Macbeth is a play steeped with the theme of ambition, and as such there are plenty of Macbeth ambition quotes to choose from. On this page, we run through the most significant quotes from Macbeth about ambition, each with an explanation giving some context.
When Macbeth and Banquo encounter the three witches, they are told a number of prophecies, including that Macbeth will one day be made King of Scotland and that Banquo’s children will sit on the king’s throne. They are both initially skeptical about the prophecies, but Macbeth is intrigued by the prospect of becoming the most powerful man in Scotland. He wonders how it might occur, and foresees undertaking an evil deed to get there:
“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother’d in surmise.”
(Act 1, Scene 3)
It is clear that the witches’ words have stirred some ambition in Macbeth. He asks them to reveal more to him of how he will ascend to power but they disappear without telling him, leaving him in a state of suspense. He realizes his path to the crown will likely require violence, but shows that he is uncomfortable with the evil thoughts that are starting to fill his head:
“Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid images doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature?”
(Act 1, Scene 3)
When Macbeth realizes that one of the witches’ prophesies has come true (he has become ‘Thane of Cawdor’, a title of Scottish nobility) he immediately begins to wonder whether it could be true that he will become king. The eagerness with which he speaks these words suggest his ambition is front of mind, even though he understands he will need to commit a heinous, violent act in order to become king – thoughts which at this point he seems to refuse to consider acting upon:
“Two truths are told
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of th’imperial theme”
(Act 1, Scene 3)
Macbeth goes on to describes his wish to become king as ‘black and deep desires’, which suggests he is struggling with the acts he will need to undertake to fulfill his ambition:
“The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.”
(Act 1, Scene 4)
The events of Act 1, Scene 5, display the ambition of both Macbeth and his wife. Lady Macbeth reflects on her husband’s character and acknowledges that he may have ambitious dreams and could be king, but thinks that he is too gentle and not willing to display the ruthless behaviour to make those dreams come true.
She seems to understand her husband well and displays her own philosophy of power, where only those who are able to set aside morality can rise to greatness. When she receives Macbeth’s letter and learns about the witches’ prophecy she says:
“Yet do I fear thy nature
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.”
(Act 1, Scene 5)
In the same soliloquy she continues to display her own ambition, wishing he would come home right away so she can use her power to influence over him to act in a way that will satisfy their mutual ambition:
“Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round.”
(Act 1, Scene 5)
By the end of the first act, Macbeth’s moral fabric is overridden by the lust for power even though he starts to doubt his plan to murder Duncan. He uses a metaphor about a horse rider unable to use his spurs to make his horse go faster, but who uses ambition to leap an obstacle and ends up falling.
This quote on Macbeth’s ambition gets to the tension between Macbeth’s unwillingness to continue with his plan to murder Duncan and his understanding that his ambition is leading him to dangerous places:
“I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other”
(Act 1, Scene 5)
Ross predicts that ambition will be to blame for Duncan’s murder as Macbeth is unable to conceal his plan to become king. However, Ross believes it will be Duncan’s children that go against nature and kill their father. As it’s Macbeth that kills Duncan, is this against nature too, or his Macbeth’s ambition all too natural?
“‘Gainst nature still!
Thriftless ambition, that will ravin up
Thine own lives’ means! Then ‘tis most like
The sovereignty will fall upon Macbeth.”
(Act 2, Scene 4)
Once the deed is done and Macbeth is king, he continues to feel insecure and restless. Paranoia starts to creep in that he may lose his position, and he is frustrated he has no heir. There is no meaning to being king if his lineage will not continue after him. This quote shows that by giving in to his ambition and murdering Duncan he has not achieved what he wanted, but that more violent acts must follow:
“To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus”
(Act 3, Scene 1)
In case it was in any doubt, in this Macbeth ambition quote he explicitly states that all of his violent actions are for his own good:
“For mine own good
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
(Act 3, Scene 4)
Shakespeare reveals at the end of the play that unbridled ambition leads to no good for the protagonist or those around him. Lady Macbeth commits suicide and Macbeth is depressed and surrounded by an army ready to overthrow him.
In this famous soliloquy, Macbeth vocalizing that he understands all his efforts were pointless. His wife is dead, he is about to die, and Malcolm is going to be king. He laments:
“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 deaths. 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,
(Act 5, Scene 5)
Shakespeare’s final take on ambition in Macbeth shows how it can be harnessed properly. Macduff plans to avenge his family and his king but doesn’t seek any power himself:
“Either thou, Macbeth,
Or else my sword, with an unbattered edge,
I sheathe again undeeded. There thou shouldst be;
By this great clatter, one of greatest note
Seems bruited. Let me find him, Fortune,
And more I beg not. “
(Act 5, Scene 6)
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