The Horrifying Power of Unchecked Ambition: The Downfall of Macbeth

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Ambition is an important aspect of every human being. Sometimes it makes people succeed, but when ambition becomes unchecked, it leads to tragedy even for a great man. William Shakespeare develops the theme of ambition in his play Macbeth. At the beginning of the play, ambition leads to Macbeth’s rise. However, when his ambition is uncontrolled, it results in the fall of Macbeth and Scotland. Through the rise and fall of great Macbeth and the fall of Scotland, Shakespeare demonstrates that unchecked ambition leads to tragedy for individual and his community.

In the beginning, Shakespeare shows ambition can be good. It leads to rise and honour for Macbeth. He is an ambitious man who knows right from wrong at the beginning of the play. After Lady Macbeth reads the letter from Macbeth, she has a soliloquy to prove this, “Yet do I fear thy nature, /It is too full o’the’milk of human kindness /To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great, /Art not without ambition, but without /The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly, /That wouldst thou holily” (Shakespeare I.v.15-20). Lady Macbeth’s comment on Macbeth states that his ambition is checked at this time, but she believes that it is too milky to achieve his desire. However, Lady Macbeth is wrong because Macbeth gets honour from his checked ambition. As the captain reports the situation of the battle to King Duncan, he says, “For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name” (Shakespeare I.ii.16). This shows that Macbeth has high prestige. At the same time, Macbeth’s checked ambition also leads to his rise. On his way back from the battlefield, Ross delivers news from King Duncan to Macbeth, “And for an earnest of a great honour, /He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor” (Shakespeare I.iii.101-102). This states that Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor because of his bravery and loyalty, and it is a considerable honour for him because it can boost his power and reputation. In brief, at the beginning of the play, Macbeth’s ambition is checked, and it leads to his honour and rise. However, Macbeth loses control of his ambition gradually.

Subsequently, Shakespeare emphasizes the danger of unchecked ambition through Macbeth’s downfall. In fact, Macbeth knows what will happen if ambition is unchecked. Before Macbeth decides to murder Duncan, he soliloquizes, “Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself /And falls on th’other” (Shakespeare I.vii.27-28). He is trying to rationalize the thought of killing Duncan, and the only reason he can find is his ambition. He uses a metaphor to compare achieving ambition as vaulting. After leaping which represents reaching his desire, the fall is following. Although Macbeth realizes the consequence of unchecked ambition, he still loses his control of ambition owing to Lady Macbeth’s persuasion. Soon, Macbeth loses his mind and kindness. After killing King Duncan, Macbeth becomes the new king, and he says to Lady Macbeth, “O, full of scorpions is my mind” (Shakespeare III.ii.36). These “scorpions” in Macbeth’s mind are an example of symbolism. They represent evil, treachery and defensiveness. In this case, the word Macbeth says shows that he feels uneasy about his kingship, and he is considering to keep his crown by an evil way which is killing. It also foreshadows his treachery to Banquo who is his best friend. Finally, Macbeth loses morality and becomes indifferent. After the murder of Duncan and Banquo, Macbeth goes mad when he sees Banquo’s ghost in his banquet. When Lady Macbeth tries to calm him down, he says, “We are yet but young in deed” (Shakespeare III.iv.144). Macbeth thinks his deed which refers to kills has not done enough. His ambition, for now, is to keep the kingship. Therefore, in order to attain this ambition, Macbeth’s thought of killing more people grows, even though those people are innocent. Then, people begin to call him “tyrant” for his corrupt rule and criminal deed. To put “tyrant” and “brave Macbeth” together, the justaposition of Macbeth’s reputation reveals his downfall. Furthermore, Macbeth turns to indifferent in the end from feeling fearful and guilty in the beginning. In fact, when Seyton tells him the news of Lady Macbeth’s death, he replies, “She should have died hereafter” (Shakespeare V.v.16). The meaning of this sentence is that she should have died later when there would have been more time. Shakespeare develops Macbeth’s downfall of morality further through his indifferent reaction in the face of his “dearest partner of greatness” (Shakespeare I.v.10). He does not care about her death, and he thinks it is not the right time for her to die. In summary, through the downfall of the protagonist Macbeth, Shakespeare shows how dangerous unchecked ambition is. Besides, it is dangerous to a community as well.

Shakespeare depicts the collapse of Scotland to show Macbeth’s unchecked ambition leads to tragedy for his community as well. When Macbeth gets the kingship by murdering, the community becomes unsafe and suspicious. For instance, after the death of Banquo, Lennox talks to a lord, and he says, “Man must not walk too late” (Shakespeare III.vi.7). Scottish people know that Duncan is assassinated in Macbeth’s castle at night, and Banquo is killed on the way to Macbeth’s banquet at night. Therefore, Lennox says that if people go out too late, they will be killed. It shows people’s alertness due to the unsafety of Scotland, and Macbeth’s evil deed leads to the situation. The tragedy of Scotland is also showed by Macbeth’s indifference to his country. When he asks the witches for prophecies of his fate, he says, “Howe’er you come to know it, answer me. /Though you untie the winds and let them fight /Against the churches, though the yeasty waves /Confound and swallow navigation up, /Though bladed corn be lodg’d and trees blown down, /Though castles topple on their warders’ heads, /Though palaces and pyramids do slope /Their heads to their foundations, though the treasure /Of nature’s germen tumble altogether /Even till destruction sicken: answer me /To what I ask you” (Shakespeare IV.i.50-60). It expresses Macbeth’s strong desire to know the fate of himself and his kingship. He wants to get answers from the three witches, no matter what hazards happen even though his country and people are destroyed. This speech reveals Macbeth is inhuman, and he does not care about his community. As a result, it foreshadows Scotland’s suffering under his domination. Then Ross’s words correspond to this foreshadowing. He meets Macduff and Malcolm in England, and he describes that Scotland is a country “Where sighs, and groans, and shrieks that rend the air /Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems /A modern ecstasy” (Shakespeare IV.iii.170-172). Ross’s speech depicts the suffering of Scottish people who under Macbeth’s government vividly. In addition, Ross does not only report Scotland’s current situation to Malcolm through his speech, but he also represents the hatred of most of the thanes and people in Scotland. All in all, Macbeth’s unchecked ambition makes him become a corrupt dominator, and it leads to tragedy for Scotland inevitably.

In conclusion, through the fall of Macbeth and Scotland, Shakespeare demonstrates unchecked ambition will lead to tragedy for individual and his community. As the protagonist of the play, Macbeth is put on a superior position in the beginning. He is an ambitious man who gets excellent reputations and strong power. Driven by Macbeth’s unchecked ambition, the thought of satisfying his lust for power by fair means or foul makes him lose mind and morality. Then everybody hates him, and the thought of rebellion grows because of his corruption. It forces Macbeth to become a tyrant completely because he is fearful to lose his crown. Thus, it is an inevitable tragedy for Macbeth and Scotland when Macbeth’s ambition goes unchecked. Ambition motivates people to achieve their desires, and it is usually an essential trait of a successful man. However, when people lose control of their ambition and use immoral ways to achieve it, tragedy is bound to happen.


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