Macbeth can be considered to be one of William Shakespeare’s most famous works as it tells a powerful story of a man who was leading a peaceful life until encouraged by his wife; he lets his ambition overpower him and lead him to some tragic consequences. Now the question whether Macbeth or Lady Macbeth in the play is more ambitious has been argued and debated for centuries now. Evidence has been put forth for both sides of the argument. Yet there is no consensus. Some believe that Lady Macbeth was more ambitious than Macbeth while some believe that Macbeth becomes over ambitious in the end. Those who are in favor of the argument that Macbeth was the more ambitious of the two, argue that Macbeth’s intention to murder increases with the progress of the play while Lady Macbeth ‘s attitude and courage weakens to such an extent that she is driven to the point of insanity and suicide. However it should also be noted that it was on the taunting of Lady Macbeth that Macbeth overcomes his reluctance to go ahead with the murder of Duncan and it is Lady Macbeth who decides when, where and how Duncan will be killed. It is very difficult to say out of the two who was more ambitious. Both were ambitious. However there are some reasons to believe that Lady Macbeth was more ambitious than Macbeth. A quick look at the play will show why Lady Macbeth can be considered to be more ambitious.
Macbeth is a play set in Scotland and is about the tragedy that results because of ambition. In the play, Macbeth is shown as a man who has ambitions of becoming the
King one day. On one occasion he meets the three witches who predict that Macbeth would first become the Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland. He is encouraged by his wife, Lady Macbeth, to believe in the prophecy, and murder his king, King Duncan. He is quite reluctant in the beginning to plot the murder but persuaded and taunted by Lady Macbeth and finally overpowered by his wife’s ambition and to some extent his own ambition he plots along with his wife the murder of Duncan. He kills Duncan when he comes as a guest to his castle and soon Macbeth becomes king of Scotland. He sees Banquo as a threat and gets him killed. He also gets the entire family of Macduff killed. As the play progresses we see Macbeth change from a man with some morals to a man who is ready to do anything, even commit murder, to get what he wants. According to Mark Scott (1992), “One of the most significant reasons for the enduring critical interest in Macbeth’s character is that he represents humankind’s universal propensity to temptation and sin. Macbeth’s excessive ambition motivates him to murder Duncan, and once the evil act is accomplished, he sets into motion a series of sinister events that ultimately lead to his downfall.” By the end of the play he is drained of all emotions to such an extent that even the death of his wife does not affect him. Lady Macbeth too is overcome by guilt and takes to sleepwalking through the castle and trying to wash away an invisible bloodstain which thinks is on her hands. Finally she commits suicide and Macbeth is killed by Macduff.
There are reasons to believe that Lady Macbeth was more ambitious than Macbeth. While Macbeth is excited at the prospect of becoming King, he however lacks
the courage to murder Duncan. It is Lady Macbeth who persuades him by challenging his manhood and taunting that he is a coward. Lady Macbeth overrides all the objections raised by Macbeth. And she repeatedly taunts and even questions his manhood. At this point Macbeth is forced into committing the murder to prove himself. It is ambition that gives Lady Macbeth the will power to persist and carry out the murder. It is Lady Macbeth again who calms Macbeth’s nerves immediately after the murder has been committed. Macbeth on becoming the king feels uneasy and is always in a state of restlessness. At one point Macbeth is envious of Duncan, and feels that Duncan ‘after life’s fitful fever sleeps well’, while his mind is ‘full of scorpions’ (Shakespeare). On the other hand Lady Macbeth is calm and does not let her conscience come in the way of her ambition. She is calm and is more in control unlike Macbeth, as she is driven by ambition and desire for power.
It is not as if Macbeth was not ambitious. His words “If Chance will have me King. Why/ Chance may crown me” (Shakespeare) show that he desires to be a king. Again as Thomas Whately (1839) says, “ The first thought of acceding to the throne is suggested, and success in the attempt is promised, to Macbeth by the witches; he is therefore represented as a man whose natural temper would have deterred him from such a design if he had not been immediately tempted and strongly impelled to it”. But his ambition is not overbearing and becomes overbearing only after it is fueled by Lady Macbeth’s overpowering ambition. Macbeth when told by the three witches that he will eventually
become a king he first question their motives. On being asked to kill Duncan, he questions the moral implications of killing Duncan.
- Here he says,
- “He’s here in double trust:F irst, as I am his kinsman and his subject
- Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
- Who should against his murderer shut the door,
- Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
- Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
- So clear in his great office, that his virtues
- Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
- The deep damnation of his taking-off.” (Shakespeare)
On the other hand, Lady Macbeth is overtaken by ambition immediately after reading the letter sent to her by Macbeth which tells her of the new title and the witches’ prophecies. It is here that her ambition weakens her power of reasoning and she decides that they have to do whatever is required to become King and Queen. Unlike Macbeth she does not question the motives of the three evil witches nor does she think about the moral implications of killing Duncan. She lacks the philosophical dimensions which should have deterred her from the murder of Duncan. (Barneslow, 2008)
From the first two acts of the play it is evident that all action is centered on her and it is she who influences and encourages Macbeth to commit the murders. She is not satisfied by the title of Thane of Cawdor that Macbeth has newly acquired. For her it is
the crown that is more important and she knows what has be done to get the crown. Macbeth has no such thoughts. This proves that she has more ambition than Macbeth. Also the fact that she is able to convince Macbeth quite easily that he has to kill Duncan if he wants to become king proves that she exercises great influence over Macbeth and that Macbeth is easily influenced by her. It was her influence that made Macbeth more ambitious.
Lady Macbeth in the play is mentally stronger than Macbeth and her conscience does not trouble her as she plans the murder with Macbeth. It was her strong determination that kept Macbeth focused on the plan. In the early part pf the play it was Lady Macbeth’s ambition that supported Macbeth. It was only later that Macbeth plans the murder of Macduff’s family on his own. In the beginning it is Lady Macbeth who proves to be the biggest encouragement to his ambition. She persuades Macbeth’s with these words, “Hie thee hither,/ that I may pour my spirits in thine ear,/ and chastise with the valour of my tongue/ all that impedes thee from the golden round,/ which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem/ to have thee crown’d withal.” She further says, “Art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it,” meaning that Macbeth is not without ambition, but he lacks the ruthlessness that is required to fulfill ambition. When she learns about the witches’ prophecy she knows that he will be too kind-hearted to do anything to do anything drastic to become the king. Here Lady Macbeth tells her husband that he “Is too full of the human kindness” So she decides to take the matter into her own hands. Her soliloquy at this stage shows how determined she is:
- Come, you spirits
- That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
- And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
- Of direst cruelty “.
These chilling words show that she is a woman who has been blinded by her quest for power. And that she takes matter into her own hands shows that she was more ambitious as Macbeth was wavering at this stage.
Throughout the play the reasoning power of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth was completely weakened and undermined by their ambition. In the beginning Macbeth was able to keep his ambition in check but eventually on being continuously persuaded by his wife he succumbs and he too is overpowered by ambition. On the contrary Lady Macbeth never lets anything come in her way and abandons all reasoning. She was more power hungry and more determined as it was she who taunted her husband and questioned his manhood when he develops cold feet and tries to back out of the plot to murder. It was Lady Macbeth who took control of Macbeth’s thoughts and actions and turned him from a man with morals to a cold hearted, greedy human being.
Macbeth can be considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies as it tells a powerful story of a man who was leading a peaceful life until ambition overpowers him resulting in tragic consequences. Through Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare shows us that violence goes hand in hand with ambition and that when ambition is not restrained by moral values it can destroy a human being. We are made aware that ambition to gain power and supremacy is one of the most deadly ambitions. Ambition makes one forget about the consequences that might arise because of it. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth epitomize ambition in the play. However, Lady Macbeth appears to be more ambitious and her characterization in the play as a strong, determined woman pushing her husband to commit murder, points towards this. According to Lee Jamieson, “Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most infamous female characters because she exerts a great deal of influence over the events of the play and is the main instigator in the plot to kill the king”. Yet the fact remains that Macbeth too was ambitious, maybe not to the extent Lady Macbeth was ambitious. As Kenneth Muir writes, “Macbeth has not a predisposition to murder; he has merely an inordinate ambition that makes murder itself seem to be a lesser evil than failure to achieve the crown.”