Shakespeare uses ambition in ‘Macbeth’ as a destructive trait, that follows the religious beliefs of the Elizabethan era; that god gave you your place on earth, and an attempt to desire or upstage this status was a direct act against him (Divine Order, 2011). Therefore, Shakespeare uses ambition as a tragic flaw of the main protagonists (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth), it is the source of their, and over 12 characters deaths in the play (eNotes, 2019).
Macbeth monologues his desire to “jump the life to come” (Act 1, Scene 7, No Fear Shakespeare). The verb “jump” suggests an overwhelming desire to leap forth, unrestricted, into the supposed power and good times that await for him. The irony of this is shown in the following scenes of the play, as Macbeth’s ambition becomes the cause of his eventual downfall; the audience responds to the end of Macbeth’s tyrannical rule with relief, as the noble Malcolm restores order to Scotland. The notion of a “jump” also suggests to Macbeth’s intention to cheat his way through the hierarchy, not only by killing the king but by deception: framing Duncan’s sons to ensure his own coronation – as historically in Scotland, the heir was chosen and not automatically the oldest son of the current Monarch. However, Macbeth is not historically accurate as the play was based off Holinshed’s Chronicles (Shakespeare Nowheres, 2002).
Shakespeare uses imagery relating to the bible or Christ to warn the audience of how dangerous Macbeth’s ambition will become. The metaphor of the “poison’d chalice” (Act 1, Scene 7, No Fear Shakespeare) renders the audience horrified as they realise the magnitude of disrespecting a sacred object. This calls attention to the widespread belief in the Late Renaissance era in divine order, and hence killing the king would not only be a high treason, but a betrayal of God (Divine Order, 2011). This image effectively demonstrates the potentially large scale violence that the impossible to satisfy Ambition can bring, foreshadowing the other brutal murders Macbeth organises in the following scenes.
Macbeth ends his monologue with a warning to himself not to allow the ambition to overwhelm him, by describing an image of a horseman attempting to mount his horse, but is too eager and falls regardless: “o’erleaps itself” (Act 1, Scene 7, No Fear Shakespeare) strongly foreshadows the tragic hero’s own demise in the play. Macbeth fails to pay attention to his own warning, instead becoming excessively proud, and self admiring. However, o’erleap could be interpreted as a comedic act of misjudgement, very similar to Mcbeth’s almost laughable ignorance of his approaching death in Act 5.
Lady Macbeth is portrayed as an ambitious woman with immoral intentions. She calls upon the spirits to fill her “toe-top full of direst cruelty” (Act 1, Scene 5, No Fear Shakespeare), connecting the separation between the human and paranormal realms in the play. Her impossible to satisfy lust for power is evident in her use of “toe-top” (Act 1, Scene 5), she speaks iambic pentameter in her speech as well, suggesting to the audience that she feels the cruelty inside her almost overflowing – to the point where a change of the smallest proportions could be motivation enough for her to act on her desires, sending her “cruelty” (Act 1, Scene 5) spilling over into the world around her and demonstrating itself in the murder of Duncan. This comes on the messenger informing Lady Macbeth that she will play hostess to Duncan that very night, creating great tension as the audience realises her intention to kill the King.
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In contrast, ambition begins to appear as a negative theme for the tragic couple as their paranoia sets in. Lady Macbeth’s helpless cries of “out, out, damned spot!” (Act 5, Scene 1, No Fear Shakespeare) reflect her overwhelming regret – she feels as though the “blood on her hands” (Act 5, Scene 1, No Fear Shakespeare) is noticeable to those around her, and she spends her days scrubbing her hands anxiously, signalling to the audience that she is in a state of hallucination.
Macbeth’s sending of a third murderer to ensure the homicide of Banquo and Fleance has been carried out suggests that Macbeth is brutal in his demands, and wants to rest in the knowledge that there is no threat to his throne. Alternatively, it could imply that he could not fully trust the first two assassins – which shows deep irony, as Macbeth himself is the one who shouldn’t be trusted.
Overall, ambition in the case of these two tragic protagonists eventually presents upon them the opposite way of what they had hoped; instead of becoming King and Queen of Scotland, both are dead and the audience is left to reflect on Macbeth’s moral message: that selfish ambition ultimately leads to destruction.