Macbeth

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Ambition Theme Analysis

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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Macbeth, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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Macbeth is a play about ambition run amok. The weird sisters' prophecies spur both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to try to fulfill their ambitions, but the witches never make Macbeth or his wife do anything. Macbeth and his wife act on their own to fulfill their deepest desires. Macbeth, a good general and, by all accounts before the action of the play, a good man, allows his ambition to overwhelm him and becomes a murdering, paranoid maniac. Lady Macbeth, once she begins to put into actions the once-hidden thoughts of her mind, is crushed by guilt.

Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth want to be great and powerful, and sacrifice their morals to achieve that goal. By contrasting these two characters with others in the play, such as Banquo, Duncan, and Macduff, who also want to be great leaders but refuse to allow ambition to come before honor, Macbeth shows how naked ambition, freed from any sort of moral or social conscience, ultimately takes over every other characteristic of a person. Unchecked ambition, Macbeth suggests, can never be fulfilled, and therefore quickly grows into a monster that will destroy anyone who gives into it.

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Ambition Quotes in Macbeth

Below you will find the important quotes in Macbeth related to the theme of Ambition.
Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.
Related Characters: Banquo (speaker), Macbeth, Weird Sisters
Page Number: 1.3.135-138
Explanation and Analysis:

Macbeth and Banquo have just learned that Macbeth has become Thane of Cawdor, which confirms the first part of the witches’ prophecy. In response, Banquo notes that the stories told by the witches may be attempts to manipulate Macbeth.

These lines pose an important question about the role of supernatural forces in this tragedy: Are the witches dictating these mens’ destinies or do men maintain the ability to avoid or affect the prophecies being presented? When Banquo says they “win us to our harm,” he contends that the witches are actively exploiting him and Macbeth, yet he also notes that they “tell us truths”—which would seem to imply that nothing they recount is false. The resolution comes in a similarly paradoxical phrase: “Honest trifles” that “betray.” What Banquo means is that aspects of the witches’ prophecies are genuine, but that those components are ultimately insignificant. He believes that these “instruments of darkness” will use the prophecies to gain control over him and Macbeth and then later manipulate them.

Banquo thus argues that he and Macbeth should resist believing the witches too much, even though they have thus far been correct in their prophecies. This belief posits a worldview in which humans can act freely from the influence of supernatural forces—choosing to believe them or not. Macbeth, on the other hand, represents the position that direct adherence to their prophecies will allow him to thwart his fate. Shakespeare thus uses these two characters mixed responses to present two different ways of viewing the supernatural forces in his work: as either maneuvering or merely recounting fate.

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Act 1, scene 4 Quotes
Stars, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 1.4.57-58
Explanation and Analysis:

After hearing that Duncan will visit his castle, Macbeth finds himself fantasizing about seizing power for himself. He wishes to obscure these evil thoughts from outside observers.

In these early moments in the play, Macbeth is still uncertain about how or whether to proceed with the murderous impulses that have arisen in him after hearing the witches prophecy. Though he ambitiously hopes to control the throne of Scotland, he also carefully watches these desires and seeks to hide them from others. Saying, “Stars, hide your fires” shows that Macbeth wishes to remain invisible and in complete darkness, such that his “black and deep desires” could not be observed. Metaphors of light and dark pervade this play, and here their meaning remains unclear: Darkness stands for Macbeth’s moral unscrupulousness, but “light” is not quite the inverse of ethical goodness. Rather, “light” is represented as an active agent that can “see” into those desires; it stands for a supernatural or even holy force that scrutinizes man’s actions.

Macbeth, then, seems to believe in the existence of a God-like figure who judges him for his thoughts, and from whom he wishes to hide. His concern is less that other human beings will spy his desires and more that it will be observed by supernatural forces—a point that confirms his allegiance to the witches’ paranormal tendencies. Within this short image then, we have the underpinnings of Macbeth’s striking guilt complex and the implication of a corresponding spiritual system, though the exact nature of that spirituality remains unclear.

Act 1, scene 5 Quotes
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall.
Related Characters: Lady Macbeth (speaker)
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 1.5.47-55
Explanation and Analysis:

After learning that King Duncan will remain at the castle for the evening, Lady Macbeth plots his demise. She asks for fortitude in renouncing any human compassion in order to best carry out the deed.

Much like Banquo, Lady Macbeth believes that supernatural forces have a corruptive effect on human nature. She believes they “tend on mortal thoughts” and will fill her with “direst cruelty.” Yet whereas Banquo made this point in order to avoid those effects, Lady Macbeth fully embraces the depravity. Indeed, she uses a series of commands in order to demand being overtaken by them. The implication is that Lady Macbeth wishes to act entirely cruelly, but her natural human disposition will prevent her from doing so.

To make this point, Lady Macbeth focuses on images relating to female fertility and more generally to bodily functions. That she implores “unsex me here” indicates that she sees her gender as preventing her from carrying out her vile purpose; while “take my milk for gall” similarly involves a desire to give up something feminine nurturing (mother's milk) for something destructive and acidic (gall). Repeated references to the body further show her to be renouncing not only womanhood but humanity altogether—as if she desires to be a supernatural entity like the witches who could then act without moral scruples. In wishing to give up her humanity, this passage thus paradoxically affirms Lady Macbeth's sense that there is in fact an inherent goodness to human nature and specifically human biology. At the same time, it shows that humans see in the supernatural a corruptive route away from goodness—which they may flee (as Banquo does) or full-heartedly embrace.

Act 1, scene 7 Quotes
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 1.7.25-28
Explanation and Analysis:

Macbeth ponders whether he should follow through on his plan to kill Duncan. He observes that he is being motivated by aspirations for power rather than responding to a specific injustice.

Shakespeare here makes a subtle point about two different reasons why one would be impelled act. The first is to have a “spur” or clear impetus for doing something, while the second is a more general “vaulting ambition.” By describing the spur as something that can “prick the sides,” Macbeth stresses how it is a narrow and specific stimulus; as a result it has a direct causal effect on his “intent.” Ambition, on the other hand, tends to “o’erleap[] itself,” meaning that it encourages one to act beyond his or her reasonable means. It overshoots a goal and as a result can have negative consequences.

What is intriguing about this passage is that Macbeth seems keenly aware of his motivations and limitations. Though he may be acting out of “vaulting ambition,” he is not immediately convinced by that desire. He can critically assess what stimulates him to act, and its likely consequences. Yet, at the same, time he will ultimately ignore this skepticism and indeed "o'erleap" himself.  Shakespeare thus gives a complex presentation of human psychology, in which people may introspectively note the flaws of their motivations, while still falling prey to those very flaws.

Macbeth: If we should fail.
Lady Macbeth: We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we'll not fail.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker), Lady Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 1.7.68-71
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Macbeth continues to convince Macbeth that they should kill Duncan. When he wonders whether they will actually succeed, she argues that with sufficient fortitude they will certainly triumph.

The first two lines in this passage are halting and uncertain. Macbeth begins a hypothetical clause—“If we should fail”—but does not successfully finish it; while Lady Macbeth offers the similarly half-formed question “We fail?” In contrast to these fragmented construction, she opts for an aggressive command—“screw your courage”—and acerbic claim: “we’ll not fail.” Bravery and adherence to one’s goals, in her opinion, will ensure success.

Their exchange insinuates two diverging views on human destiny: Whereas Macbeth attributes success to the whims of fates and prophecies, Lady Macbeth believes that humans themselves can select their own destiny. Her command “screw your courage to the sticking-place” implies that sufficient bravery will ensure success regardless of any external influence. Between these two characters, then, Shakespeare defines a spectrum of human relationships to destiny and personal agency—in which some attribute success to personal prowess while others see it as being out of one’s own hands.

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
Nought's had, all's spent
Where our desire is got without content.
Related Characters: Lady Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.6-7
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Macbeth ponders why she continues to be dissatisfied with her existence. She acknowledges that she has had complete success in her endeavors but somehow remains vexed.

These lines reveal a sharp change in Lady Macbeth’s disposition. Whereas before, she believed completely that ambition (and the murder of Duncan) would generate positive results, here she concludes just the opposite. “Nought’s had, all’s spent” must be taken metaphorically—because Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have in fact achieved their goal of becoming king and queen—to refer to their contentment and emotional stability. But now she states that the trade-off of political power in exchange for "content," which we can take to mean "guilt-free contentment," wasn't at all worth it.

Beyond revealing a growing dissatisfaction in Lady Macbeth, this passage makes a broader claim on the trappings of power and fame. Lady Macbeth points out that the status she had pursued does not in fact grant her happiness, but rather has brought her into greater misfortune. Thus Shakespeare uses her psychological anxiety as a way to illustrate the self-defeating natures of avarice and desire.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Related Characters: Weird Sisters (speaker), Macbeth
Page Number: 4.1.44-45
Explanation and Analysis:

The witches prepare for Macbeth’s arrival by mixing an unnatural brew in the cauldron. During their incantation, one makes this pronouncement on impending evil.

These lines firstly verify the supernatural powers of the witches. They are able to sense from physical stimuli—“the pricking”—in their bodies that something “wicked” will take place in the future. Although the audience might be skeptical of the actual mystical powers the witches possess, this image confirms that they have at least a limited capacity to make sense of the future.

At the same time, by describing the wicked phenomenon as a separate external force — the phrasing of “this way comes” is a passive construction — the witches also present themselves as observers of fate, rather than active agents that bring certain events to pass. So while other human characters may see the witches as manipulative spirits willing bad events into existence, their actual incantations show them to be mere bystanders and oracles for fate. The witches comment describes Macbeth as the wicked one, implying that while their prophecy may have been accurate, it was Macbeth's wickedness that caused him to pursue it as he did (or perhaps that his choice to pursue it as he did has made him wicked).

Act 5, scene 5 Quotes
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 5.5.22-31
Explanation and Analysis:

As the final battle against Macduff's army approaches, Macbeth gives this moving soliloquy. He claims that life is an endless repetition and inherently meaningless.

To arrive at this nihilistic conclusion, Macbeth first ponders the succession of day after day. He notes how monotonous they are—a series of “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”—to the extent that life never seems to significantly shift. If the future holds nothing novel, the past is similarly devoid of meaning—only ever bringing indications of “dusty death” to come. Instead of hoping to grasp closely life’s fleeting existence, however, Macbeth commands it to depart as rapidly as possible with the phrase “Out, out, brief candle!” His ambitious and cruel nature has thus culminated in a complete rejection of the significance to life itself: at the apex of his success, life has become to him nothing but a series of haphazard noises and commotions with no underlying meaning.

Shakespeare brilliantly links this general pronouncement to the more specific case of reading and analyzing literature. Alliterating “petty pace” and repeating “day to day” reiterates how repeating patterns appear in language as well as in time; casting time to be made of “syllables” presents it as a construction of language. Presenting humans as “a poor player” and his environment as “the stage” similarly makes the experience of theater a metaphor for one’s life in the world. Macbeth’s “tale” becomes a symbol for the larger tale of human experience. Shakespeare makes a castigating self allusion with the phrase “told by an idiot,” which shows that he has no greater access to truth or meaning than any of his readers. His text itself resists pure comprehension in that it is “sound and fury” alone—“signifying nothing” because no single meaning can be attributed to its characters or constructions. In this way, Shakespeare presents the finitude and emptiness of Macbeth’s experience and the void of his language as a layered metaphor for each human’s eventual demise.