Understanding Macbeth's Ambition

An Analysis of Ambition in Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'

Painting depicting Macbeth and three witches
Photos.com / Getty Images

Ambition is the driving force of William Shakespeare's tragedy "Macbeth." More specifically, it is about ambition that goes unchecked by any concept of morality; this is why it becomes a dangerous quality. Macbeth’s ambition inspires most of his actions, and that results in the deaths of numerous characters and the ultimate downfall of both himself and Lady Macbeth.

The Sources of Ambition in 'Macbeth'

Macbeth’s ambition is driven by a number of factors. For one, he has a deep internal desire for power and advancement. However, that is not exactly why he turns to crime. It takes two outside forces to ignite this hunger and push him to take violent action to obtain power.

  • Prophecies: Throughout the play, the Macbeth witches make a number of prophecies, including that Macbeth will become king. Macbeth believes them each time, and often uses the predictions to decide his next actions, such as killing Banquo. While the prophecies always turn out to be true, it is unclear whether they are preordained instances of fate or self-fulfilling via the manipulation of characters like Macbeth.
  • Lady Macbeth: The witches may have planted the initial seed in Macbeth’s mind to act on his ambition, but his wife is the one who pushes him to murder. Lady Macbeth’s persistence encourages Macbeth to put aside his guilt and kill Duncan, telling him to focus on his ambition, not his conscience.

Controlling Ambition

Macbeth’s ambition soon spirals out of control and forces him to murder again and again to cover up his previous wrongdoings. His first victims of this are the chamberlains who are framed by Macbeth for the murder of King Duncan and killed as “punishment.”

Later in the play, Macbeth’s fear of Macduff incites him to pursue not only Macduff but also his family. The unnecessary murder of Lady Macduff and her children are the clearest example of Macbeth losing control over his ambition.

Balancing Ambition and Morality

We also see a more honorable take on ambition in "Macbeth." To test Macduff’s loyalty, Malcolm pretends to be greedy, lustful, and power-hungry. When Macduff responds by condemning him and crying out for the future of Scotland under such a king, he shows his allegiance to the country and refusal to submit to tyrants. This reaction from Macduff, along with Malcolm's choosing to test him in the first place, demonstrates that moral code in positions of power is more important than the ambition to get there, especially blind ambition.

Consequences

The consequences of ambition in “Macbeth” are dire—not only are a number of innocent people killed, but Macbeth’s life also ends with him being known as a tyrant, a significant downfall from the noble hero he begins as.

Most importantly, Shakespeare gives neither Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth the opportunity to enjoy what they have gained—perhaps suggesting that it is more satisfying to achieve your goals fairly than acquire them through corruption.

Does Violent Ambition End With Macbeth?

At the end of the play, Malcolm is the victorious king and Macbeth’s burning ambition has been extinguished. But is this really the end to over-reaching ambition in Scotland? The audience is left to wonder if Banquo’s heir will eventually become king as prophesied by the trio of witches. If so, will he act on his own ambition to make this happen, or will fate play a part in realizing the prophecy?