Consequences of Ambition Exposed in Macbeth, The Maid's Tragedy, and The Duchess of Malfi
Twenty-first century America praises the ambitious. The American dream urges us to set lofty goals and then rely on the Protestant work ethic to achieve them-regardless of potential obstacles. Parents encourage their children to consider any and every career choice. Companies and schools stress goal-setting and celebrate productivity. Even a contemporary catchphrase like "The sky's the limit" or the Army slogan "Be all you can be"-the stuff of graduation cards and commencement addresses-promote ambition. Yet ambition has not always been valued. Seventeenth-century Jacobean drama often casts it in a negative light. Unbridled ambition yields deadly outcomes, the literature suggests. Macbeth, The Maid's Tragedy, and The Duchess of Malfi each illustrate the severe consequences of boundless ambition. John Milton takes the idea a step further in Paradise Lost, depicting the most ambitious of characters as well as the proper way to handle ambition, according to God's will.
In Macbeth, ambition first arises in Lady Macbeth, distorting her values. Immediately, she recognizes her husband's chance to rise in power. She craves it so intensely that she willingly invites "spirits that tend on mortal thoughts" to fill her "from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty" (I.v.40-41)! Lady Macbeth instinctively associates ambition with cruelty. She considers cruelty necessary in her rise to power. She also fears that her husband is "too full o' the milk of human kindness" to execute her plan (I.v.17). Ambition and kindness are mutually exclusive, she insinuates. Therefore, she views the virtue as a weakness, a hindrance to power. When Lady Macbeth senses that her appetite for power will cause her to perform evil, she does not recoil. Instead she asks the spirits to thicken her blood: "Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,/ That no compunctious visitings of nature/ Shake my fell purpose" (I.v.44-46). Guilty pangs seem inevitable to Lady Macbeth; she thinks the "visitings" come from nature. Yet her immoderate ambition prompts her to disregard nature and invoke evil spirits. Lady Macbeth perceives a trade-off between conscience and the attainment of power. She is so overcome by her ambition, however, that she would rather obliterate her conscience.
Lady Macbeth stirs up ambition in her husband, much to her own detriment. The act of arousing ambition kindles her evil side. First she convinces Macbeth that ambition brings greatness: "Thou wouldst be great,/ Art not without ambition" (I.v.18-19). Lady Macbeth considers ambition a prerequisite to power; the two traits are nearly synonymous. Then she repeatedly mocks her husband, bullying him and questioning his masculinity: "Are thou afeard..." (I.vii.40)? she taunts him. Shakespeare makes clear that the ambition Lady Macbeth exhorts her...