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Macbeth Research Paper


Ambition is a prominent characteristic in mankind, so essential that it is identified as the driving force in life. A person without ambition is doomed to an unexciting, repetitious and unvaried life. Ambition can be good or bad. Good ambition involves efforts aimed at survival, sustenance and success in life. Good ambition is always governed by reason. Since morality underlines reason, good ambition never undermines morality. Bad ambition rides on one-sidedness, selfishness and extremist desires, brazenly flouting all norms of reason and morality (Ramesh). When ambition subverts reason, it becomes bad in nature and inevitably leads a person to self-destruction.

Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth,’ easily the best play he wrote as well as his most tragic work (Wikipedia.org), the consequences of ambition unchecked by reason are well portrayed by the two principal characters in the play – Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Macbeth, a brave and mighty Scottish military general, is initially not ambitious. It is his ultra-ambitious wife who stokes the fire of ambition in him. Lady Macbeth is endowed with a fiery eloquence steeped with sophisms that cast a cloak of deceptive magnificence over crime (Theatrehistory.com) coupled with a formidably steely character that easily breaks down the feeble barriers of resistance in her weak-character husband. Realizing he is too full of “th’ milk of human kindness” (I.v.15) to harbor aspirations of becoming king, Lady Macbeth takes it upon herself to spur him on towards that goal, praying that she can overcome her female weaknesses in the process (“You spirits/ That tend on moral thoughts, unsex me here” (I.v.38-39) (Phillips et al.). As Macbeth succumbs to her forceful urgings, each step the couple takes in response to their all-consuming ambition (ably assisted by the evil prophecies of the 3 witches – dishonorable, obscene instruments of hell {Theatrehistory.com} who Banquo calls “instruments of darkness” I.iii.124 {Novelguide.com}) drives them to commit atrocities of increasing number and magnitude.

The first prophecy of the weird witch sisters (Wikipedia.org) is that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawder. When the prophecy comes true {in the aftermath of the previous thane being killed for treason [Novelguide.com]} and Lady Macbeth hears of it, the fires of ambition within her rise to a conflagration, easily igniting a responding flame in her husband. She personally plans to kill King Duncan. Macbeth’s brief qualms at murdering the revered leader and the best of kings (Theatrehistory.com) subside when his wife taunts him by challenging his manhood (“When you durst do it,” she says, “then you were a man” {I.vii.49}), and he murders Duncan in Act II, scene ii. Fearing they would be murdered too, Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain flee to England and Ireland respectively, paving the way for Macbeth to ascend the throne – thereby fulfilling the witches’ second prophecy, that Macbeth would be king one day (Phillips et al.).

Not satisfied with having attained the ultimate goal of their driving ambition, the couple next focus on retaining the throne. They begin musing on three other prophecies of the witches, namely, that Macbeth’s crown would be ‘fruitless’ and he would never have an heir (III.i.62); that Banquo’s sons would sit on the throne in future (I.iii.63-65); and that Macduff poses a threat to Macbeth (‘Beware Macduff’ was their ominous warning {Wikipedia.org}). Fearing their ambitions of retaining the crown would be thwarted, they decide to do away with the persons concerned. Macbeth deputes two hired killers (Wikipedia.org) to murder Banquo and his son Fleance. The men manage to kill Banquo but Fleance escapes, causing Macbeth to curse regretfully that they “have scorched the snake, not killed it” (III.ii.15). Macbeth’s assassins next storm Macduff’s castle in Act IV, scene ii, but succeed in murdering only his wife and son, Macduff himself being away from home at that time (Phillips et al.).

At this stage of the play, both characters are increasingly tormented by their guilty conscience {as Macbeth tells his wife: “full of scorpions in my mind, dear wife” {III.ii.37}} (Phillips et al.), and they sink deeper into paranoia and inner turmoil. Lady Macbeth is the first to self-destruct. She slowly descends into madness, beginning to sleepwalk, hallucinate about having blood on her hands that is impossible to wash away, all the while mumbling about the harrowing experiences she has gone through (Wikipedia.org). She finally commits suicide in Act V, scene v. Macbeth’s condition deteriorates faster after his wife’s death and he increasingly stews in a sort of hurried, confused and boastful madness. He refuses to emulate his wife (“Why should I play the Roman fool,” he asks, “and die/ On mine own sword?” {V.x.1-2}), and instead goes on to die in combat in the arena where he was most successful in life – the battlefield (Phillips et al.). Macbeth is brutally slain by a vengeful Macduff reveling in being able to finally avenge the horrible murder of his family (Novelguide.com).

The tragic end of both characters successfully shows how ambition can subvert reason and lead to fatal consequences. They follow the 3 witches’ advice that “foul is fair and fair is foul” {I.i.10} word for word with ultimately disastrous result (Novelguide.com). As Shakespeare’s most forcefully drawn and frightening female character, Lady Macbeth’s ruthless drive towards higher positions in life for her husband and herself ultimately causes her to take her own life. Macbeth, once a proud and mighty general respected by all, is also ultimately a victim of unchecked ambition as he meets his end at the hands of Macduff. Dubbed as ‘the most horrifying play surpassing even the slaying of Agamemnon,’ (Theatrehistory.com) “Macbeth” is the archetypal story of how unbridled ambition can go wrong (Wikipdia.org).

“Macbeth.” Novelguide.com. 2007. 14 Nov. 2007.
“Macbeth.” Theatrehistory.com. 2007. 14 Nov. 2007.
“Macbeth.” Wikipedia.org. 2007. 14 Nov. 2007.
Phillips, Brian & Douthat, Ross. “Sparknote on Macbeth.” Sparknotes.com. 2007. 13 Nov. 2007.
Ramesh, T.A. “The Necessity of Ambition.” Boloji.com. 2006. 13 Nov. 2007.

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