cause one lover to view the other with utter affection, and grant them anything they wish for – in this case, her amorous warmth or the Indian page boy. Because of Titania’s refusal to obey any of Oberon’s demands, he is forced to utilise a purple flower infused with the magic of one of Cupid’s arrows, which has the ability of heavily influencing the love of whoever touches it. It appears one imposes traditional marital order and decency by accommodating a level of indecency, both within the moral compass of ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’ and for Oberon’s marriage. It was Oberon’s selfish desire to be in control of Titiana that lead to her suffering; for by pouring the potion in her eyes she then “pursue(d) with the soul of love” any being that she saw. Through this she is caused considerable pain and emotional harm by robbing her of her autonomy in selecting the object of her affections and potentially causing her to go so far as to unwittingly commit acts of bestiality by exclaiming “how [she] dotes on [Bottom]”. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Oberon’s selfish desire further reinforces the idea that certain characters find themselves in the way of another’s ambitious quest for more power and hence are met with suffering and ultimately their repercussions.
Playwrights throughout history have used their characters as a means of expressing their own views on society, explaining why when those who are overly ambitious at the expense of the innocent they meet their fates as a result. In this essay this is explored through: characters such as Richard III and the Redcrosse Knight who in their path for more power are met with an impedance from higher or equal powers; through the Cardinal and Barabas, those who use immoral methods to achieve their goals at the expense of others, such as the Duchess and the nuns respectively; finally, through the ambitious manipulation from other selfish characters, innocent characters find themselves helpless pawns in other games to achieve power. Bur it is the selfishness demonstrated by these characters that is punished by the playwrights, and so they meet their ends as a result of over-ambition.