A Macbeth Model Essay: Macbeth and Ambition

Starting with the extract explain how Shakespeare presents Macbeth as ambitious

When considering how Shakespeare presents the character of Macbeth as ambitious one recognises this extract is a pivotal moment in the play. This is largely because the scene is the culmination of a chain of events in which Macbeth has increasingly displayed his almost aggressive ambition, leading to the murder of Banquo. Here, Macbeth is responding to the sight of Banquo at the banquet, suggestive of the violent consequences of his ambition and how it will haunt him.

One immediately notices Macbeth’s tortured declaration that seeing Banquo might ‘appal the devil’. Shakespeare establishes a tone of desperate fear as Macbeth seems to claim Banquo’s bloodied body is enough to repulse even the devil. It could also be suggested that Macbeth is referring to himself in the third person, with Shakespeare doing this to highlight Macbeth’s evil. Given Macbeth is described as aghast at the sight of Banquo, he then is the perhaps devil that would be appalled. Thus, the extract begins with Shakespeare suggesting Macbeth’s fear or even guilt as to what he has done to Banquo.

This sense of fear is then highlighted through Shakespeare’s depiction of Lady Macbeth. She begins by chastising Macbeth for being afraid of an ‘air drawn dagger’, which Shakespeare has previously used as an externalisation of the protagonist’s guilt. However, Lady Macbeth appears quite dismissive of this, suggesting it is not something of which he ought to be wary. Shakespeare’s choice of ‘air drawn’ also implies Lady Macbeth feels the dagger is simply a figment of Macbeth’s frenzied mind, which in itself augments how fearful and guilt-ridden Macbeth is. Shakespeare continues this depiction of Lady Macbeth castigating her husband when she refers to his fear as ‘flaws’. This indicates that Lady Macbeth feels Macbeth’s guilt is somehow perverse or anomalous and it detracts from his character. It is a ‘flaw’ that ought to be overcome, as indeed it is as the play continues. Shakespeare then develops this point when Lady Macbeth denigrates his concerns as ‘a woman’s story at a winter’s fire’. Here, Shakespeare is utilising typical Jacobean gender dynamics to portray Macbeth as weak by suggesting his fear is not masculine and ought to be rejected. Within the world of the play, Lady Macbeth uses this to manipulate her husband, but it again alerts the audience to his overarching emotional reaction of guilt and distress, which is itself a fitting consequence of his crimes.

In the final stanza of the extract, one gains further insight in Macbeth’s emotional state. Shakespeare’s flurry of imperatives, such as, ‘see’, ‘behold’ and ‘look’, cement a tone of urgency and anxiety, almost as though Macbeth is desperate for Lady Macbeth to sympathise with him. It also perhaps suggests a frantic attempt to regain control by issuing orders. The stanza concludes again on a note of anxiety as Macbeth wonders what might happen if ‘graves must send those we bury back’. This would be a truly terrifying thought for the far more supernaturally inclined Shakespearean audience, and indeed for a character who has just killed the king. It is interesting to note that Shakespeare personifies the graves and transforms them into an active participant: they are the ones sending the dead back, which adds to a sense that Macbeth fears those in the afterlife might seek vengeance by almost coming back to attack him. Thus, in the extract Macbeth is depicted as a guilt-ridden individual, tortured by his past deeds. This solidifies the overarching purpose of the extract: to dramatize the consequences of committing regicide and transgressing one’s station in life, in this case, guilt and extreme distress.

Whilst this is certainly a crucial extract when considering how Shakespeare presents Macbeth there are other, equally important, moments. One might think, for instance, of the complete contrast to this scene at the start of the play. Here, Shakespeare presents Macbeth as ‘brave’ and ‘valiant’, even describing him as ‘Bellona’s bridegroom’. This latter image highlights the way in which Macbeth’s character is inextricably linked to war and violence – he is married to the deified version of war. Indeed, Shakespeare’s use of plosive sounds only reinforce a sense of power and aggression. However, this is no bad thing since it is done out of loyalty and in service of the King, as indicated by the positive connotations of ‘valiant’ and the fact that both Duncan and the soldier celebrate his feats of strength, such as, the way in which he ‘unseem’d him from the nave to the chaps’. Indeed, this image is a visceral and bloody evocation of Macbeth’s prowess.  This is a far cry from the guilt-ridden and conflicted character one sees in the extract, perhaps suggesting that Macbeth’s fatal mistake was to transgress his natural station in life, with this being something Shakespeare is warning against. Thus, Shakespeare uses Macbeth as a vehicle through which to warn against excessive ambition and his willingness to upturn the Great Chain of Being. 

At various points in the play, Shakespeare further presses upon this fatal flaw, a typical feature of the tragic genre. Upon seeing the witches for the first time, for example, he is described as being ‘rapt withal’. Shakespeare’s adjective ‘rapt’ highlights the way in which Macbeth is instantly captivated and indeed corrupted by his ambition. He is enthralled and so, unlike Banquo, cannot see the witches for what they are. As the play continues, Macbeth’s ‘vaulting ambition’ grows until it ‘o’erleaps itself’. The verb ‘vaulting’ especially compounds this intemperate ambition since it is richly suggestive of power and aggression: if one vaults over something one leaps strongly, which indicates the desperation Macbeth feels to be King. This image is also reminiscent of the Great Chain of Being and Macbeth’s willingness to ‘o’erleap’ his natural position in the hierarchy of life, with the result of this being the eventual death of Duncan, the paragon of virtue. Thus, Shakespeare again warns the audience of the consequences of Macbeth’s fatal flaw.

The denouement of the play reveals a potentially very different side to Macbeth. His fight with Macduff, despite knowing it would end in failure, could be read in two ways. From a Shakespearean point of view, it perhaps represents a restoration of courage, but from a modern perspective one could read it as the last gasp of a broken mind. Either way, the final moments highlight Macbeth’s return to his previous bellicose nature and, if pursuing the Shakespearean interpretation, this is suggestive of the idea that Macbeth would have been better served had he never transgressed his station in life. The pain he feels in the extract and the destruction he causes throughout the play is clearly a product of this initial error, which stems from his fatal flaw of excessive ambition.

Fundamentally, then, Shakespeare uses Macbeth’s character as a way in which to warn the audience against excessive ambition and the consequences of disrupting the Great Chain of Being. In this manner, the play is didactic, with a clear moral message being articulated to the audience. Macbeth’s character arc from ‘valiant’ to ‘hell hound’ highlights the damning repercussions of subverting the entrenched social order of Jacobean England, thus functioning as a deterrent to the audience.


The essay structure used to write this essay can be found below:

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