Whose Ambition Is the Driving Force of the Play—Macbeth’s, Lady Macbeth’s, or Both?
One could justifiably describe Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as catalysts for one another, particularly concerning ambition. For example, in Act I, Scene V, Lady Macbeth asserts that Macbeth is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” to ascend to the throne (Act I, Scene V). This serves as a challenge to Macbeth’s cunning, his ruthlessness, and his masculinity. After she succeeds in chastising him for his perceived impotence, she successfully ignites Macbeth’s own aspirations.
Once Lady Macbeth successfully galvanized her husband into action, she instructed him to feign innocence, and leave the Machiavellian schemes to her. From these interactions, we begin to see the relationship dynamic unfold. Lady Macbeth clearly stands out as the dominant partner. Indeed, the entire plot revolves around her guilefulness and the ways in which it influences Macbeth.
Not only does Lady Macbeth concoct the regicidal plot, but she also continuously puts it into motion, even when doubts begin to bedevil her husband. Each time he hesitates, she berates him mercilessly, until he once again engages with her in planning the murder. We see this in Act I, Scene VII, when Lady Macbeth bluntly asks if Macbeth’s monarchical ambitions are merely a dream, brought on by drunkenness. She chidingly inquires, “Was the hope drunk wherein you dress’d yourself?” Again, we see Lady Macbeth’s recurring strategy of appealing to her husband’s sense of honor, in order to accomplish her nefarious ends. Ultimately, she brings them both to ruin, and their regal ambitions come to naught.
Shakespeare, W., & Bevington, D. The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Seventh ed.). London: Longman, 2013.
Crystal, D., & Crystal, B. Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion. New York, New York: Puffin Books, 2002.
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What Is the Difference Between Macbeth’s and Malcolm’s Ambitions?
Undoubtedly, Shakespeare is one of the most influential authors not only for England but also for the history of literature. The social themes that he raises in his works penetrate the net of human intentions, feelings, and desires. The interweaving of human courage, cowardice, greed, thirst for power, love, vanity, deceit, loyalty, and ambitions on the pages of his works permeate through the ages and make many readers discover the depths of human nature. One of the most brilliant and well-known plays of the great English poet and playwright is The Tragedy of Macbeth, which is based on the history of the King of Scotland of the 11th century and reveals the risks and consequences of the insurmountable desire of power and the betrayal of the closest people. Considering the ambitions of Macbeth and Malcolm, we will see that they originate from very different motives, intentions, and aspirations.
The period described by Shakespeare implies belief in the divine origin of power, the concept of serving God, which extended to the entire feudal system, including the ministry and faithfulness of the vassal (Thane) to the king. Betrayal was considered one of the most serious sins that violated the foundations of the knight’s code. The tasks of the king before his subjects have always been to ensure stability, peace, and tranquility. To achieve these goals, the king should not be merely a good person but also should show strength, courage, and devotion to his people. Without such qualities, a king may not be worthy of the respect of his subjects. Royal power and the struggle for it quite often provided examples for rampant violence and distrust.
Macbeth’s character is not merely a negative hero committing acts of betrayal for a useful purpose. Several forces are acting on him which show the development of ambitious plans, and at the end, dispersion of the soul. The decisions that he makes pursue his conscience by forming multiple complexes of emotions. Initially, Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a fearless and brave warrior, a general of the royal army, suppressing the uprising against his monarch, Duncan. Glory is always a harbinger and a possible source of vanity. Macbeth meets witches and receives prophecies, one of which says that he will become king of Scotland. After this starting point, when destiny seduces him, “Macbeth has begun to hear another language – the language of magic, bad magic, of murder, specifically one great act of murder, regicide, the killing of the king, in Shakespeare that cataclysmic act, that crime against the state, against the soul and against the self” (McGuinness). Lady Macbeth tempts the central figure of narrative to awaken a whirlwind of ambition that pushes him to conquer fate as quickly as possible by going to grave sin, murder, and betrayal. Afterward, Lady Macbeth, through her own goals to become a queen, can not withstand the onslaught of conscience and feelings, and goes mad before leaving this world.
Ambitions can hurt people by turning them from the right path, but it can also give them strength to achieve noble goals. “Treasonous ambition in Macbeth collides with loyalty and patriotism in Macduff and Malcolm: here is the outward conflict” (Bradley 13). Malcolm is Duncan’s eldest son and the legitimate heir to the throne. After the death of the king, he and his brother Donalbain flee Scotland fearing for their lives. Malcolm is quite young, but such an impression does not develop. He shows restraint and prudence. A legal heir with a profound sense of empathy experiences events in Scotland when he says such words: “I think our country sinks beneath the yoke / It weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash / Is added to her wounds” (“Macbeth: Entire Play”). He shows his caution when he decides to check the loyalty of Mcduff, the Thane of Fife, but receives a response that he “would not be the villain that thou think’st / For the whole space that’s in the tyrant’s grasp, / And the rich East to boot” (“Macbeth: Entire Play”). Macduff is faithful to the legitimate heir to the throne, yet Malcolm manifests wisdom. He deceives Macduff and makes him believe that he is twice more sinful than Macbeth. And only when he sees that Macduff, like himself, desires Scotland, a moral, respectable and worthy king who will rightly rule his heart, and incite him to take revenge for the death of the family and the battle against tyranny.
In conclusion, Macbeth represented a character who has gone from a noble, brave general and minister of the crown, to a traitor, and he paid for this life. Malcolm took the throne as a legitimate heir. The difference is that the ambitions of Macbeth and Malcolm took a source for different motives. In Macbeth, they were fed up with their desire to conquer fate and reach the goal, despite the bloody consequences. Having succumbed to the temptation of prophecy and a thirst for power, Macbeth felt guilty and did not withstand pressure, and he brought himself to great mental distress, causing physical and psychological deterioration. With Malcolm, despite his age, the ambitions came from patriotism, real pain from his country being subjected to tyranny, and the desire to exercise justice and to make up for the death of his father.
Bradley, Andrew C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. 3rd ed., Basingstoke, Macmillan Education, 1992.
McGuinness, Frank. “Madness And Magic: Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” Irish University Review, vol 45, no. 1, 2015, pp. 69-80.
“Macbeth: Entire Play.” Shakespeare.Mit.Edu, 2017, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/full.html.