‘I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other’, Macbeth demonstrates self-awareness in identifying his hamartia, his ‘vaulting ambition’ early on in the play. It is Macbeth’s ambitious nature and his emphasis on self- preservation that is the driving force behind the plot in Macbeth. Macbeth is a ruthless Machiavellian opportunist who ruthlessly exploits and takes advantage of others for his own avaricious self-gain and lust for power. It is this that leads to the demise of this flawed hero.
In the opening scenes of the play, Shakespeare portrays Macbeth as a formidable character. He is ‘brave Macbeth’, ‘noble Macbeth’, ‘Bellona’s bridegroom’. These testimonials serve to underscore Macbeth’s heroic status. He exudes military prowess as his sword ‘smokes with bloody execution’. Even in this initial portrayal of Macbeth, a disturbing note is resounded as Macbeth’s ruthlessness and ferocity of character is delineated.
When Macbeth encounters the ‘weird sisters’, Banquo describes him as being ‘rapt’, entranced by their prophecies and wonders why Macbeth ‘start[s] and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?’ Macbeth’s strange reaction to the witches’ prophecies is perhaps suggestive of his guilty conscience ‘Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires’. Implicit in this quote is the suggestion that the ruthless Machiavellian Macbeth has already entertained the idea of becoming king by unscrupulous means. It is this desire that is the driving force behind the narrative plot.
Whilst some have suggested that the weird sisters act as the catalyst to much of the play’s action, we can see clearly that this is untrue. Macbeth’s deeply ambitious nature and ruthless nature appears to be an intrinsic part of his psychological makeup that is an integral force behind the narrative plot.
Lady Macbeth, Macbeth’s much maligned wife provides us with a further testimonial to Macbeth’s deeply ambitious nature. When she learns of the witches’ prophecies she avers ‘thou wouldst be great, art not without ambition’ but continues to say that Macbeth is devoid of the ruthlessness that should go hand in hand with ambition ‘but without the illness that should attend it’. We see that Lady Macbeth lacks discernment when it comes to her husband as she believes that he lacks the fundamental ruthlessness to get what he wants. She injudiciously says ‘I fear thy nature; it is too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way’.
She is an injudicious judge of character as she believes her husband lacks the necessary evil and duplicity to bring his ruthless desires to fruition. We see this when he dissembles his evil plan to kill Banquo and Fleance ‘Be innocent of the knowledge dearest chuck till thou applaud the deed’. This proves it is Macbeth’s deeply ruthlessly ambition that is the driving force behind much of the play’s action. Many critics of the play would seek to attribute blame to the witches and Lady Macbeth for Macbeth’s crimes. However, this is unjustified because it is Macbeth’s ruthlessly ambitious nature that makes him an utterly reprehensible villain. It is his avarice and lust for power that is the driving force behind the play’s narrative plot and the internal psychological turmoil that ensues as a result.
Macbeth’s ingrained ruthless ambition is such that it forces his to commit a crime that is morally abhorrent to him and yet he is undeterred by any such moral scruples. His vacillation offers us an interesting insight into his ‘heat-oppressed brain’ ‘If it were done; when tis done, then ‘twere well’. In the famous ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’ soliloquy Macbeth describes how he is ineluctably drawn to commit the heinous crime of regicide ‘I see thee yet, in form which now I draw’.
Macbeth’s ruthless ambition eventuates in tunnel vision – he only cares about getting and retaining the crown. This point is particularly elucidated in his dealings with his wife and the complete disintegration of their relationship. Lady Macbeth feels it is incumbent on her to dedicate herself to the forces of evil in order to bring Macbeth’s ‘deep and dark desires’ to fruition. She prays to be ‘unsex[ed]’ because she fears that Macbeth though ambitious blacks the concomitant evil. However, we see that this is rather erroneous on her part because Macbeth shows his commitment to executing his ambitious ‘deep and dark desires’ when Duncan proclaims Malcolm heir to the throne ‘The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step which I must fall down or else o’erleap for in my way it lies’.
Lady Macbeth foolishly risks perdition for a man who is fully capable of getting what he wants. Lady Macbeth damns herself because of her devotion and dedication to her husband. She sacrifices everything for her husband’s ambition. Not once in the play does she allude to her being queen. It is one of the play’s many tragedies that it is Macbeth’s ruthless ambition that proves detrimental to this once partnership of love, devotion and equality.
Lady Macbeth is consumed by guilt and remorse by her part in Duncan’s crime and yet Macbeth remains callously indifferent to her suffering. The only thing that he cares about once he has the crown is keeping it. Lady Macbeth’s lament over Macbeth’s obsession is rather pitiable ‘Naugth’s had, all’s spent where our desire is got without content’. She realises her sacrifice has been futile. The self-absorbed Macbeth’s betrayal of his wife is exemplified in his callous indifference to the news of her death ‘She should have died hereafter; There would have been time for such a word.’
Once Macbeth has gained the crown he becomes completely paranoid. This paranoia completely overwhelms him as he tells Lady Macbeth ‘To be thus is nothing but safely thus’. At the heart of his paranoia is his ruthless ambition and his impulse towards self- preservation ‘We have scorch’d the snake, not killed it’. The purblind Lady Macbeth is unaware of her husband’s capacity to likewise dedicate himself to the forces of evil as he prays ‘Come seeling night, scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day’. Macbeth is sufficiently equipped with all the evil impulses and tendencies required to allow him to embark on his tyrannical reign of genocide. Macbeth’s ruthless ambition and his impulse towards self- preservation makes him want to rewrite his fate as prophesised by the witches. Disgruntled by the witches’ prophecies regarding his ‘fruitless crown’ and his ‘barren scepter’ Macbeth’s self- preservation is evident as he evolves into a genocidal maniac in order to retain power. Macbeth’s moral probity has been vitiated by his Machiavellian ambition and his impulse towards self-preservation ‘I am in blood stepp’d in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er’.
Macbeth’s paranoia and fear that he might lose the crown, a crown that he chose perdition to have force him to seek out the witches for reassurance. He learns that he leads a ‘charmed life, which must not yield to one of woman born’. Macbeth’s ambitious nature and his emphasis on self- preservation results in his moral declension around which the dramatic impetus of the play revolves.