Macbeth's Ambition

An Analysis of Macbeth's Ambition

Murder Of A King
A scene from "Murder Of A King". Hulton Archive - Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, ambition is presented as a dangerous quality. Because it is unchecked by any concept of morality, It causes the downfall of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and triggers a series of deaths, making ambition the driving force of the play.

Macbeth: Ambition

Macbeth’s ambition is driven by a number of factors, including:

  • Prophecy: The Macbeth witches prophesy that Macbeth will become King. Macbeth believes them and the various prophecies are realized throughout the play. However, it is unclear whether these prophecies are preordained or self fulfilling.
  • Lady Macbeth: his wife is the driving force that encourages Macbeth to overcome his strong sense of guilt and take action on the prophecies.

Macbeth’s ambition soon spirals out of control and forces him to murder again and again to cover up his previous wrongdoings. Macbeth’s first victims are the Chamberlains who are blamed and killed by Macbeth for the murder of King Duncan. Banquo’s murder soon follows once Macbeth fears that the truth could be exposed.


Ambition has series consequences in the play: Macbeth is slain as a tyrant and Lady Macbeth commits suicide. Shakespeare does not give either character the opportunity to enjoy what they have achieved – perhaps suggesting that it is more satisfying to achieve your goals fairly than to achieve them through corruption.

Ambition and Morality

In testing Macduff’s loyalty, Malcolm outlines the difference between ambition and morality by pretending to be greedy and power hungry. He wants to see if Macduff believes these are good qualities for a King to posses. Macduff does not and therefore demonstrates that a moral code is more important in positions of power than blind ambition.

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 the kingdom? The audience is left to wonder if Banquo’s heir will eventually become king as prophesied by the Macbeth witches. Will he act on his own ambition or will fate play a part in realizing the prophecy? Or were the witches’ predictions wrong?