Macbeth is a play about uncontrolled ambition. Ambition is a strong desire to successfully achieve more in terms of status, possessions or power. It may be motivated by need, greed or vanity. It requires much inner discipline and inner strength, and the drive to be single minded enough to persist to achieve. It also requires an ability to learn from mistakes and overcome setbacks. The passion for ambition varies according to the amount of selfishness and drive. Ruthless ambition will sacrifice anything and everything to achieve its end.
Ambition that is good has a positive effect on individuals or society, and damages no one. Bad ambition is one which has a bad goal such as murder, or one which has a good aim but is achieved using wicked or harmful methods.
The Macbeth’s display the most ambition and since this play is a tragedy this is not surprising that they both die on account of it. Macbeth thought of ambition as a horse that must be ridden, but he failed to realise he needed more than just the horse, he needed the wisdom to control it. Macbeth’s horse was wild and untamed, and it bolted once he had leapt on. Macbeth clung on because at all cost he wanted to be seen as a rider, (the Ruler of Scotland). However his horse of ambition had the last word and as he was tossed shamefully and unceremoniously off it as he lost his head. The rightful king then reclaimed his mount (the Crown of Scotland)
Shakespeare introduces the theme of ambition with the characters and develops it as the plot progresses. He also uses dialogue and language techniques. At the beginning of the play Macbeth is a good solider and a good man but as the play continues he allows ambition to overwhelm him and commits murder within a day of receiving predictions from three Weird Sisters of Fate. By the end of the play, which is only a short time later, he becomes a committed murdering, paranoid maniac.
It is odd that Macbeth would take such notice of 3 peculiar women who had no social status. However he finds it so easy to ignore any suggestions from his conscience, that this temptation was wrong. Macbeth apparently had a sane enough mind, with sound views and principles, to fight with courage for the King. Yet after the success of the battle he so easily and madly allowed the witches wild idea to take possession and warp his thinking and reasoning; especially after the first part came true and he became Thane of Cawdor. Lady Macbeth heard news of the witches prophecy when Macbeth was almost home. She too was gripped by his thoughts of ambition. It seemed that the honour of the King’s visit was not enough of get excited about but the dishonourable idea of his death was. It seems incredible to imagine that at one moment Macbeth could be all for the King, and within the space of a walk home from the battle he could have turned and allowed his deep and dark desires full reign. There must have been a reason for this… because one of the first things he did after the prophesy was to dash a letter off to Lady Macbeth. So it is more likely that the reason for his ambition was connected to her. Their marriage appears strong, and the Macbeth’s in the beginning treat each with respect and kindness.
In Scotland at that time the Crown did not automatically pass to the eldest son but under the laws of tanistry any near kinsman deemed fittest to rule could be considered for the position. So it is likely that the Macbeth’s would have discussed Macbeth’s chances. In which case the prophecies just confirmed what he thought, which is that he should have the position. However there may have been another reason triggering ambition perhaps a recent but profound loss, of say a child. Macbeth does not seem to have any children as near the end of the play Macduff observes, “He has no children” 4,3. However Lady Macbeth, at least once, claims to have had a child, “I have given suck” 1,7. If their only child had died recently it might explain their joint single-mindedness, as covering the pain and moving together onwards and upwards.
Almost every character exhibits ambition to one degree or another. Banquo, Duncan, Malcom and Macduff all want to be great leaders but refuse to allow their ambition to come before honour. Banquo has ambition which is also triggered by the sisters which is not for himself, but for his children and grandchildren and those that come after. The Weird Sisters’ ambition is to get attention and value as can be seen from their bragging and pursuing of Macbeth and Banquo. Although Hectate, their leader, is much more realistic and points out that men will only use their gifts in which case their ambitious desires will be frustrated. Banquo is also sensible about being lead astray by unrestrained ambition. Banquo is talking to Macbeth about the Weird Sisters predictions in 1.3.135-138 “And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, /The instruments of darkness tell us truths,/Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s/ In deepest consequence”. Macbeth and Banquo have just learned..Macbeth has become Thane of Cawdor. This confirms the 1st part of the witches’ prophecy and Banquo is cautioning them both not to get carried away as the witches may be attempting to manipulate them. Banquo also notes that they “tell us truths” which makes them think that nothing they say is false. However he further adds the paradoxical phrases, “Honest trifles” that “betray.”
Banquo means aspects of the witches’ prophecies are genuine, but that those aspects are ultimately insignificant. He believes these “instruments of darkness” will use their prophecies to gain control over them and then later manipulate them and they will lose control of their ambition. Macbeth says to himsel “Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires.” 1.4.57-58, as he starts to fantasise seizing power for himself. His ambition is growing madly and he already knows he needs to hide it from being seen by others. The reference to, “Stars, hide your fires!” shows that he knows that his “black and deep desires” should not be seen and he needs to hide the fact that he is doing something wrong. Macbeth thought he could control the horse of ambition but it is now starting to control him. God’s standard of rightness is often thought of as light and therefore his desire for darkness indicates that he knows that God exists, and that he is moving to the dark side.
Lady Macbeth soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 5 “Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here,/ And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,/ Stop up the access and passage to remorse,/ That no compunctious visitings of nature/ Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between/ The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,/ And take my milk for gall. 1.5.47-55. Occurs after learning that King Duncan will stay at the castle over night. This quotation shows Lady Macbeth is totally giving herself over to ambition and she becomes the driving force behind the Macbeth’s ambition. Later Macbeth experiences regret and in the energy that flows from ambition he becomes the one who leads. She knows that she needs help to achieve her ambition which will only come about through her husband obtaining the Crown. To that end she wants to be strengthened to reject any natural reluctance to commit the deed. She believes as a woman it will be hard for her, so she decides to be less womanly and weakly and more manly, brutal and ruthless.
It can easily be seen that ambition can get out of hand and in the end controls characters with tragic consequences.