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Macbeth Themes – Ambition And Power In Macbeth

Updated on February 3, 2012

Macbeth Is Driven By Ambition

The theme of ambition in Macbeth is linked to that of good and evil. Like many other passions and impulses, ambition can be both foul and fair. Through Macbeth, we see that it can be fair when put to good uses, and when it is kept in check by one’s sense of right and wrong. But ambition is foul when it becomes so powerful that it destroys a person’s morality.

Unleashed, such ambition wreaks havoc on the individual, and on his society.

Macbeth is driven by the ambition for personal status, and for power. The play is deeply concerned with political power: with the power of a king over his subjects, and with the good and bad uses of power. The ideal is a king who governs wisely, justly, and strongly.

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

Duncan Was A Good King

Duncan, although he has many virtues and is a good king, is not the best example of a monarch. He is not as strong as he should be; the kingdom’s safety depends too much on one man – Macbeth. Duncan is also too trusting, and because of this he makes two big mistakes: he misjudged the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, and then he does the same with Macbeth.

A king must be able to tell who is loyal to him and who is not. Duncan’s son Malcolm learnt from his fathers mistakes. He tests Macduff thoroughly before accepting him as his liege man. Malcolm represents power which is founded on shrewd political sense.

Duncan's Son Malcolm Was Intelligent And Shrewd

Malcolm is a new kind of ruler: neither a venerable father figure like Duncan, nor a warrior king like Macbeth. Malcolm is a statesman. His strength as a leader lies in his coolness, diplomacy and cunning, rather than in the reverence he can command or in the brute force he can display. Malcolm is the reality of how a king rules: not like a saint, but like an intelligent, shrewd, and above all, political man. Of course the lesson of how not to rule is given by Macbeth. He tyrannizes his subjects in order to achieve greater control. But this tyranny drives the Thanes from him. Macbeth is a fighter, not a politician. He believes in brute force, rather than diplomacy and shrewdness.

Macbeth Also Deals With Power In His Relationship With Lady Macbeth

Besides kingly power, Macbeth deals with power in personal relationships, as seen in Macbeths marriage. Lady Macbeth has power over Macbeth, whether we see her as a fiend or as a caring wife. If a fiend, then the power is that of a stronger partner over a weaker one; if a caring wife, then it is the power of one who loves and is loved. ‘If you loved me, then you would do as I ask’ can be as effective a means of persuasion as bullying. The sexual element may be a greater or lesser aspect of the caring wife – husband power balance: the more Macbeth is infatuated with Lady Macbeth, the stronger the sexual power she wields.

The play shows us the balance between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth changing after Duncans murder. As Macbeth becomes stronger, Lady Macbeth starts to lose her hold over him. From a fiendish wife, he will take less and less bullying; from a loving, caring wife, he needs less reassurance and support.


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