Macbeth Quotes About Ambition

Shakespeare's play is infused with the theme of ambition.

'Macbeth' Performed At The Globe Theatre
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The motor that drives the tragedy of Shakespeare's Macbeth is the lead character’s ambition. It is his primary character flaw and the personality trait that enables this brave soldier to murder his way to take the throne.

Early in the famous play, King Duncan hears of Macbeth’s heroics at war and bestows the title Thane of Cawdor on him. The current Thane of Cawdor has been deemed a traitor and the king orders that he be killed. When Macbeth is made Thane of Cawdor, he believes that the kingship is not far off in his future. He writes a letter to his wife announcing the prophecies, and it is actually Lady Macbeth who fans the flames of ambition within Macbeth as the play progresses.

Conspiracy of Ambition

The two conspire to kill King Duncan so that Macbeth can ascend to the throne immediately. Despite his reservations, Macbeth agrees, and, sure enough, he is named king after Duncan's death. Everything that follows is simply the repercussion of Macbeth's unbridled ambition. Both he and Lady Macbeth are plagued by visions of their wicked deeds, and it eventually drives them insane. Macbeth becomes paranoid and orders multiple innocent people to be murdered. Macbeth is later killed by MacDuff, who is avenging the death of his family on Macbeth's orders.

Here are key quotes from the play highlighting Macbeth's initial bravery as well as his growing ambition and capacity for evil.

Brave Macbeth

When Macbeth first appears at the start of the play, he is brave, honorable, and moral—qualities that he soon sheds as the play develops. Macbeth comes on the scene soon after a battle, where an injured soldier reports Macbeth’s heroic deeds, and famously labels him “brave Macbeth”:

For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour's minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave.
- Act 1, Scene 2

He is a presented as a man of action who dares to step up when needed, and a man of kindness and love when away from the battlefield. His wife, Lady Macbeth, dotes on his loving nature:

Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.
- Act 1, Scene 5

Vaulting Ambition

An encounter with the three witches changes everything. Their premonition that Macbeth “shalt be king hereafter,” triggers his ambition—with murderous consequences.

Macbeth makes clear that ambition drives his actions, saying as early as Act 1 that his sense of ambition is “vaulting”:

I have no spur
To prick the sides only
Vaulting ambition, which oerleaps itself
And falls on the other
- Act 1, Scene 7

When Macbeth makes plans to murder King Duncan, his moral code is still evident—it is just “vaulted” by his ambition. In this quote, the audience or reader can see Macbeth struggling with the evil he is about to commit:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise.
- Act 1, Scene 3

And again, later in the same scene, he says:

Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature?
- Act 1, Scene 3

But, as was made apparent at the beginning of the play, Macbeth is a man of action, and this vice supersedes his moral conscience: It is this trait that enables his ambitious desires.

As his character develops throughout the play, action eclipses Macbeth's morals. With each murder, his moral conscience is suppressed, and he never struggles with the subsequent murders as much as he did with Duncan.

For example, Macbeth kills Lady Macduff and her children without hesitation.

Macbeth’s Guilt

Shakespeare does not let Macbeth get off too lightly. Before long, he is plagued with guilt: Macbeth starts hallucinating; he sees the ghost of murdered Banquo, and he hears voices:

Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep."
- Act 2, Scene 1

This quote reflects the fact that Macbeth murdered Duncan in his sleep. The voices are nothing more than Macbeth’s moral conscience seeping through, no longer able to be suppressed.

Macbeth also hallucinates the murder weapons, creating one of the play’s most famous quotes:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
- Act 2, Scene 1

In the same act, Ross, Macduff's cousin, sees right through Macbeth's unbridled ambition and predicts where it will lead to: Macbeth becoming king.

'Gainst nature still!
Thriftless ambition, that will ravin up
Thine own lives' means! Then 'tis most like
The sovereignty will fall upon Macbeth.
- Act 2, Scene 4

Macbeth's Fall

Near the end, the audience catches a glimpse of the brave soldier who appeared at the beginning of the play. In one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful speeches, Macbeth knows that he is short on time. The armies have amassed outside the castle and there is no way he can win, but he does what any man of action would do: fight.

In this speech, Macbeth realizes that time ticks on regardless and his acts will be lost to time:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
- Act 5, Scene 5

Macbeth seems to realize in this speech the cost of his unchecked ambition. But, it is too late: There is no reversing the consequences of Macbeth's evil opportunism.