What are the main quotes (with line numbers) that develop the theme of ambition in Macbeth?

What are the main quotes (with line numbers) that develop the theme of ambition in Macbeth?

The theme of ambition is present throughout Macbeth. One of the most well-known quotes from the play about ambition comes in act 1, scene 7 when Macbeth says, "I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself / And falls on the other."

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The word "ambition" appears only three times in William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Macbeth himself uses the word only once. The reason that the word appears so few times in the play is that Macbeth's ambition is never questioned.

It's clear to the audience that Macbeth is ambitious from as early in the play as act 1, scene 3, when the three Witches appear to Macbeth and Banquo and give them prophecies. The ones most relevant to Macbeth's ambition are the prophecy made to Macbeth that he "shalt be King hereafter" and the one made to Banquo: "Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none."

Macbeth's first spoken reaction to the prophecies is to the prophecy made to Banquo, which gives the audience the first clue to Macbeth's ambition.

MACBETH. Your children shall be kings.

Macbeth is surprised at the news from Ross and Angus that he's been made Thane of Cawdor, which seems to confirm the truth of the prophecies the Witches made to him. (Duncan actually made Macbeth Thane of Cawdor in act 1, scene 2. Macbeth is just now hearing about it.)

Macbeth isn't surprised by the ambition to be King that this news arouses in him, but he's surprised by the depth of his ambition and the extent to which he's prepared to go to achieve it.

MACBETH. ... why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? ...

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise.

Macbeth tries to put the murderous thoughts out of his mind—"If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir"—but those thoughts will return soon enough.

In act 1, scene 4, Duncan names his son, Malcolm, as his heir and his successor to the throne of Scotland, and this announcement almost immediately reignites Macbeth's ambition. He speaks of Duncan making Malcom his heir:

MACBETH. 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.

Nothing that Macbeth does in pursuit of his ambition from this point forward in the play will come as a surprise to the audience.

What does come as a surprise is Lady Macbeth's ambition. In act 1, scene 5, Lady Macbeth enters the scene reading a letter from Macbeth telling her about the witches and their prophecies. Lady Macbeth's response is immediate.

LADY MACBETH. Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised.

Lady Macbeth is well-aware of Macbeth's ambition. Her only concern is that he won't act on it.

LADY MACBETH. Thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.

A messenger enters to tell Lady Macbeth, "The King comes here tonight," and Lady Macbeth reveals the true depth of her own ambition. She calls on evil spirits to "unsex me here / And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty!" She wants the spirits to remove her humanity from her so that she can do whatever needs to be done to make Macbeth King, and she already has a pretty good idea of what needs to be done.

Lady Macbeth needn't have been concerned about Macbeth's resolve in pursuing his ambition. There's a moment, however, in act 1, scene 7, when Macbeth seems indecisive about going forward with his and Lady Macbeth's plan to kill Duncan, and he questions his ambition

MACBETH. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other.

Macbeth lists a number of reasons why he shouldn't kill Duncan, but these reasons aren't about killing Duncan, per se, but about killing Duncan at this particular time. Macbeth's reasons not to kill Duncan are based on possible repercussions and retributions against him, political expediency, and what he anticipates will be a outcry from the people in reaction to the killing of a beloved king.

At no time, however, does Macbeth question the morality of killing Duncan. This issue never arises.

Lady Macbeth quickly turns Macbeth from doubt to action, saying, "But screw your courage to the sticking-place, / And we'll not fail." From this point on in the play, Macbeth's ambition is never questioned.

Only one use of the word "ambition" occurs after Macbeth murders Duncan, and the reference isn't to Macbeth, but to Duncan's two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, who are believed to have killed their own father.

MACDUFF. Malcolm and Donalbain, the King's two sons,
Are stol'n away and fled, which puts upon them
Suspicion of the deed.

ROSS. ’Gainst nature still!
Thriftless ambition, that wilt ravin up
Thine own life's means!

Macduff doesn't believe for a minute that anyone but Macbeth killed Duncan, and possibly neither does Ross. Ross says that it's pointless for Malcolm and Donalbain to have killed Duncan, since they gained nothing by killing him ("Thriftless ambition"), and they had to flee Scotland for fear of the loss of their own lives.

Banquo, too, knew from the moment that Macbeth said "Your children shall be kings" (1.3.89), if not from before, that Macbeth was ambitious to be King. Banquo never questioned Macbeth's ambition, and he had no doubt where Macbeth's ambition would lead.

BANQUO. Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
As the weird women promised, and I fear
Thou play'dst most foully for't.

With that last line, Banquo prophesies Macbeth's own demise.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 15, 2020
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The events that take place in act 1, scene 5, help to showcase the ambition both of Macbeth and his wife. Lady Macbeth acknowledges that her husband is an ambitious man—that he is driven to be great and certainly could be king—but she believes that he is too gentle and good to take the fastest possible route to the throne: killing the current king. When she receives Macbeth's letter, she says:

Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. (1.5.18–20)

Thus, she wishes that he would come home right away so that she can wield her influence over him and compel him to act in the interest of his (and her) ambition. She continues:

Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round. (1.5.28–31)

These lines, I think, really show her ambition. She believes that she has the strength and power to influence him and win him to her purpose, to convince him (though she is the woman and he the man in an era of traditional gender roles) to act as she would have him so that they may satisfy their mutual ambition. Macbeth does seem to be aware of her ambition as well, as he says that he writes to her with his news of the prophecy so that she:

might'st not lose the dues of rejoicing by being ignorant
of what greatness is promised thee. (1.5.12–13)

He knows that it will gratify his wife's ambition to learn that she will one day become queen—as he now believes the Weird Sisters to have been telling him truth—and, because he loves her (he calls her his "dearest partner of greatness"), he wants to make her happy.

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In Act I, Sc. v Lady Macbeth speaks about Macbeth’s ambition: “...thou wouldst be great;/Art not without ambition, but without/The illness should attend it:...” (I.v.18-20) This important quote enables us to understand Macbeth’s nature which is "too full o' the milk of human kindness...." Lady Macbeth’s provocation enlivens the evil residing in Macbeth and his ambition receives a new dimension: “I have no spur/To prick the sides of my intent, but only/Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself/And falls on the other" (I.vii.25-28).

Later in Act II, Sc. iv Ross considers the hollowness of an ambition, which can destroy a person’s life: “Thriftless ambition, that wilt ravin up/Thine own life's means!” (II.iv.28-29). Undoubtedly, Ross’s comment about "suborn'd:/ Malcolm and Donalbain, the king's two sons" is ironic in nature as, at the end of the play, Macbeth too will lose his life for his own “vaulting ambition.”

Note: The line numbers vary according to editions. The above line numbers are provided according to the Arden edition of Macbeth.

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In addition to re-reading the play, you can find quotes at the eNotes link provided below to help you find lines from the play related to ambition.  But here are a few to get you started:

Macbeth (after hearing the witches' prophecies for him):
"If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me/ Without my stir." (Act I, scene iii)

Lady Macbeth (after Macbeth killed Duncan and seems weak from the experience):
"Infirm of purpose!/ Give me the daggers: the sleeping and the dead/ Are but as pictures: 'tis the eye of childhood/ That fears a painted devil." (Act II, scene ii)

Macbeth (trying to prepare himself to kill Duncan):
"I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself/And falls on the other...." (Act I, scene vii)

I hesitate giving line numbers as every edition of Macbeth will have different line numbering. It would be best if you looked up the quotes by their act and scene numbers to find where they are located in the edition you are using.

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