Ambition

In today’s society, ambition is seen as a positive quality. The desire to succeed in life, to achieve fame, a better job, or power is applauded. Ambitious people work hard and turn dreams into reality.

Encouraged and helped by his wife, Macbeth killed a king to fulfil his ambitions. He continued to kill to maintain his power. His ambition destroyed him.

Did you know? Macbeth is a tragic hero. This doesn’t mean that he is sad! In a play, the tragic hero is a character that is noble, but has a fault in his personality – a tragic flaw – and this destroys him. The tragic hero always shows an aspect of his former noble self before he dies. Macbeth’s fatal flaw is ambition. Hamlet and Othello are amongst some of the other tragic heroes in Shakespeare’s plays.

Analysis of ambition in the play

Question

Where in the play does Shakespeare show Macbeth using ambition as an excuse for his behaviour?

Macbeth uses ambition as an excuse for wanting to kill King Duncan. His ambition is so strong he compares it to a racing horse. He knows that he will commit a terrible sin by killing a king, but he can’t help himself - his ambition won’t let him rest until he has it all.

He says to himself:

Macbeth
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition
Act 1 Scene 7
Question

Who does Shakespeare show to be the most ambitious character in the play?

Lady Macbeth shares Macbeth’s ambitions, but she has the cold-blooded nature to achieve their dreams the quickest way.

In Shakespeare’s day, women (except Queen Elizabeth I) had no power or say in their lives. They might be very clever, they might be ambitious, but they could only achieve success through their husbands. Lady Macbeth goes further than this. She asks evil spirits to take away her femininity so that she can perform the evil task that her husband might not have the stomach to carry out.

To achieve her goals, Lady Macbeth knows that she must take control when she says to herself:

Lady Macbeth
Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.
Act 1 Scene 5
Question

Is Banquo an ambitious character?

Banquo is dismissive of the Witches at first, but when he sees the predictions coming true for Macbeth, he begins to wonder what fate might have in store for him.

Banquo is noble and loyal to King Duncan and unlike Macbeth, does not contemplate acting on the Witches’ predictions. In Act 3 Scene 1, however, he does seem to have ambitious thoughts. Little does he know, the Witches’ half-truths typically miss out the important information, ie that he will not live to see his children become kings.

Banquo thinks:

Banquo
May they not be my oracles as well
And set me up in hope?
Act 3 Scene 1

You can find the theme of ambition in lots of plays by Shakespeare:

  • look at The Merchant of Venice to witness one character fulfilling his ambition to win the girl of his dreams, and another’s cruel ambition to get one over on his enemy
  • look at Julius Caesar for a close up view of the destructive nature of political ambitions
  • look at The Tempest for a character with ambitions to overthrow his master, another with ambitions to overthrow a king, whilst another has ambitions to regain his own title and marry off his daughter to a prince
  • look at Othello for a villain who is driven to destroy the hero that has thwarted his ambitions
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