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In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, the lead character of the same name is not sufficiently happy with the high social position he occupies and the honored status he has acquired. Viewing the play simplistically, one may conclude that Duncan is murdered due to the ambition of Macbeth. Ambition is a sin, of course, and therefore Macbeth is punished for his sins. If one does not care to probe more deeply, this evaluation of the play is almost entirely satisfactory, because it is very simple and neat. Yet, this approach converts the work from an extraordinarily complex study of evil into a straightforward morality play and closes off discussion of the most interesting aspects of the play.
Now, there is some evidence for the charge of ambition. Macbeth does want to become king, and he refers to that desire as ambition ("I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself/ And falls on th'other" (1.7.25-28). But we need to be careful here not automatically to take a character's own estimate of his motivation for the truth, or at least for a completely adequate summary statement of all that needs to be said. We need to "unpack" just what that concept of ambition contains in the character to whom we apply it.
For a fascinating aspect of Macbeth's motivation is that he is in the grip of something which he does not fully understand and which a part of him certainly does not approve of. This makes him very unlike Richard Gloucester, who announces his plans with glee and shows no scruples about what he has to do (quite the reverse: he looks forward to doing away with his next victim and invites us to share his delight). Clearly a part of Macbeth is fascinated with the possibility of being king. It's not entirely clear where this desire comes from. The witches (whom we will discuss later) put the suggestion into the play, but there is a strong hint from Lady Macbeth that she and her husband have already talked about the matter well before the play begins ("What beast was't then/ That made you break this enterprise to me?" (1.7.48-49). In that case, the appearance of the witches may be, in part, a response to some desire in Macbeth.
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What seems clear is that Macbeth is constantly changing his mind. His imagination is in the grip of a powerful tension between his desire to see himself as king and his sense of the immorality of the act and of the immediate consequences, which he knows will be disastrous. Part of the great fascination we have with Macbeth's character is that he has a very finely honed moral sense and never seeks to evade the key issues (rather like Claudius at prayer in Hamlet). He is no hypocrite in this respect. He knows he will have to violate what he believes. Moreover, he is intelligent enough to appreciate the public consequences of killing Duncan. In that sense he is totally different from Richard who seems to believe that once he is king he will have all that he wants. Macbeth knows, even before he does the deed, that he will have to pay and that the cost will be high. But he cannot shrug off the desire.
It's not that Macbeth is averse to killing. He is famous as a warrior, and the first thing we hear about him, well before he enters, is that he is drenched in blood and has slit someone open from the nave to the chaps. His high social status comes from his effectiveness as a bloody warrior. So it's not a compunction about killing that holds him back. It is rather a clear awareness that in killing Duncan he will be violating every rule that holds his community together. This awareness is accompanied by an intelligent appreciation for the immediate consequences to himself:
But in these cases
We still have judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions which, being taught, return
To plague th'inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends th'ingredience of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips.
To act on his desire to become king is to drink from a poisoned chalice. No one knows that better than Macbeth. And when that awareness is uppermost in his mind, he determines not to carry out the murder but to enjoy his newly won social honors.
The problem is that his imagination just will not let go of the possibility that he can become king. Banquo, too, is also tempted by the witches (he would like to talk further about what they said), and, it seems clear, likes to remember what they have said. But Banquo puts at the front of his consciousness an awareness that if he should try to act to bring about that favorable event, he will compromise his honor, that is, his place in the social community). So the rosy prospect of a royal line of descendants does not grip Banquo's imagination, it does not, in a word, obsess him, as it does Macbeth, who cannot put from his mind so easily the vision of himself as king; it's a possibility which will not leave him alone.
One of the chief functions of Lady Macbeth in the early part of the play is to keep this vision alive within him by any means at her disposal. She taunts him to act on his desires. What she is saying, in effect, is that he must not let any communal scruples stand in the way of his realization of everything which he wants for himself (in other words, he should not be like Banquo). Unlike Macbeth, she has no countervailing social conscience. In fact, she expressly repudiates the most fundamental social aspect of her being, her role as a woman, wife, and mother. Interestingly enough, part of her tactics with Macbeth is to urge him to be more of a man. She identifies his scruples as something unmanly.
We should not on that account blame her for Macbeth's actions. He freely chooses to kill Duncan in response to his own deepest desires. Neither his wife nor the witches compel him to do what he does, and he is free at any time to refuse to carry out the murder or, having carried it out, to seek out various courses of new action. But his decision to carry out the deed is marked by a curious indecision. In a sense, Macbeth is never entirely satisfied with or firm about what he needs to do to become king or what he really wants to do. When he goes out to commit the murder, he is hallucinating the sight of a dagger leading him toward the deed, and he is filled with a sense of horror at what he is about to do. He is, it seems, in the grip of his imagination and is not serving some conscious rational decision he has made. But, in the very act of letting his imagination lead him on, he is aware that what he is doing is wrong.
Although he is not yet aware, Macbeth now has little choice to determine his fate. Macbeth has freely chosen to embrace evil in his imagination. He has not resisted the impulse to imagine himself king and what needs to be done in order for that to come about (or he has not resisted it sufficiently). But he vacillates, knowing full well what the act means. For as long as he has not actually killed Duncan, he thinks he is free to imagine what being king would be like, that is, he is free to indulge in his evil desires, and yet he is also free to change his mind (as he does). But before he realizes it, his commitment to his evil desires has trapped him. By taking pleasure in imaginatively killing Duncan and letting that vision lead him into Duncan's bedchamber, he creates a situation where he has to carry out the murder without having actually decided once and for all to do so. His imagination has committed him to evil before his conscious mind realizes that the decision has been made.
It's important to stress the imaginative tensions in Macbeth's character before the murder and to appreciate his divided nature. That's why summing up his motivation with some quick judgment about his ambition is something one should resist. That resolves the issue too easily. Macbeth, in a sense, is tricked into murdering Duncan, but he tricks himself. That makes the launching of his evil career something much more complex than a single powerful urge which produces a clear decision.
After all, one needs to notice clearly how he is filled with instant regret at what he has done. If driving ambition were all there was to it, one would think that Macbeth and his wife would not become morally confused so quickly. Macbeth's entrance after the killing brings out really strongly a sense that if he could go back to the speech about the imaginary dagger, he would not carry out the murder. Lady Macbeth thinks a little water will solve their immediate problem; Macbeth knows that that is too easy. He cannot live with what he is done and remain the same person.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 7th ed. New York: Longman, 1999.