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‘Macbeth’, William Shakspeare's eponymous tragedy, exhibits the dire consequences of pursuing ambition. Shakespeare aims to warn the Jacobean society that unchecked ambition ultimately leads to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's downfall and hamartia as their hunger for power grows unquenchable and leads to them committing heinous acts. He portrays ambition as one that can be fostered by evil, able to give status and power and the consequences that result from unchecked ambition. Shakespeare does this as in the Jacobean era ambition was seen to lead people into corruption and stray people from God’s protection as it was contrary to the will of God and aims to stress the importance of self-restraint, self-awareness and a conscience.This is Showcased in the extract from Act 1 scene 5, in Act 1 Scene 3 and again in Macbeth’s soliloquy Act 1 Scene 7.
Shakespeare skillfully depicts the witches as characters that exude both evil and ambition throughout the play especially in Act 1. The witches have ‘beards’ playing on the predetermined fear of the contemporary audience of witches: they are revolting and agents of the devil. This is may be utilised for the audience to establish that their association with Macbeth is revolving. Throughout act one we see they foster his ambition with prophecies. Initially, in Act 1 Scene 3 Macbeth believes 'to be king stands not within the prospect of belief no more than to be Cawdor’; Macbeth thinks it is impossible to be king as kings are appointed by God and can not be forcibly removed. But once he is announced as ‘Thane of Cawdor’ by Ross thirty lines later his attitude transforms. We can infer that the use of the comparative conveys that the thaneship of Cawdor and kingship for him are intertwined. As the prophecy is given immediate effect his ambition to become king becomes more plausible. Given that the Jacobean audience were firmly set in the belief that involvement with the supernatural and witchcraft was associated with evil, his ambition associated with the prophecy seems to be evil. We can see Shakespeare’s use of the witches to plant the ‘illness’ that needs to attend Macbeth's ambition for it to go unchecked. As Macbeth's ambition is tainted with the ‘illness’ of wickedness the audience can seem to sense a typical foreboding ending in both his status and moral compass. Shakespeare manipulates this to warn the audience of the dangers of the interference with the supernatural and unchecked ambition: how any help from the supernatural can stray us from the protection of God and lead to a vicious cycle of temptation, even if the initial result seems to be fruitful. He tries to indicate to the reader that if Macbeth had self-restraint, self-awareness and a conscience he would not be as susceptible to corruption and temptation and communicates that his audience should emulate this instead, to be successful. This is depicted through the ambitious prophecies. They may have been self-fulfilling if left to fate but when his reliance on the supernatural grows his hamartia, unchecked ambition, leaves him to fall to corruption and temptation.
Throughout the extract from Act 1 Scene 5, we see Shakspeare exhibiting Lady Macbeth as a headstrong powerful and ambitious woman from the exposition of the play. She defies societal norms being the antithesis of a Jacobean woman emasculating her husband frequently throughout the play and feels he is mentally weak to kill a king. She implies it is not that he is ‘without’ ambition but without the illness in Act 1 scene 5. On the contrary, he is filled with the ‘milk’ of human kindness. The emphasis of ‘without’ emphasises the lack of the ‘illness’ or wickedness contrary to what she believes is needed, where the power handed down to the royal family must be attended by wickedness. Hence she calls on the intercession of the spirits to ‘pour in her ear’. She feels that to fulfil the ambitions of both of them she must be filled ‘from crown to toe in wickedness.’ As the noun, 'crown' has two meanings: both the head and the ornamental headdress associated with the monarchy. This could be manipulated by Shakespeare to convey that unchecked ambition ‘unsexes’ people into ruthless beings, that ambition is a transgressive act. While a contemporary audience may feel that the power dynamic and Macbeth's lack of control over their marriage had lead to him being easily being manipulated by his wife a modern audience might infer that for a woman in the Jacobean era to gain power and status she must have her own ambitions and desires: not just catering to her family and bearing children. This is mirrored in Queen Elizabeth although some may argue her lack of an heir and controversial position caused chaos; her own desires, without the restraint of a husband or children, allowed her to have status and power.
Furthermore, the chaos their ambitions cause is seen as the play nears an end. Both the deterioration of the kingdom they obtain through deceit and manipulation is mirrored by their deteriorating mental state. Shakespeare repeats the motif of ‘jumping’ in Act 1 Scene 7 to describe Macbeth's ambition in mixed metaphor to suggest that with each risk he took to overleap the monarchy he overleaped the great chain of being leading to his ‘fall’.He fell from both grace and respect and ironically ended up in a lower status than which he had started with. We see how instead they are both plagued by guilt, unable to wash ‘away’ the blood or guilt of Duncan's death in act 5.1. That they are so blinded with the feeling of guilt Lady Macbeth herself is unable to see the candle that she carries which is metaphorical for grace and forgiveness. Similarly, the kingdom is in chaos, a falcon killed by a mousing owl shows how the disruption of nature is a direct consequence of them breaking the great chain of being. The audience may feel sympathy as we see their lives turn into ‘nothing’ their lives have become valueless destroying the meaning of everything. Shakespeare highlights that even though ambition is a source of motivation and to some extent success to be controlled by ambition and when you assume roles that are not fated to you you should be prepared to ‘fall’ from the steps in the great chain of being. Ultimately we will not be freed from the Christain guilt that both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth suffer from.
In conclusion, we see how Shakspeare presents unchecked ambition: elusive, dangerous and evil. Nevertheless, we as a modern audience might appreciate the importance of ambition in Macbeth for Lady Macbeth’s status. We see that ambition is needed to ‘spur’ both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth but when unchecked they became controlled by it hence they were victims of the perils of ambition, their hamartia. Shakespeare teaches his audience the importance of self-awareness, conscience and self-restraint so that we may not ‘fall’ from grace and respect. Instead, we must be like Banquo, virtuous, allowing fate to bring success as ultimately evil is nearly always defeated and that the righteous people will be rewarded.