Ambition and power

Macbeth's ambition and desire for power lead to his downfall
Macbeth's ambition and desire for power lead to his downfall

Shakespeare set Macbeth in the distant past and in a part of Britain that few of his audience would have been familiar with. Scotland is shown as a wild and savage place ruled over by a weak king (Duncan) who relies on his warrior thanes to keep control. However, through the character of Macbeth, Shakespeare goes on to show that having too much ambition and total control of power is just as bad. By the end of the play Malcolm has become King and it seems likely that he will be much fairer and treat his people justly.

How is this shown in the play?

In Macbeth, William Shakespeare examines the good and bad aspects of ambition and power. Some of the key aspects are:

How does Shakespeare show this?EvidenceAnalysis
The fatal flawIn a tragic play, the fatal flaw refers to the basic mistake in the central character's personality which drives their actions. Macbeth is basically a good man who goes wrong. He is driven by a need for power which eventually sets him on a path to his own destruction. His wife shares this fatal flaw with him.I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself And falls on th'other -- / [Enter Lady Macbeth] / How now? What news? (Act 1 Scene 7) Macbeth has been thinking about whether or not he should murder Duncan. He reaches the conclusion that the only thing that is motivating him (his 'spur') is ambition which he compares to a horse leaping over an obstacle ('vaulting ambition'). As for the horse and rider, what is on the other side of the obstacle is unknown - it could, of course, be disaster. However, before Macbeth can complete the thought and turn away from the crime, he is interrupted by Lady Macbeth entering. Had she not appeared at this point, the outcome might have been different.
LeadershipIn Macbeth, Shakespeare shows us three very different leaders. Duncan is not a good king as although he is kind and generous, he is weak. Macbeth is strong but becomes a bullying dictator. Malcolm seems to strike a healthy balance and combines the good qualities of both men.The king-becoming graces - / As justice, verity, temp'rance, stableness, / Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, / Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude - / I have no relish of them, but abound / In the division of each several crime, / Acting it many ways. (Act 4 Scene 3) Malcolm lists the qualities of a good king or leader when he is testing Macduff's loyalty. As part of the test Malcolm pretends that he has none of these qualities either. It is clear is that Macbeth does not have any of these virtues; if anything he displays the absolute opposites. Even his courage, clearly reported at the start of the play, has deserted him as he terrorises and murders those around him.
GreedAs part of Macbeth's ambition he becomes greedy and selfish. He cannot accept that Banquo's descendants will become kings after him and sets out to alter the prediction by having Banquo and Fleance murdered. He is even unprepared to share power with his wife as he puts her to one side, making secretive decisions and apparently not even caring when she dies.For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind; / For them, the gracious Duncan have I murdered, / Put rancours in the vessel of my peace, / Only for them, and mine eternal jewel / Given to the common enemy of man, / To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings. / Rather than so, come Fate into the list, / And champion me to th'utterance. (Act 3 Scene 1) As Macbeth completely believes the Witches' predictions he must also believe that Banquo's descendants will inherit the throne after him ('the seed of Banquo kings'). He thinks that everything he has done has ultimately been for their benefit ('For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind'); he has even put his soul ('mine eternal jewel') in danger. His greed means that he wishes to keep power for himself and his own family. So he concludes that the only way forward is to try to alter the prediction by murdering Banquo and Fleance.

Analysing the evidence

If we should fail?
We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we'll not fail.
Act 1 Scene 7

Who is more ambitious, Macbeth or Lady Macbeth?

  • Macbeth has natural ambition but this is reinforced by his meeting with the Witches and by his wife's persuasive powers.
  • Lady Macbeth is ambitious for herself but also on her husband's behalf.
  • For Duncan's murder, most of the plan's details are created by Lady Macbeth. Macbeth carries out the actual murder but Lady Macbeth deals with the cover up.
  • The Macbeths act very much as a single unit, though their ambitious natures and their shared guilt eventually tear their marriage apart. Shakespeare leaves the audience to decide who is more ambitious.