William Shakespeare’s Macbeth begins with three witches echoing “fair is foul and foul is fair,” (I,i,12) which is exactly how we first see the play’s main character, Macbeth. Macbeth is told by the witches that he will one day become king. The fair and valiant warrior, Macbeth, puts himself above all others and turns to a path of darkness, murdering the existing king for power, then ruthlessly killing anyone else seen as a threat to his reign. Eventually, the evil Macbeth is ousted by Macduff, a man who puts Scotland above all else. Both men, while total opposites, have one thing in common; their actions are driven by their ambitions. The characters ambitions shape who they are, and who they are to become. The characters in Macbeth are used to demonstrate ambition’s effects; both positive and negative When Macbeth is first seen he is a man who, for his entire life, has been driven by ambition to be honorable. Macbeth is originally seen as a noble warrior; a man that “deserves [his] name, disdaining fortune with his brandished steel.” (I,ii,19-20) He has risen up through the ranks to become Thane of Glamis and is well liked by the king. While his benevolent actions have certainly led him to a position of power, they appear to be directed to a more noble cause. This all changes when the witches tell Macbeth that he “shalt be king.” Macbeth realizes that “chance may crown [him]” without him needing to do anything. (I,iii,151-152) If the witches are correct, it is his fate to become king; there is nothing else he needs to do. While Macbeth could have followed in his good friend Banquo’s footsteps and simply decided to let fate take its course, he does not. Macbeth’s ambitions to become king lead him down a dark path. He is too ambitious to throw his future to fate, and decides to take matters into his own hands. He realizes that he will need to kill Duncan, the current king, to gain the throne. Macbeth is deeply troubled by this. He has no logical reason to murder Duncan. He fears the consequences, and admires Duncan’s moral goodness. In many ways, Duncan represents the person that Macbeth aspires to be. He, like Macbeth, has fought honorably for the betterment of Scotland. Faced with a tremendous lust for the throne, the only reason Macbeth can possibly imagine for murdering Duncan is his “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself.” (I,vii,27) Ultimately, Macbeth’s ambitions for the crown win, and Duncan falls. By murdering Duncan, Macbeth has chosen a path that he is unable to escape from. The good in Macbeth disappears immediately, and he becomes a ruthless tyrant. Ambition drives Macbeth to ensure his position as king, even if it is at the expense of others. Macbeth’s ambition has made him king, but this is not enough for him. The witches have prophesized that Banquo, not Macbeth, will father the line of future kings. For Macbeth, this is a problem. he feels that he has a “fruitless crown… thence to be wrenched” by Banquo’s “unlineal hand.” (III,I,64-66) Macbeth sees Banquo as a threat so large that he hires three separate murderers to kill him and his son. Unlike the first murder, Macbeth shows no emotion when he orders Banquo killed. His ambition to father future kings outweighs the life of his friend. Ultimately, Macbeth’s ambitious actions catch up with him, and he is overthrown. Lady Macbeth’s ambitions are directed at insuring her husband’s success. Lady Macbeth first hears of the witches prophesies from a letter sent by Macbeth. Unlike Macbeth, she does not question the necessity of killing Duncan, she sees it as the only way for her husband to gain power. She obsesses over the planning of the murder, pressuring Macbeth to act on his own ambitions, not his sense of reason. Duncan’s murder gives Macbeth success, fulfilling Lady Macbeth’s ambitions. In another instance, shortly after Banquo’s murder, Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at a banquet. While he is in a trance, Lady Macbeth tries to comfort the guests, reassuring them that their “lord is often thus, and hath been from his youth.” (III,iv,53-54) While the situation is far from ideal, Lady Macbeth does it to maintain her husband’s public image to the best of her abilities. She wants him to be successful, and his image is essential to this.
While Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s ambitions are malevolent, Macduff’s are not. Macduff’s ambitions drive him to make his country better. When Macbeth is crowned, Macduff flees to England. He leaves behind his wife and children (who are murdered by Macbeth), valuing his chance to liberate Scotland over his family. In England, Macduff’s loyalty is tested during a lengthy dialog by Malcom, a fellow revolutionary. Macduff proves his “good truth and honour” and leads an army of 10,000 against evil Macbeth. (VI,III,117) Macduff succeeds at liberating Scotland, killing Macbeth in a sword fight.
The Characters in Macbeth are all ambitious. Some, like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, use their ambitions for evil while others, like Macduff, use theirs for good. Ambition is a very powerful motif in the play. The characters ambitions shape who they are, and who they are to become. This concept is just as applicable in the world today as it is in Macbeth. There will always be people in the world like Macbeth. Society cannot eliminate the Hitlers and Stalins. However, there are far more people like Macduff. The strength of the honorable always prevails over the dishonest; good triumphs over evil.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. The Language of Literature. Arthur N. Applebee, et al. Evanston, Illinois: McDougal Littell, 2000. 327-416. "Adolph Hitler: A Study in Tyranny." Holocaust Teacher Resource Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 16
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