Student Question

How can the theme of greed and blind ambition in Shakespeare's Macbeth be compared to modern sources like newspapers, TV shows, movies, or social media posts?

I have thought of how Scar from the movie The Lion King uses greed and ambition to climb to power by killing his brother Mufasa.

Expert Answers

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Greed and ambition lead Macbeth to commit unconscionable acts. He kills the king who is sleeping in his own home—a grievous act of inhospitality in a country in which hospitality is primary. He does this at his wife's urging to speed the witches' prophecy. He next kills his friend Banquo to protect himself and secure his power. He kills Macduff's wife and children in a wholly unnecessary act of cruelty, prodded by his own fear that Macduff had escaped to England and might threaten Macbeth's power.

If we reduce this story to its basic motives, we can see that the play is about a good man who is tempted to commit a horrific act to get what should have come to him anyway. Macbeth is unwilling to wait and so he seizes Fate for himself. This leads to a spiral of further horrible acts such that he eventually no longer knows himself nor cares for the power he has gained. Macbeth's bleak view of life is contained in the "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech in which he says that "Life is but a poor player" and that it "is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Any text that offers a similar view of a person losing himself by trying to reach a higher status could work for this assignment.

The Lion King is a good comparative text for the reasons mentioned.

Gangster movies offer good comparisons, too. Goodfellas might be interesting to explore since the story is told by a person who perpetrates crimes of greed and violence. This story follows the rise of a normal guy in the mob, his increasing power and prestige, and his drug use, which leads to the same kind of frenetic and sleepless life that the Macbeths experience near the end of the play. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill grows increasingly unfamiliar to himself as he betrays friends and family in the service of his ambition and greed.

Theaters sometimes like to stage the play using a contemporary theme of high end financiers in the role of Macbeth. Certainly, Wall Street greed and ambition are common enough, and one might think of Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme took advantage of family and friends and bankrupted people who trusted Madoff and who had no recourse to recoup their losses. The type of devastation brought upon innocent people due to an individual's corruption and greed is so familiar that one could compare many such stories in current financial news to Macbeth. Movies that show the temptation of Wall Street for those who lack integrity include Wall Street or Wolf of Wall Street. Obviously, Macbeth is far bloodier a story, but contemporary stories tend to bring the stories of greed down a notch or two.

One might also think of Nixon's blind ambition to maintain the presidency at all costs. In covering up the Watergate scandal, he damaged the country immeasurably. Nixon may not have started off as a particularly evil man, but his character flaws—ambition being one of the most serious—led him to trash the laws of the country he was bound to serve. If Nixon is not a recent enough example, you might be able to find more contemporary examples in the news. Michael Flynn seems to be an honorable man whose life fell off the rails. We do not have all the details about his criminal activity, but he has confessed to enough that we see how greed and ambition may have blinded him to what an earlier version of himself would have recognized as right and good.

We may not have all the facts here either, but the Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman was originally touted as a force willing to modernize Saudi Arabia, and early reports of his power seemed hopeful. Public opinion served to "prophecy" that he would be a great leader with whom the world could forge new ties to the benefit of Saudi Arabia. However, there seems to be a far darker side to MBS, including increased torture, the arrest of several members of the royal family, the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the creation of a human rights crisis in Yemen. MBS seems oblivious to global criticism yet also somewhat trapped as nations are less willing to work with him.

As you look for other texts with which you are familiar, try to find something that places an otherwise decent person onto a dangerous and destructive path.

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Macbeth is deeply concerned with the theme of blind ambition but not so much with greed for financial or monetary gain. Both he and his wife crave power and status. Some deep insecurity makes him think that being king will bring genuine respect and not just superficial allegiance.

Examples abound in the modern world of ambition gone badly awry in the political sphere. Because there are few remaining monarchies and most of them are also constitutional democracies, those examples will rarely be of kings. One husband-wife couple who exemplify a similar power quest were Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, who ruled the Philippines between the 1960s and 1980s; in 2018, Imelda Marcos was sentenced to jail on corruption charges.

In his recently updated and reissued book Blind Ambition, John Dean reveals how lust for power led to the downfall of Richard Nixon’s presidential administration.

Coups d’etat, bloody or otherwise, are not uncommon ways to transfer power. The current situation in Syria represents the family continuation of the Assad administration that first came to power through a coup, as did the Pinochet administration in 1970s Chile.

For southern Africa, the recently ended Mugabe reign, although technically achieved through elections, was based in revolutionary anti-British armed conflict.

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