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The Bard of Avon saturates the pages of the tragedy Macbeth with ugly feelings of ambition - unprincipled ambition which is ready to kill for itself. Let's thoroughly search out the major instances of ambitious behavior by the husband-wife team.
Samuel Johnson in The Plays of Shakespeare explains the place of ambition in this tragedy:
The danger of ambition is well described; and I know not whether it may not be said in defence of some parts which now seem improbable, that, in Shakespeare's time, it was necessary to warn credulity against vain and illusive predictions.
The passions are directed to their true end. Lady Macbeth is merely detested; and though the courage of Macbeth preserves some esteem, yet every reader rejoices at his fall. (133)
Blanche Coles states in Shakespeare's Four Giants that the protagonist's ambition was not the usual narrow, personal ambition:
He has admitted to a vaulting ambition. We have no other evidence of personal ambition except, possibly, his own word in this speech. Onrushing events crowd the thought out of his mind and out of our view. We do have ample evidence of his ambition for his family, ambition for a son who might succeed him. [. . .] We think normally of ambition as a personal thing, but it is not always so. Macbeth's stupendous imagination, as revealed later in the play, gives him a breadth of vision altogether out of keeping with a narrow, personal ambition. (50-51)
In "Memoranda: Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth," Sarah Siddons mentions the ambition of Lady Macbeth and its effect:
[Re "I have given suck" (1.7.54ff.)] Even here, horrific as she is, she shews herself made by ambition, but not by nature, a perfectly savage creature. The very use of such a tender allusion in the midst of her dreadful language, persuades one unequivocally that she has really felt the maternal yearnings of a mother towards her babe, and that she considered this action the most enormous that ever required the strength of human nerves for its perpetration. Her language to Macbeth is the most potently eloquent that guilt could use. (56)
Clark and Wright in their Introduction to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare interpret the main theme of the play as intertwining with evil and ambition:
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While in Hamlet and others of Shakespeare's plays we feel that Shakespeare refined upon and brooded over his thoughts, Macbeth seems as if struck out at a heat and imagined from first to last with rapidity and power, and a subtlety of workmanship which has become instructive. The theme of the drama is the gradual ruin through yielding to evil within and evil without, of a man, who, though from the first tainted by base and ambitious thoughts, yet possessed elements in his nature of possible honor and loyalty. (792)
The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in a desert place with thunder and lightning and three Witches who are anticipating their meeting with Macbeth, "There to meet with Macbeth." They all say together the mysterious and contradictory "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." King Duncan learns that "brave Macbeth" and Banquo are bravely resisting the "Norweyan banners" and the rebellious Thane of Cawdor. When these forces are vanquished, Duncan bids Ross to greet Macbeth with his new title of Thane of Cawdor. Before this happens, however, Macbeth is greeted by the witches with "hail to thee, thane of Glamis," "thane of Cawdor," and "thou shalt be king hereafter!" When Ross and Angus arrive with news of Duncan's reward ("He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor"), it is logical for Macbeth to assume that all of the weird sisters' prophecies will come true. Futilely, Banquo cautions, "And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths," but Macbeth is "rapt" on the "suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs," and concludes that "chance may crown me," remaining steadfastly confident in the witches' prophecies.
After the king's announcement that "We will establish our estate upon / Our eldest, Malcolm," Macbeth says, "The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap," for his ambitious scheming is seriously underway. At Inverness in Macbeth's castle, his lady, after appreciating his letter detailing the witches' prophecies, reacts with, "Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou art promised," yet she fears that her husband's nature is "too full o' the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way" - words whose meaning becomes clear in her subsequent statement: "The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements." Her ambition has turned murderous.
Duncan's visit to Inverness, a one-night celebration of the victory, occasions quick plotting by the Macbeths ("If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly"), who are fully aware of the moral evil involved: "But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / We'ld jump the life to come," and "this even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips." Furthermore, Macbeth recognizes that King Duncan's "virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off," while the captain has only "vaulting ambition" on his own side; thus he says to his wife, "We will proceed no further in this business." She responds with an accusation of cowardice, "Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire?" Her cold, ambitious cruelty stands out as she re-converts Macbeth to the murder:
I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7)
Lady Macbeth will make the two chamberlains drunk on wine. Macbeth is forced to recognize her total lack of maternal sensitivities: "Bring forth men-children only; / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males." Macbeth feels the pressure of the impending "bloody business" and thereby has a vision of the murder instrument:
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? (2.1)
In Act 2, Scene 2, Lady Macbeth confesses to her husband that could not perform the murder because "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't." So Macbeth follows through with the killing. Immediately he is striken with guilt as he exclaims, looking on his hands, to his wife, "This is a sorry sight," and "I had most need of blessing." His ambition does not override his feelings of guilt.
The next morning Macduff and Lennox arrive to awaken the king. Macduff exits the king's chamber with screams of disbelief and horror at the stabbing death of King Duncan; he informs Malcolm. Macbeth kills the chamberlains, his ambition motivating him to perform two more murders.
As Macbeth goes to Scone to be "invested" in his kingly office, Ross comments that Duncan's horses have reverted to the wild state and are biting one another - an occurrence most unnatural -- like the murder of a virtuous king. In soliloquy Macbeth gives the ambitious rationale behind his murder of Banquo:
For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murder'd;
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! (3.1)
In a park near the palance, Banquo is set upon and killed "With twenty trenched gashes on his head." At the banquet that evening, the ghost of Banquo enters and sits in the king's place. Macbeth alone sees him and addresses him guiltily: "Thou canst not say I did it: never shake / Thy gory locks at me." The king's ambition once again is overridden by his guilt. The queen attempts to explain away his apparent illness by saying he has been thus troubled since his youth. The queen attributes her husband's psychological problems ("Strange things I have in head") to the fact that "You lack the season of all natures, sleep." Later, when the "midnight hags" utter their incantation,
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble. (4.1)
Macbeth hears the first apparition warn to "beware Macduff;" the second apparition say "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth;" the third apparition say that "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him;" and the "show of eight kings" along with Banquo's ghost. Macbeth ambitiously resolves to kill Macduff's family:
But yet I'll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. (4.1)
At Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth's doctor observes the queen sleepwalking, seemingly washing her hands, shouting in her sleep, "Out, damned spot!" and expressing her fear: "What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?" Macbeth requests of the doctor, "Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased." The doctor voices the moral nature of the queen's problem:
Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:
More needs she the divine than the physician. (5.1)
Thus it is that vaulting ambition has consumed the queen's goodness and transformed her into a deranged woman. When Seyton announces, "The queen, my lord, is dead," Macbeth turns his thoughts to the relentless pace of ongoing time with "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!"
As Siward's 10,000 men surround the highly fortified Dunsinane, the messenger announces to Macbeth that Birnam Wood is moving toward Dunsinane, causing Macbeth's waning ambition to hold onto the one tiny morsel of hope, "What's he / That was not born of woman? Such a one / Am I to fear, or none."
In the fury of combat, Macbeth reveals his name to young Siward, and the latter responds, "The devil himself could not pronounce a title / More hateful to mine ear." When Macduff overtakes Macbeth, the king guiltily confesses that "my soul is too much charged / With blood of thine already." Macduff discloses that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd;" thus he is able to return with the head of Macbeth - a fitting end for one ruled by personal, selfish ambition.
In "Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action" Francis Fergusson states the place of Macbeth's ambition in the action of the play:
It is the phrase "to outrun the pauser, reason [2.3]," which seems to me to describe the action, or motive, of the play as a whole. Macbeth, of course, literally means that his love for Duncan was so strong and so swift that it got ahead of his reason, which would have counseled a pause. But in the same way we have seen his greed and ambition outrun his reason when he committed the murder; and in the same way all of the characters, in the irrational darkness of Scotland's evil hour, are compelled in their action to strive beyond what they can see by reason alone. Even Malcolm and Macduff, as we shall see, are compelled to go beyond reason in the action which destroys Macbeth and ends the play. (106-7)
Fanny Kemble in "Lady Macbeth" refers to the ambition of Lady Macbeth:
[. . .] to have seen Banquo's ghost at the banqueting table ... and persisted in her fierce mocking of her husband's terror would have been impossible to human nature. The hypothesis makes Lady Macbeth a monster, and there is no such thing in all Shakespeare's plays. That she is godless, and ruthless in the pursuit of the objects of her ambition, does not make her such. (118)
Clark, W.G. and Aldis Wright, eds. Introduction. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Nelson Doubleday, Inc., n. d.
Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare's Four Giants. Rindge, NH: Richard R. Smith Publisher, Inc., 1957.
Fergusson, Francis. "Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action." Shakespeare: The Tragedies. A Collectiion of Critical Essays. Alfred Harbage, ed. Englewwod Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.
Johnson, Samuel. The Plays of Shakespeare. N.p.: n.p.. 1765. Rpt in Shakespearean Tragedy. Bratchell, D. F. New York, NY: Routledge, 1990.
Kemble, Fanny. "Lady Macbeth." Macmillan's Magazine, 17 (February 1868), p. 354-61. Rpt. in Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, eds. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. http://chemicool.com/Shakespeare/macbeth/full.html, no lin.
Siddons, Sarah. "Memoranda: Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth." The Life of Mrs. Siddons. Thomas Campbell. London: Effingham Wilson, 1834. Rpt. in Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, eds. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997.