How can quotes from Macbeth regarding "vaulting ambition" be interpreted? 

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Shakespeare's Macbeth, ambition for power is the driving force of the drama as it propels characters into the phantasmagoric realm of  witchcraft, insomnia, and madness. Indeed, the play can be read as a "cautionary tale" about the destructiveness of inordinate desires for power that attain the level of vice. So all-consuming is the lust for power in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that they are destroyed by this rapacity. 


In Act I, for instance, Macbeth is so enticed with the prospect of power that he urges the three sisters to stay and tell him how he will be Thane of Cawdor.  His thoughts, then, become "fantastical"  and his state of mind is shaken as reality and fantasy are joined in his desire for the new title which he envies:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not. (1.3.150-153)

Whether the witches have instilled this desire for murder is dubious as they have not mentioned it; rather, this murderous intent may have been latent in Macbeth and is merely now awakened and he excuses it with the presence of the "fantastic," the preternatural. For, only Macbeth can effect the step from Thane of Cawdor to King.


That his ambition drives Macbeth to begin his path of murder is evinced later in Scene 4 when he is told by King Duncan that his eldest son Malcolm has been named Prince of Cumberland:

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 (1.4.55-60)

Macbeth wants nothing to stand in the way of his becoming king; so, while he knows that killing Duncan is wrong, calling his thoughts "my black and deep desires," Macbeth hides his ambition from others.


Ironically, Lady Macbeth fears that her husband has too much "milk of human kindness" to commit murder.

To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou'ldst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, “Thus thou must do, if thou have it;
And that which rather thou dost fear to do (1.5.15-21)

On the contrary, Macbeth does have the wickedness to do it, and it is Lady Macbeth who becomes guilt-ridden.


In Scene 7, Macbeth deliberates; however, he acknowledges his rapacious desire for power that drives him to commit the unthinkable:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other—  (1.7.24-28)

His ambition has become all-consuming, beyond reason, bloody. And "blood will have blood" in this play. For, in the final Act, Macbeth determines to fight his enemies; he knows that "blood will have blood," so he faces Macduff, telling Macduff he has tried to avoid him. but Macbeth concludes, he has a soul that is

too much charged

With blood of thine already (5.5.8-9).

and so he fights Macduff.


Truly, the words of Ross have been prophetic:

'Gainst nature still!
Thriftless ambition, that wilt ravin up
Thine own life's means! (2.4.3-5)

The all-consuming, "vaulting ambitions" of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth himself have taken them where "nothing is what is not"--death itself.