How does the theme of ambition weave through Shakespeare’s plays? In 21st Century Western culture we generally regard ambition as a ‘good’ thing. School children are urged to be ambitious, while employers shake their heads at job candidates who appear to lack ambition. In these times of gender equality it is seen as quite normal that boys and girls, men and women, should harbour the same ambitions and are encouraged to pursue them into the workplace and up the ladder of promotion.
The meaning of the word has evolved into something a bit different from its earlier meaning. In Shakespeare’s time, and in his plays, ambition is not a positive drive. The result of ambitious behaviour is a downfall through some counter force, as a reaction to it. That often takes the form of revenge – different kinds of revenge, sometimes by a person, sometimes by fate, and sometimes by nature. It seems that Shakespeare thought of ambition as a doomed effort to rise above the ordinary and establish oneself above it. In that effort a man (or woman) will offend – offend individuals, society or nature – and will therefore have to be brought down if equilibrium is to be restored. That is essential, although, in Shakespeare, as is always the case in his plays, it is never quite as simple as that.
In Julius Caesar, as the assassins stand around the slain Caesar’s body, Brutus says, ‘ambition’s debt is paid.’ The assumption is that a man who acts on his ambitions has to pay a heavy price for doing so. Brutus is drawn into the conspiracy when Cassius persuades him that Caesar has to be killed because he is about to stage a coup, about to overthrow the state, and make himself emperor of Rome. After the assassination Brutus goes out to the people to explain that the popular general’s ambition had to be countered. He quite genuinely praises Caesar’s qualities but that one thing – his ambition – could not be tolerated. ‘As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it, as he was valiant, I honour him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.’
That speech begins a debate about ambition in the play. One of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, Marc Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,’ speech follows, in which Antony disingenuously denies the presence of ambition in Caesar’s actions, seeming to disprove the ambitious intentions that led to Caesar’s death by a step by step analysis of Caesar’s acts of valour and generosity, and his love for the people of Rome, while at the same time pouring doubt on the motives of the assassins.
In Shakespeare’s great revenge tragedy, Hamlet, in Claudius’ ambitious bid to become king he murders his brother, Hamlet’s father. That leads to Hamlet’s decision to bring him down by avenging his father’s murder. In many of Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays ambition plays a role but when we think about ambition in Shakespeare, our minds usually spring to that great expression of human ambition and its consequences, the play, Macbeth, and we can use Macbeth as an example of one of the ways Shakespeare uses the theme of ambition.
Ambition in Macbeth is far from a straightforward illustration of the theme. For a start, it engenders a debate in the mind of the audience as to who the ambitious character is. In terms of classical tragedy Macbeth fits the bill. He’s a hero, virtually worshipped by the other feudal lords of Scotland. When he gets the idea that he can become king he believes that all he has to do is kill the king, he will be elected king, and that will be that. The rest of the play works that idea through and throws up its various complications. In the end the hero, by now regarded as a hellish villain, is brought down.
That is a very simple view of it, and one can, of course, see it that way if one would like to: the story is gripping, and that’s what it seems to tell us. But what about Lady Macbeth? Macbeth’s basic decency, his nature, full of ‘the milk of human kindness,’ stalls him, as his rational thinking, with all its implications, almost stops him. However, Lady Macbeth, using all the tactics at her disposal – her sexuality, emotional blackmail, flattery – ensures that he carries out the murder. So where does ambition lie in this play? With him, with her, or with both? Perhaps both, but they are two different models of ambition.
And then, Macbeth’s downfall. It seems on the surface that he is brought down by a human force that comes against him, and that makes for a very exciting story, but the downfall is a revenge for the killing of Duncan that operates on several levels.
Apart from the Aristotelian model of a flawed hero who brings about his own downfall by one of his actions, the protagonist does not live in a vacuum. He is part of the natural order, which he offends as he goes about murdering a king who holds his position by right, in terms of the order of things, and by overthrowing the king Macbeth is subverting nature. An Elizabethan audience would have seen such an act as an ‘unnatural’ deed. They would also have known that nature and society will both take systematic revenge. Macbeth knows that and it worries him right from the start. He says: ‘…we but teach/Bloody instructions, which being taught, return/To plague the inventor.’
Ambition, therefore, and the killing of the divinely given king, entails a series of violations of the natural order, all of which return to haunt Macbeth relentlessly. And nature takes the most terrible revenge. In violating nature Macbeth forfeits the benefits of its regenerative power. He becomes an insomniac unable to benefit by the regeneration that sleep brings: he enters a world of interminable sleepless nights. In their attempt to deprive the next generation of their lives and inheritance he and Lady Macbeth die prematurely, in childlessness. Nature is the real avenger and Malcolm and Macduff only its human agents.
And so, as is the case with all of Shakespeare’s themes, ambition is treated to a greater or lesser degree in almost all his plays, and interact, and merge with, the other themes. Macbeth is not only about ambition, it’s about power, corruption, greed, violence, kingship, society, revenge, and a host of other things too numerous to list.