Consequences of Ambition Exposed in Macbeth, The Maid's Tragedy, and The Duchess of Malfi

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Consequences of Ambition Exposed in Macbeth, The Maid's Tragedy, and The Duchess of Malfi

Twenty-first century America praises the ambitious. The American dream urges us to set lofty goals and then rely on the Protestant work ethic to achieve them-regardless of potential obstacles. Parents encourage their children to consider any and every career choice. Companies and schools stress goal-setting and celebrate productivity. Even a contemporary catchphrase like "The sky's the limit" or the Army slogan "Be all you can be"-the stuff of graduation cards and commencement addresses-promote ambition. Yet ambition has not always been valued. Seventeenth-century Jacobean drama often casts it in a negative light. Unbridled ambition yields deadly outcomes, the literature suggests. Macbeth, The Maid's Tragedy, and The Duchess of Malfi each illustrate the severe consequences of boundless ambition. John Milton takes the idea a step further in Paradise Lost, depicting the most ambitious of characters as well as the proper way to handle ambition, according to God's will.

In Macbeth, ambition first arises in Lady Macbeth, distorting her values. Immediately, she recognizes her husband's chance to rise in power. She craves it so intensely that she willingly invites "spirits that tend on mortal thoughts" to fill her "from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty" (I.v.40-41)! Lady Macbeth instinctively associates ambition with cruelty. She considers cruelty necessary in her rise to power. She also fears that her husband is "too full o' the milk of human kindness" to execute her plan (I.v.17). Ambition and kindness are mutually exclusive, she insinuates. Therefore, she views the virtue as a wea...

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