Being Possessed by Ambition: The Tragedy of Macbeth

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In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses Macbeth’s tragic fate to show the danger of extreme ambition when that ambition causes people to use deceit and treachery to further their own goals. Ambition, in itself, is not harmful, but untempered ambition has a corrupting influence. Shakespeare illustrates this concept by showing how Macbeth’s ambitious thinking transforms his character, ultimately making him do things he previously would never have contemplated. In the beginning of the play, Duncan describes Macbeth as his “worthiest cousin” and expresses his feeling that he could never repay Macbeth for all his cousin has done (I, iv, 17-24). Duncan sees Macbeth as an honorable lord, worthy of praise and trust. Before he heard the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth was a loyal servant to the King of Scotland, as shown by Duncan’s willingness to appoint him Thane of not only Glamis, but Cawdor as well (I, ii, 91-93). He risked his life by going into battle to kill the rebel Macdonwald for his king and country. Although he might have had desire to rise in the King’s service, he was not at that point where he would destroy his whole world in the pursuit of blind ambition.

The witches’ prophecy is the turning point of Macbeth’s life, setting him on a course that ultimately destroys him. While on the surface, it seems like great news that Macbeth will be “Thane of Cawdor” and “King hereafter,” appearances can be deceiving (I, iii, 52-53). The witches know their prophecy is not what it appears and tell Banquo he will be, “Not so happy, yet much happier,” than his friend (I, iii, 69). The prophecy works on Macbeth’s mind, and once he is named Thane of Cawdor, he starts to believe the remainder of the prophecy could come true and for the first time to yearn to be King.

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On his own, Macbeth might have wanted to be King, but he was still uncertain and hesitant until Lady Macbeth fueled his ambition with her own lust for power. She manipulates Macbeth by questioning his courage and manhood and stirs up in him a desire to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. He recognizes the enormous risk involved with killing Duncan and the consequences that would surely follow, saying,“If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well It were done quickly: if the assassination Could trammel up the consequence, and catch With his surcease success. ” (I, vii, 1-4)

Lady Macbeth’s influence, however, erases any qualms he might have had and sets him on the path to doom, ultimately leading him to murder Duncan and the guards before taking the throne of Scotland. Burning with the fire of untempered ambition, Macbeth goes to extreme lengths in his rise to power. From a man willing to risk his life for others, he becomes a narcissistic megalomaniac who refuses to let anyone get in his way. Knowing he has not rightfully earned the throne, he is afraid to lose it, so he eliminates the competition by scaring away Malcolm and Donalbain and hiring the murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance. His disloyalty to Banquo, his closest ally, is a direct result of the shift in his personality caused by blind ambition. After talking to the witches again, Macbeth becomes cocky, thinking he is now invincible. He believes his attempts to control the future have succeeded. This is another stage in his transformation. By succeeding at all his prior misdeeds, he now believes himself above the law, even above mere mortals. In this feverish overconfidence, he ignores the warning and fails to pursue Macduff to England. Instead, he contents himself with murdering Macduff’s family in an unnecessary and cruel act of violence. He has become so desensitized to these horrible acts that he no longer considers the consequences of his actions. He is a completely different person now than he was in that initial conversation with Lady Macbeth. His ambition now consumes him.

Similarly to how the senators in Julius Caesar turned on the book’s namesake for his extreme power-mongering, in the final battle Macbeth’s people turn on him, and his armies refuse to fight on his behalf. His actions have consequences, but he still believes himself to be untouchable, and that is what destroys him in the duel with Macduff. Macbeth’s massacre of Macduff’s family enrages Macduff, driving him to seek the vengeance that is ultimately Macbeth’s undoing, showing how violence only begets more violence (V, vii, 19-28). Lady Macbeth is not spared either.

Macbeth’s catalyst, the one who pushed him down his path of ruin, eventually meets her fate in a way, similar to Macbeth, that was her own doing. For all her talk of being unsexed and wishing she could do the deed of killing Duncan herself, Lady Macbeth ends up with just as much guilt as her husband, due to her voracious appetite for power (I, v, 45-61). She may not have killed the King herself, but she might as well have, as she says in the end of the story, “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”(V, i, 53-55). Her ambitious dreams led her to ruin, just like her husband, leading to her death as well. Macbeth’s character undergoes an extreme transformation from Duncan’s “worthiest cousin” to an unrecognizable tyrant blind to all but his own lust for power. The corrupting influence of ambition gave him power, but at the cost of the love of those he knew and his own sanity. As he says to the doctor, “That which should accompany old age, As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have; but, in their stead, Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath, Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not. ”The witches foretold a seemingly marvelous scenario: a rise from Thane to King. However, what seems too good to be true often is, a lesson which the tragic protagonist learned the hard way. As C. S. Lewis once said, “Evil comes from the abuse of free will” 1 Macbeth had a noble future ahead of him, but he destroyed himself and those around him in a vain attempt to change his fate and claim what wasn’t his to own.

Macbeth’s monologue at the beginning of Act I, vii ends with his one reference to ambition, as the only 'spur' to prick on his intention, and at this point he has talked himself into abandoning the project. Lady Macbeth enters to rouse him by calling him 'coward', invoking a concept of manliness, and reducing the issue to gaining the crown (I. vii. 41-4). She avoids confronting the murder itself, or translates it into a more familiar, if revolting, image of what she might have done, in dashing out the brains of her own child.

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