Numerous underlying themes are present throughout Macbeth, the classic play written by the great playwright, William Shakespeare. One of the chiefs themes present throughout the play, however, is that of ambition. Ambition was a theme that was clearly evident as Macbeth, and his counterpart, Lady Macbeth continued to strive for political power and glory, and once the couple had attained this overall goal, their intention and ambition was to retain their power and remain as Scottish royalty for as long as they possible could. The practices that they used best to secure their power were that of fear and tyranny over others. In the following paragraphs, excerpts and quotes from the play Macbeth will be used as reference and to further reinforce the reasoning that ambition is a primary theme in this play.
The story line of Macbeth’s ambitious quest to achieve tremendous power (that of the crown) begins after three witches “plant the seed” in his head, that an idea like becoming king of Scotland, may not be as radical of a thought as initially displayed. These minions of Hecate, the Goddess of Witchcraft, make three predictions to Macbeth and his traveling companion Banquo: “You (Macbeth) shall become Thane of Cawdor, King of Scotland, and Banquo shall get kings (his descendants will be kings)”. Macbeth never imagined that a simple Thane of Glamis could possibly achieve that, and as far as he was knew, the Thane of Cawdor was still alive, thus Macbeth initially chooses to just “brush off” these claims/predictions. However, later in the act, Macbeth becomes aware of the Thane of Cawdor’s exile, and that he will soon be awarded with the former thane’s title, Macbeth becomes intrigued by the idea of being royalty.
As was anticipated, the theme of ambition is clearly evident from the opening remarks in Act 1. As reference, the scene and lines being specifically referred to here are Act1, Scene 4, lines 48-53 which reads “The Prince of Cumberland: that is a step on which I must fall down or else o’er leap, for in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires, let not light see my black and deep desires, the eye wink at the see.” This is a vital quote to the plot of the story and the overall theme of ambition, as Macbeth fully begins to grasp the concept that if he, the newly appointed Thane of Cawdor, is to become King of Scotland, the king (Duncan) and his sons (Malcolm and Donaldbain) have to be “out of the picture” for him to achieve the power of the crown.
Perhaps even more ambitious than Macbeth initially is, Lady Macbeth is delivered a letter from her husband’s messenger that tells of his encounter with the witches and exactly what they had to say regarding his future. She quickly becomes fascinated with the idea of her husband’s prospective future, and the ever-growing power and prestige that the couple would gain by becoming the king and queen of the land. Early in this scene, she expresses the utmost desire of achieving this goal, and she is willing to do whatever is necessary to accomplish it, including pushing her husband to the edge, and putting their current lives in jeopardy. This is displayed in the following excerpt from the play “Glamis thou art and Cawdor, and shalt be what thou art promised; yet do I fear thy nature, It is too full o’the’milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly, that wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false, and yet wouldst wrongly win…” with the most important line from the speech being “Art not without ambition, but without the gillness should attend it.” Later on in the act/scene, Lady Macbeth will call upon the evilest of spirits to “unsex her” and make her even more heartless and ruthless than she already is. This speech can be found in lines 37-52 of Act 1, Scene 5.
As the introduction portion of this essay says, the chief theme of ambition is articulately portrayed continuously throughout the play. Therefore, in Act 2 of the play, Macbeth, there is a scene where Macduff, Lennox, and Macbeth “discover” that Duncan has been cruelly slain. Macbeth becomes frantically worried about the servants however, because they are still alive, and therefore, they’re a threat to his safety. Thus, Macbeth decides to “finish them off” right in front of the two witnesses. This Is necessary to do in order to prevent Duncan’s (former) servants from “ratting him out”. When Macbeth is confronted about this repulsive action, he claims that he was so infuriated by his king’s wrongful death/assassination, that he couldn’t restrain himself. A few of the people present at his castle begin to get suspicious about Macbeth, Duncan’s cold-hearted murder, and the events that follow. This can be seen when Malcolm and Donaldbain flee to neighboring countries (England and Ireland respectively). This can be found in the last lines of Act 2, Scene 3.
Later, in Act 2, Scene 4, Ross blatantly uses the term “ambition” by saying “Gainst nature still thriftless ambition that will ravin up thine own life’s means. Then this most like the sovereignty will fall upon Macbeth.” Ross, however, couldn’t be further from the truth, he believes Donaldbain and Malcolm, out of “greedy ambition”, were responsible for their father, King Duncan’s death. Where as, in actuality, it was Macbeth himself. Ross says that because “Malcolm and Donaldbain committed this act,” Macbeth is likely to become the “sovereign ruler”.
In Act 2, Scene 2, to further ensure his security of rule and power, Macbeth commissions two enemies of Banquo to murder both him and his young son, Fleance. Macbeth wishes to “eliminate” the threat of Banquo, so that he is not able to reveal his suspicions to other thanes and nobles. However, perhaps even more so than Banquo, Macbeth wants to kill Banquo’s young son Fleance, because of the witch’s predictions regarding Banquo’s descendants.
The witch’s, as a reminder, predicted that though Banquo would never be a king, himself, but he will “get” kings, and his descendants would rule in the future. It is therefore, logical to conclude that Fleance would be the beginning of this dynasty, seeing as he was an only child. King James (Stewart dynasty), whom this play is said to be written for, was also said/rumored to have descended from the (fictional) character in Macbeth, Banquo. Fleance is able to successfully flee, whereas Banquo is unjustly slaughtered by the three murderers.
Following the failed attempt of Fleance’s murder, the murderers report to the banquet hall where Macbeth is dining with his colleagues, thanes, et al. Macbeth, when he first walks into the hall, finds his seat “occupied” by the ghost of Banquo, and Macbeth is constantly being haunted by the ghost. Macbeth is the only one at the table that can obviously, see the ghost, so the people at the table continue to display strange looks and they think he is insane. “Avaunt and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee! They bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold; thou hast no speculation in those eyes which thou dost glare with.” (III, IV.)
On the contrary of previous acts and characters, a blatant expression of ambition was here was not by Macbeth or even Lady Macbeth, as it was elsewhere, but rather it was displayed by Malcolm, the rightful heir to the Scottish throne. Malcolm suddenly gains a surge of patriotism and pride; his ultimate goal becomes to regain what is rightfully his, and to also overthrow the evil tyrant, Macbeth. In this quest Malcolm attempts to rally the loyal troops from Scotland, as well as to gain military and political support from King Edward of England, along with other local lords, dukes, thanes, etc. Eventually, it becomes a conflict between Malcolm, Macduff, the loyal Scottish troops, English troops, and everyone else, versus Macbeth and his own private army (many whom he had support from when he was just the Thane of Glamis, and later of Cawdor). Malcolm states in this scene that though Macbeth is a ruthless tyrant, that Macbeth isn’t even close to how he will be when he regains the throne (of course he won’t be). Malcolmn and his troops lay a surprise siege on Macbeth’s Inverness Castle, by hiding behind trees and “taking” Birnam Wood to his castle. In the end, out of Macduff’s revenge and ambition, he kills Macbeth.
After seeing the theme of ambition accurately portrayed throughout the above series of events, it should be clear now, as to why the theme plays such a large role in the plot of the play line. Without Macbeth’s ambition, or even that of Lady Macbeth and Malcolm’s, the play would be stagnant and without action. I realized the importance of the role of ambition right away, and that is why I chose it.