One of the major themes of Macbeth is ambition. In itself, having ambition is often a positive human quality, but Shakespeare’s play tells the story of a man whose lust for power ends up destroying him. Macbeth’s ambition is ignited by the witches’ prophecy in Act 1, Scene 3, but we get the impression that he has been thinking about becoming king before then. His many asides in this scene show how quickly he starts playing with the idea of being king.
The play shows how political ambition can turn you into a monster. Macbeth initially does not have the brutality and cynicism that must accompany great ambitions. His wife describes him as not being “without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it.” (1.5.19-20). We might call this softness or moral character. In any case, it makes Macbeth ill-suited to usurp the throne. However, as things spiral out of control, Macbeth puts his conscience aside and turns into a brutal tyrant. From then on, he puts our sympathy to the test.
Macbeth’s ambition also makes him paranoid and blind. Once his initial prophecy has come true, he expects Banquo to be equally ambitious about having his own prophecy come true. Thus, Macbeth reads his own ambition into Banquo and eventually has him killed. However, Banquo was innocent, just like Duncan. Shortly after seizing the throne, Macbeth realizes that becoming king is not enough - he needs to remain king. And that requires more killings and more lies.
Macbeth’s ambition is closely connected to his role as the tragic hero with the tragic flaw. His flaw is his ambition, which he fails to see the danger in before it is too late. His ambition is ...