Unchecked Ambition in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” Research Paper
Updated: Jul 6th, 2020
Throughout human history, people tend to be corrupted by taking determinations beyond their limits. In his book “The Count of Monte Cristo,” Alexandre Dumas asserts that “…virtues are good, but some virtues tend to become crimes if taken to the extreme” (Meyer 124). The meaning of this phrase is that humans tend to be corrupted by extreme or unchecked ambition.
According to Stuntz (443), the term ‘unchecked ambition’ refers to the excessive, extreme or uncontrollable desire for success, power or wealth.it is the hunger or greediness for achieving more than what someone has. According to Mahatma Gandhi, there are two kinds of power- power based on the fear of punishment and power based on love (Low and Cheng 244). The power based on an act of love is effective and permanent, while the power based on the fear of punishment is transient and ineffective (Cohn 51).
Humans tend to develop unchecked ambition because they have power based on the fear of being punished. This seems to be the main theme in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
Throughout the play, Macbeth, a war hero, develops power based on the fear of being punished, which leads to unchecked ambition. Arguably, Macbeth’s justification of war is the desire for victory, which makes him appear a brave and dedicated soldier in the eyes of people like Duncan, but his ambition for more political power and success drives him towards destruction of the kingdom.
Macbeth is a decorated war hero, a Scottish soldier in the royal army. He achieves the title of a general in the army, but he is naturally not inclined to commit evils against people. He seems to be committed to his work in the military. However, he has a strong desire for advancing his powers and achievements.
It is clear that Macbeth’s desires for higher achievements are not a product of his natural character. The three witches who meet and give him the prophecy of becoming a king one day instill fear in him. After realizing that most of the things predicted by the three witches were real, he develops the fear of failing to fulfill the prophecy.
He is also afraid of the failure to do what the witches have predicted. At this point, it becomes evident that the society, in general, has both evil and good individuals, but the power of the evil individuals is responsible for corruption the good morals in people (Cohn 56). Therefore, the three witches instill fear, which drives Macbeth towards acting against his morals. He develops power based on fear, which amounts to unchecked ambitions.
Secondly, Macbeth’s wife contributes to the husband’s development of power based on fear. She realizes that Macbeth is living in fear of being punished if he fails to fulfill the prophecy of the three witches. Also, she realizes that it is difficult for Macbeth to wait until society crowns him as the king. Therefore, she takes advantage of the husband’s state of fear to convince him to take action against his morals.
Due to the fear of being punished, Macbeth’s develops the desire to achieve the predicted status. His fear should be understood from the context of its origin. It is clear that Macbeth, despite being a dedicated, brave, and fearless soldier, he has a major weakness- he is easily convinced. For instance, when he met the three witches, he was returning from a victorious battle, accompanied by Banquo. Both men are given prophecies.
Apart from informing Macbeth that he would be the king, the three witches also hail him as the thane of Glamis and “Cawdor,” yet he was not the Cawdor at the time. Also, the three witches tell Banquo that his children will be the future kings. While Banquo is less convinced by these prophesies, Macbeth seems to believe in every world of the witches.
Banquo warns him that “witches always tell half-truths.” Banquo seems morally stronger than Macbeth. He does not develop fear and seems to be logical. Although the witches’ prophesy of Macbeth becoming the “Cawdor” was fulfilled within a few minutes after meeting the witches, Macbeth and Banquo develop different attitudes towards the witches.
While Macbeth seems to be convinced after Ross and Angus deliver him the promotion message from King Duncan, Banquo seems to be cautious with the witches’ message. He tells Macbeth that the evils will always tell half-truths to “win over humans.” On the other hand, Macbeth’s good character and morals are under the threat of the evils of the three witches.
Macbeth ignores Banquo’s warning and starts a long journey of a fearful character. Towards the end of Act 1 scene 3, the audience is introduced to Macbeth’s changing self. He ignores the companionship of fellow soldiers Banquo, Ross, and Angus, opting to speak to himself. The audience observes Macbeth wondering whether his rein will survive or will simply fall. At this point, it is evident that Macbeth’s good morals and character are on their way towards destruction by the evils perpetrated by the three witches.
In act 4, scene 1, the audience is introduced to the relationship between the king and his generals, especially Macbeth. It is clear that the relationship between the two is good and relatively strong. For instance, the king decides to dine at Macbeth’s home. At this point, the scenes and conversation during the dinner reveal that Macbeth has almost forgotten the messages of the witches. For example, he is happy when King Duncan informs them of his decision to make his son Malcolm the king after his death.
However, in Act 1, scenes 1 to 4, the audience is introduced to Macbeth’s increasing fear and the developing desire to be the king. After the Duncan says that his wish is to make Malcolm the new king, Macbeth realizes that he stands no chance to become the king. His desire to achieve his dreams is strong. It appears that the desire to be the king overrides his loyalty to the king and the nation.
Despite having a good relationship with the king and his family, Macbeth realizes that his desire to be the king cannot be achieved because Malcolm stands between him and kingship. Shakespeare uses these scenes to describe the reawakening of the witches’ influence on Macbeth and the progressive development of fear and the desire to overcome it through taking a step to ensure that Malcolm is not made the king (Ramsey 285).
As these scenes progress, it becomes evident that Macbeth has even started thinking of a conspiracy to satisfy his desires. He realizes that there is no other way to fulfill the prophecy except using force to remove the current king from the throne and preventing Malcolm from ascending the throne. Despite being a morally straight soldier, Macbeth allows the desire to drive his thoughts.
The audience is introduced to the dilemma facing Macbeth. Macbeth’s reaction to the prophecy seems to be a fundamental point of dilemma. He is confused and inactivated. He has two options.
The first option is to ignore the witches’ prophecy and remain faithful to the king. However, taking this option would have resulted in a possible punishment by the gods or evils that had sent the three witches. Macbeth’s second option is to take the evil action of murdering the king and please the gods and their agents. However, taking this option would result in sin and corrupt of his morals.
Nevertheless, the most important force in determining Macbeth’s choice is the strong desire of being the king. He has already developed a belief that he will soon be the king. He even starts thinking about how he will do become a strong and successive king. The ambition is too strong that it overrides the good morals in Macbeth (Ciobanu 37). Therefore, he resolves to kill the king and assume power.
Uncontrolled ambition is not only seen in Macbeth’s character. His wife is a significant person in his life. Once Macbeth informs her of the witches’ message, she immediately develops a strong desire to be the queen. She appears to be a wicked individual. Some scholars have argued that Shakespeare must have used Lady Macbeth and the three witches to show how women are easily used by the evil spirits to execute their evil deeds on earth (Cohn 54).
It is evident that the ambition to be the next queen makes Lady Macbeth forgets the good relationship between them and the King’s family. She also forgets how King Duncan has regarded Macbeth and his family. Also, she fails to consider the reaction of the other soldiers when Macbeth goes on to kill the king (Ramsey 288).
Her desire is only to be the queen, regardless of the consequences of the husband’s action. In fact, unlike Macbeth, she does not experience a dilemma because she seems not to have an alternative thought. The only option available for her is to convince Macbeth that the only way to become the king is to kill Duncan.
The strong ambition to achieve the dream of being the king further overrides the warming Macbeth receives in a dream. Shakespeare uses this dream to show the possible outcomes of Macbeth’s action. In a dream, Macbeth has a vision of a bloody dagger. It is an indication that killing the king will not be the end of a bloody scene (Cohn 58). Macbeth ignored this warning, especially because his wife’s desire to be the queen seems to be stronger than his ambitions.
It is also worth noting that once a good individual is driven by the uncontrolled ambition to take an evil act, a consequence of other evils will result as he or she attempts to justify the initial action.
In this case, Macbeth decides to kill other individuals to justify his action of killing the king. In the morning after he stabs King Duncan, Macbeth realizes that the only way to conceal the secret of his action is to kill any other individual who may have witnessed the action. Thus, the strong desire to be the king forces him to kill the king’s two chamberlains, believing that they were the remaining obstacles between him and the kingship.
Soon after becoming the King, Macbeth’s desire to remain the king forever forces him to do more evils. The effect of the witches is seen throughout the play. For instance, he remembered that the witches had predicted that Banquo’s sons and grandsons would be the future kings. This means that Macbeth’s reign and those of his sons are under the threat of Banquo’s descendants. Thus, he decides to eliminate his friend Banquo. This is a further indication of the growing ambitions in Macbeth.
Also, Macbeth develops a new desire- the desire to maintain his reign forever. He resolves to seek guidance from the witches and other evils spirits. The consequences are serial murders as Macbeth kills anybody he thinks will become the king in the future.
Thus, it is clear that Macbeth’s good character has been destroyed by his desire to achieve more than what he already has. Macbeth’s actions confirm Alexandre Dumas’ assertion that “…virtues are good, but some virtues tend to become crimes if taken to the extreme” (Meyer 124). Thus, Macbeth’s justification of war is the desire for victory, which makes him appear a brave and dedicated soldier in the eyes of people like Duncan, but his ambition for more political power and success drives him towards destruction of the kingdom.
Ciobanu, Elena. ““Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair”: the poetics of evil in Macbeth by William Shakespeare.” Interstudia (Revista Centrului Interdisciplinar de Studiu al Formelor Discursive Contemporane Interstud) 9 (2011): 26-24. Print.
Cohn, Ruby. “Shakespeare Left.” Theatre Journal 3.2 (2005): 48-60. Print
Low, Patrick and Kim Cheng. “Leading, the Mahatma Gandhi Way.” Leadership & Organizational Management Journal 2010.2 (2010): 237-249. Print
Meyer, Linda Ross. “The new revenge and the old retribution: Insights from Monte Cristo.” Studies in Law, Politics, and Society 31 (2003): 119-142. Print
Ramsey, Jarold. “The Perversion of Manliness in Macbeth.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (1973): 285-300. Print
Stuntz, William J. “Virtues and Vices of the Exclusionary Rule”. Harv. JL & Pub. Pol’y 20 (2006): 443. Print.
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