Ambition has often been viewed as a highly admirable characteristic, especially when it is associated with the drive to succeed and the hard work required. It is possible to be too ambitious. The result of too much ambitiousness can be a destructive and obsessive need to achieve your goal through any means necessary, sometimes crossing moral lines. Shakespeare’s Macbeth gives a good example of this view. The play is about an ambitious and high-ranking Scottish warrior who wants to become king. Macbeth must choose between power and morality as he goes on his quest to attain kingship. The ambition to become king is what eventually drives Macbeth into psychosis, even though he reaches his goal. Shakespeare wanted to show that ambition must be balanced by other qualities like empathy and morality. Otherwise, ambition will infect other good traits.
Shakespeare’s view on ambition is expressed in the play by Lady Macbeth. Specifically, she makes the statement in her first address that Macbeth should sacrifice his kindness if he wants to be promoted. In her opening speech, she says that Macbeth was “too full of the milk o’ human kindness”. Breastfeeding is common practice for mothers when they are raising their children. Shakespeare compares Macbeth’s kindheartedness to that of a mother towards her child. Shakespeare’s message is that Macbeth is not able to achieve his goal of becoming king because of this maternal-like kind. To change this, Macbeth must “spoil” his “milk of humanity”. Macbeth, who has been the Thane Cawdor for a long time, has maintained a balance of ambition and morality. Shakespeare explains that Macbeth can’t rise to the top of the hierarchy by being kind. He must allow his ambition to overtake his morals.
Shakespeare’s play shows how ambition snowballs as it progresses. Macbeth becomes more and more ambitious, his actions become increasingly irrational. Eventually, ambition takes over, ruining any balance that could be needed to maintain healthy ambition. Macbeth begins planning his first morally compromised act after he realizes that his moral character is holding back his ambition. Macbeth is planning to kill Duncan, the present king, to seize the throne. Macbeth is now in a domino-effect of his ambition that leads to a psychotic breakdown. Macbeth says, “I’ve no spurs to prick sides of my purpose, but only vaulting passion, which o’erleaps it and falls to the other” as he plots Duncan’s killing. Shakespeare carefully crafts this passage, using equestrian words like “spurs”, “vaulting”, and other equestrian expressions to create an ironic double entendre. Macbeth seems to be telling himself that his ambition is what is driving him to murder Duncan. Shakespeare’s quote is also a description of a novice who has fallen off his horse. Shakespeare claims that Macbeth will fall because of his own ambition, starting the snowball effect. Shakespeare shows how ambition is corrosive and changes Macbeth’s character. Macbeth’s ambition is finally ruined by his desire to be a good man. Macbeth fears that Macduff may expose Macbeth, who has ordered and executed several murders as part of his plan to win the throne. Macbeth kills Macduff’s entire family as a response to this. This is an unjustified and extreme crime.
Macbeth’s action progression, from murdering Duncan to killing an entire innocent family, illustrates the domino-effect of ambition. His crimes are different in severity, demonstrating that when morals and ethics are compromised, they become almost invisible. Shakespeare concludes, in the end, that Macbeth’s actions show how, when ambition and morals become unbalanced, the line between wrong and right becomes very blurred.