Following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, in March of 1603, King James I was crowned as king of both England and Scotland. In order to welcome King James I as the new king, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth specifically as a tribute and it was performed in 1606. Shakespeare included themes such as the supernatural, the divine right of kings and ancestry. In Macbeth, the witches predicted that an ancestor of Banquo, who was claimed as an ancestor of James I, would become king therefore proving James’ right to become king. In regards to themes presented in Macbeth, a dominant theme within the play is ambition and its corrupting nature; which is deployed through the characters’ struggles between their morals and vaulting ambition, driven by their lust for power.
Ambition can be described as eager for success, the strong desire for achievement as well as the general fulfilling and satisfaction of one’s hopes and dreams. Although ambition may feel rewarding and mandatory in life, Shakespeare doesn’t hesitate to raise awareness to the importance of recognizing that uncontrollable and blinding ambition results in the greatest and most unfortunate forms of downfall, potentially leading to devastating loss. In the Jacobean era, as well as in Macbeth, ambition is not a positive drive; the consequences of an ambitious mindset is tragic downfall through some counteraction, as a comeback to it.
Essentially, ambition is presented as the major catalyst that reveals Macbeth’s true nature, a capacity to be ruthless and cruel as well as bloodthirsty in his pursuit for the crown. This essay will explore how Shakespeare effectively explores the theme of ambition in terms of: Macbeth’s ambition, Lady Macbeth’s ambition and how ambition challenges a person’s morality. These three areas effectively show how Shakespeare has used ambition to present his moral message about the theme as he believes that great ambition has its consequences. Shakespeare shows us how ambitious characters become corrupted by their crimes, and yet how they suffer from fears and guilt which they have brought onto themselves. Furthermore, it seems that Shakespeare thought of ambition as a doomed effort to outperform and rise above average, and that overpowering ambition is a dangerous quality that ends with ultimate destruction. Shakespeare presents the effect and consequences of ambition on characters such as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to warn every individual about the dangers of this uncontrollable driving force.
To begin with, Shakespeare reveals the major theme of ambition in Act 1 Scene 1 of Macbeth by introducing the genre of tragedy through a prologue of evil involving the three weird sisters. My evidence to prove this from Act 1 Scene 1 from Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth’ is the following: ‘the battlefield: thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches,’ ‘when shall we three meet again?,’ ‘In thunder, lightning, or in rain?,’ ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ and ‘hover through the fog and filthy air’. Shakespeare opens the play with dangerous weather and setting, the disturbance of weather reflects the evil and disruptive nature of the witches as shown in the stage directions ‘battlefield: thunder lightning and rain’.
In regards to Shakespeare’s choice of setting, the fact that the opening of the play takes place in a battlefield suggests the instability and chaos of society that is already present even though the play has just started; this creates a build of tension and sparks curiosity in the audience as they are eager to know the backstory and cause for this battle and what is to come next. Additionally, this specific setting hints at the genre of tragedy since battle is considered a disastrous event involving the destruction, death and the suffering of many. To elaborate, the fact that the battle is taking place at the exposition of the play further highlights the theme of tragedy as it foreshadows the possibility of more catastrophic events during the climax of the play; it shows that the battle is just the beginning and that there is worse yet to come.
Shakespeare further explores the theme of ambition in Macbeth by presenting Macbeth\’s unignorable desire of becoming king. My evidence to prove this is the following quote from Act 1 Scene 3 from Shakespeare\’s play \’Macbeth\’: \'(aside) Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor: The greatest is behind.\’ Firstly, Shakespeare uses a very important theatrical device of the verb \’aside\’, which reveals Macbeth’s acknowledgement about the exciting news of becoming the Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor. Additionally, this ignites his ambition further, as he begins to think ahead about becoming the king. Moreover, the fact that Macbeth feels the need to say it aside adds a dramatic effect as it suggests that it is a thought that he feels the need to say out loud- since the news excites him and perhaps his uncontrollable ambition is beginning to act upon him, causing him to say his thoughts out loud.
Further into this, the use of this specific theatrical device emphasises Macbeth’s shock by the news as he simply cannot believe what happened, to the point that he feels the need to review what the witches have said. Alternatively, the dramatic effect of this specific type of stage direction implies the possibility that the ‘noble warrior’ Macbeth is not saying this, but the ambition awakening within him- as if it is slowly possessing him and beginning to take control of his mind. Another reason Shakespeare chose to make Macbeth say this thought out loud is not only to present Macbeth’s shock or controlling ambition, but as a direct reminder to the audience that the witches’ prophecies that were said not that long ago are coming into action; therefore acting as a warning for what is yet to come. Basically, it appears that Macbeth is confessing his secret desires to the audience, just a little while earlier he was joking with Banquo about the witches\’ prophecies; now he is actively thinking and plotting to become king.
Macbeth is very easily manipulated and has a deep ambition to become King, even if he has to kill Duncan to do it. Before the phrase ‘the greatest is behind’, Shakespeare uses a colon; creating a dramatic pause further highlighting Macbeth’s astonishment and startlement. The use of this colon also illuminates the importance of the following statement. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s use of the determiner ‘the’ further emphasises the importance of the third prophecy to Macbeth. In addition to this, the superlative ‘greatest’ illustrates that Macbeth thinks of the third prophecy of becoming king as the most extraordinary and important divination.
Further into this, the superlative ‘greatest’ can be defined as being considerably above average, suggesting that Macbeth’s ambition causes him to feel ungrateful of the honor of earning the title of Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor as he no longer values their worth and sees them as ‘average’ titles- in comparison to the possibility of earning the king’s title. In terms of the preposition ‘behind’ this implies that Macbeth feels that ‘the greatest’ prophecy will eventually follow. On the other hand, ambitious Macbeth may be suggesting that ‘the greatest’ prophecy is just behind the other two prophecies, which both have become true, and wishes that it will also come true as fast as the last two predictions. Additionally this phrase further emphasizes Macbeth’s ambitious character as he is hungry for more power, refusing to settle down with his current highly- honorable title (Thane of Cawdor).
Generally, the superlative adjective phrase ‘the greatest is behind’ underscores Macbeth’s ambition to become king, by expressing his enthusiasm and eagerness as he wonders that the two predictions of the witches had already been proven true, while the greatest still remains to be fulfilled. Both his curiosity and ambition come into action, since the instant fulfilment of the first two predictions of the witches arouses his hope for ‘the greatest’.
It is also important to note that this is a direct form of foreshadowing, and due to Macbeth’s desire and greed for more- this could be seen as dramatic irony as the audience can expect that Macbeth’s ambition can cause him to go to extreme lengths, making him up to no good. In terms of context, the people of the Jacobean era (especially King James I) were known to be superstitious and would therefore believe that the prophecies of witches were bound to come true, Shakespeare effectively presents this in Macbeth since Macbeth completely believes in the prophecies of the witches and is relying ambitiously for the third prophecy to come true. Regarding Shakespeare’s moral message and ideas upon the theme, this statement shows how Shakespeare sees ambition as a dangerous quality which can be blinding as it prevents people from being grateful of the honors and privileges that they already have, as they are so eager for a bigger and better alternative accomplishment.
The general effect of this line on the audience is that they are directly exposed to Macbeth’s secret desires as the ambition within him is beginning to grow and take control of his mindset and aims; the audience can also be expecting Macbeth’s ambition to cause him to go to extreme extents to satisfy his eagerness- foreshadowing potential crimes. Concluding, this is how Shakespeare explores the theme of ambition in Macbeth by presenting Macbeth\’s unignorable desire of becoming king.
Further into this, Shakespeare continues to explore the theme of ambition in Macbeth by further presenting Macbeth’s eagerness and uncontrollable desire for the third prophecy of him becoming king. A line to prove this from Act 1 Scene 3 from Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth’ is: ‘(aside) two truths are told, as happy prologues to the swelling act of th’imperial theme.’ The phrase ‘two truths are told’ refers to the first two honorable titles that he has received: Thane of Glamis and the Thane of Cawdor.
In the phrase ‘two truths are told’, dental alliteration is used which is meant to give pace to Macbeth’s language, as he is trying to calm down and think about what he is actually saying- illustrating the idea of him taking stock of things due to his obvious shock. Initially, Macbeth appeared hesitant to the witches’ prophecies; however after two of the prophecies have taken place, Macbeth describes them as ‘truths’ instead of just ‘prophecies’ or ‘predictions’, implying that his awakening ambition is causing him to hold onto his achieved goals in hope of his other desires to become as true as them. More importantly, Shakespeare’s use of this noun further highlights Macbeth’s blinding ambition as it appears that he is trusting the witches, who are creatures that are believed to never have good intentions; suggesting that this uncontrollable force slowly unravelling within him is causing him to value people only by how they can help him achieve his desires. Macbeth’s trust towards the witches is further highlighted through his thoughtful and firm tone in the alliteration ‘two truths are told’, which stresses the seriousness in which he takes the witches’ prophecies.
In regards to context, the Jacobean audience believed that witches’ had the ability and power to predict the future and that there predictions would always be true and therefore would’ve expected Macbeth to receive the titles of the Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor, as the witches have predicted this earlier within the play.
Consequently, the Jacobean audience would have understood and agreed with Shakespeare’s use of the noun ‘truths’, since the witches’ prophecies were indeed believed as truths, and were ultimately the reason why Macbeth has received the titles. King James I would’ve been satisfied with Shakespeare’s presentation of the witches’ predictions as ‘truths’, due to the fact that James I was passionate upon the supernatural (evidently proven as he wrote and published a book with the title ‘Demonology’ in 1597 regarding the supernatural power of witches); hence he would have agreed with the fact that the words of the weird sisters shouldn’t just be described as ‘predictions’ or ‘prophecies’ as it is an understatement of their ability; but ‘truths’ as the powers of the witches are not to be doubted. Additionally, since the Jacobean audience would’ve seen witches’ prophecies as cursed, they would’ve felt a sense of concern for Macbeth’s ambitious and eager reaction to the prophecies coming true, as this is an obvious bad sign that the witches’ are essentially in control of Macbeth’s fate- which will thus end tragically.
Essentially, this highlights the negative effect of ambition to the audience, since Shakespeare effectively presents how blind Macbeth has become: to the point where he appears almost oblivious to the high chances that these honorable titles are a sign of nothing but potential destruction and disaster. Subsequently, Shakespeare has not only successfully presented his moral message about the tragic effects of ambition; but has also increased the amount of tension present where the audience are on the edges of their seats and eager to see which calamitous path Macbeth’s ambition will lead him. Contrasting this, the modern audience would think Macbeth’s use of the noun ‘truths’ is a form of hyperbole, since they would believe that the predictions were reasonably obvious observations and a matter of coincidence, since Macbeth would have received the titles anyways as a way of honor due to previous plots within the play including the winning of the battle and courageously defeating a traitor. The modern audience would still understand Shakespeare’s intentions concerning his morals upon the major theme, since Macbeth’s blinding ambition and greed for more is causing him to completely ignore the possibility that the prophecies could just be a coincidence and that he would have eventually received the worthy titles from his success in battle.
In regards to Shakespeare’s use of the theatrical device ‘aside’, Shakespeare presents this passage as a soliloquy in order to convey Macbeth’s inner ambitious thoughts and motives, and since this is Macbeth’s first soliloquy this accentuates the strong possibility that Macbeth’s ambition is leading him down a dark path as he cannot forget the witches’ predictions that are beginning to take into action. Additionally, the fact that Macbeth is talking to himself during a conversation with Banquo may suggest that Macbeth’s divulging ambition has a negative impact on his state of mind as he appears to be unstable.
He is not saying it to banquo, as if he is still hesitant aware that his thoughts are not good
The following statement: ‘happy prologues to the swelling act of th’imperial theme’ is a metatheatre as it is a metaphor which consists of references to parts of a play, which are the nouns ‘prologues’ and ‘act’. In this metatheatre, Macbeth describes the first two prophecies or ‘truths’ as the prologues; suggesting that him receiving the first two titles was just the beginning or introduction of his ‘play’. Subsequently, this suggests that his ambition is causing him to be ignorant to the honorable titles that he has received as he doesn’t consider them as the ‘main act’ but just as the beginning- as if they are not worth as much value. Whilst the ‘act of th’imperial theme’ represents the final act with an imperial or royal theme- as it is the part of the play when Macbeth becomes king.
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