In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of the title character’s most significant, and tragic, flaws is his unbridled ambition. Certainly, the three witches he encounters in Act I, Scene III have identified Macbeth as possessed of the right characteristics for facilitating the materialization of one of their prophesies. Sensing Macbeth’s arrival, one of the witches exclaims, “A drum, a drum! Macbeth doth come.” The witches foretell the emergence of a man with greatly exaggerated claims regarding greatness and privilege. It is Act I, Scene IV, however, that hints of Macbeth’s ambition are made clear. Duncan, king of Scotland, is announcing his son, Malcolm’s ascent to the title of Prince of Cumberland, a particularly important designation in the royal hierarchy, and one intended to restrain the general’s ambitions and militant activities. Macbeth, however, is not stupid; he knows better than to openly confront the king, and graciously acknowledges the ascent of Malcolm. As he departs the scene, though, he offers this aside to which the king is not privy – only the audience:
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.
This one of the play’s earliest and most indications of Macbeth’s character. Another good quote indicating his ambition is in Act I, Scene III, when, in another of his asides (in effect, speaking aloud o himself) he states “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir,” and the king’s death in Act II, Scene III, under the most suspicious of circumstances bodes ill for all those who stand in Macbeth and, as significantly, Lady Macbeth’s way.
Another of Macbeth’s tragic flaws is his total lack of moderation. A corollary of his ambition is his impatience; he cannot wait for event to develop naturally. He must help them along and, again, the witches play to his weaknesses. That same quote from Act I, Scene III – “If chance will have me king, . . .” – is also an example of Macbeth’s impatience. Also in Act I, Scene III, Macbeth, after his discussion with Banquo, Ross and Angus, the latter the two noblemen dispatched by the king to communicate to the great general, suggests to himself that waiting for nature to run its course may be insufficient to fulfill his ambitions:
Are less than horrible imaginings:
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.
In the opening of Act I, Scene IV, in Macbeth’s castle, he contemplates the option of hastening the king’s demise, a development, as noted, that occurs in Act II, Scene III:
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'ld jump the life to come.