Study Guide

Macbeth Ambition

By William Shakespeare

Ambition

Act 1, Scene 3
Banquo

BANQUO […] 
                     My noble partner
You greet with present grace and great prediction
Of noble having and of royal hope,
That he seems rapt withal. To me you speak not.
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak, then, to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate. (1.3.57-64)

Uh-oh. Someone's feeling left out. Banquo wants a prophecy, too—although he seems to be much more chill about it, claiming that he doesn't care one way or another. But if that's true, you'd think he wouldn’t bother trying to look into the future.

Macbeth

MACBETH
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man
That function is smother'd in surmise,
and nothing is but what is not. (1.3.152-155)

Slow down there, Macbeth, because these ladies haven't said a word about murder. The fact that his first thought is about killing the king is mighty suspicious—almost as though they've just awoken a murderous ambition that's been there all along.

Act 1, Scene 4
Macbeth

MACBETH [aside]
The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (1.4.55-60)

Macbeth describes his ambition as being "black and deep desires," which makes it sound… well, wrong. Is ambition okay in any context, or are we all supposed to let fate and chance toss us around?

Act 1, Scene 5
Lady Macbeth

LADY MACBETH
[…]
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. (1.5.15-20)

Here's another count against ambition: After reading the letter from her husband (which recounts the witches' prophesy), Lady Macbeth's thoughts immediately turn to murder. Problem: Macbeth has ambition, but he doesn’t have the nerve to see it through. Luckily Lady Macbeth is man enough for both of them.

Act 1, Scene 7
Macbeth

MACBETH 

                              I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other— (1.7.25-28)

Time to be real: when Macbeth is honest with himself, he admits that there's no good reason to kill Duncan, because Duncan is perfectly good at this whole king-business. Macbeth just wants that power for himself.

Act 2, Scene 4

ROSS
                              'Gainst nature still!
Thriftless ambition, that will ravin up
Thine own lives' means! Then 'tis most like
The sovereignty will fall upon Macbeth. (2.4.39-42)

Ross is right about one thing: ambition is to blame for Duncan's murder. He's wrong about the most important part, though. Here, he accuses Duncan's kids of going "'gainst nature" and killing their own father—but Macbeth is the one to watch out for. Our question: is Macbeth going against nature, too, by killing the king? Is ambition of any kind unnatural?

Act 3, Scene 1
Banquo

BANQUO 

Thou hast it now—king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
As the weird women promised, and I fear
Thou played'st most foully for't. Yet it was said
It should not stand in thy posterity,
But that myself should be the root and father
Of many kings. If there come truth from them
(As upon thee, Macbeth, their speeches shine)
Why, by the verities on thee made good,
May they not be my oracles as well,
 And set me up in hope? But hush, no more. (3.1.1-10)

Sure, Banquo didn't murder anyone for self gain, but he may not be as honorable as he seems. He suspects Macbeth of foul play, but does he tell anyone? No. In fact, he tells himself to "hush"—maybe because he's a little too excited about being the "root and father/ Of many kings."

Act 3, Scene 4
Macbeth

MACBETH
                                 For mine own good
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er. (3.4.167-170)

In case we still had some lingering doubts, Macbeth clears that up for us: he's doing all this "For mine own good." Great. We'll be sure not to ask him for any favors, then.

Act 5, Scene 5
Macbeth

MACBETH
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.20-31)

In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. Or something along those lines. Here, Macbeth is realizing that all his striving was literally useless: Malcolm is going to be king; he himself is about to die; and his wife is gone. (So much for her ambition, too.) But if there's nothing to be gained, then what's the point of living at all? Macbeth doesn't leave us with much of answer. Are we just supposed to live our lives hopelessly until we die? Or is there a nobler way of putting up with life's ultimate futility?

Act 5, Scene 6
Macduff

MACDUFF  

                           Either thou, Macbeth,
Or else my sword, with an unbattered edge,
I sheathe again undeeded. There thou shouldst be;
By this great clatter, one of greatest note
Seems bruited. Let me find him, Fortune,
And more I beg not. (5.6.19-24)

This is how to do ambition right: Macduff wants to avenge his family and his king, but he doesn’t seek power for himself. He doesn't want to rule fortune; he's content to be fortune's tool. Clearly, he's going to be the one to take down the boss.