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Towards the beginning of the play in Act 1 Scene 3 when Macbeth receives the prophecies from the witches and one is immediately fulfilled, Shakespeare presents him as very ambitious through his soliloquy, “Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair and make my seated heart knock at my ribs.” Macbeth is shown immediately to be imagining the “horrid image” of Duncan’s murder after the witches’ prophecy that suggested he could become king, highlighting his “dark and deep desire” for power. For an Elizabethan audience, this would have been extremely shocking as in those days, when everyone was religious, killing the king was seen to be the ultimate sin as the king was believed to have been chosen by God. This strongly emphasises his ambition as he is imagining committing regicide despite the Divine Right of Kings and the fact that Duncan is his kin. However, he is terrified by the idea as it makes his hairs stand on end and his heart pound, suggesting that he doesn’t want to act on his ambition. This is reiterated by the use of euphemism “horrid image” as he avoids using a more explicit word, indicating how he is not completely controlled by his ambition yet.
Macbeth’s lack of willingness to carry out the murder is also stated by Lady Macbeth when she says in her soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 5, “Art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it”. She acknowledges that Macbeth does have ambition but indicates that he doesn’t have the ruthlessness to act on it. She then demonstrates that she has what Macbeth is lacking when she says, “Unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty”. She demands for her femininity to be taken away as she sees it as a weakness which was a common belief in the 16th century when women were seen as gentle and frail. Shakespeare has used the noun, “crown” deliberately to subtly indicate her desire to become queen as it seems like she is already imagining herself with the crown. Also, the superlative “direst” portrays Lady Macbeth as completely evil as she wishes to be filled with “cruelty”. The use of the imperatives “Unsex” and “Fill me” create the impression that she is in total control as we are shown later in the play when she forces Macbeth to go forward with the plan to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth clearly has both the ambition and evil necessary to commit regicide as opposed to Macbeth who is portrayed as also ambitious but weaker at this point in the play.
Later in the play, Macbeth’s ambition is clearly presented as his fatal flaw which ultimately leads to his downfall from the “worthy gentleman” to “hell-hound”. In Act 3 Scene 2, Macbeth is now king after murdering Duncan and is fearing for his position for power, “We have scorch’d the snake, not kill’d it.” Macbeth still fears that he could lose his power, highlighted by Shakespeare’s use of the metaphor “snake” which connotes threat and danger, especially because of the witches’ prophecy to Banquo that his descendants will become kings. Also, the violent verbs “scorch” and “kill” imply that his ambition will make him do anything to hold on to power; it is a foreshadowing of the murder of his best friend that he is about to commit. Furthermore, he massacres Macduff’s “wife and babes” in Act 4, further emphasising the extent of evil he is willing to commit due to his “vaulting ambition”. Shakespeare’s use of the noun “babes” emphasise Macbeth’s malevolence as it connotes innocence and purity which completely juxtaposes Macbeth’s violence. This would be seen as completely unimaginable to the 16th century audience who believed that men should follow the Chivalric Code of Honour which states that a man should not even fight a foe who is weaker than him but Macbeth ruthlessly murders a defenceless family, “spurred” but his ambition.
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