William Shakespeare’s Macbeth explores human nature, in particular the ambition of his main character Macbeth. Macbeth makes ill-fated decisions based upon ambitions to become King and retain that position. So
throughout the play, Macbeth’s ambition clouds his judgment, which leads to eventual death. Although his fate is inexorable, Macbeth uses his ambition to fuel his evil intentions. This undertaking is the drive that seals Macbeth’s fate.
At the beginning of 1. 3. , Macbeth’s ambition leads him to hear his fate given to him by the three witches:
Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.
By Sinel’s death I know I am Thane of Galmis,
But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives,
A prosperous gentleman, and to be King
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence? Or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you. (1. 3. 70-78)
Immediately one can see that Macbeth wanted to hear the witches’ prophecies and not that he was forced to hear them. According to Harold Bloom in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human “The witchcraft in Macbeth, though persuasive, cannot alter material events, yet hallucination can and does” (516). Macbeth is shrouded by his own ambitions of becoming King. Macbeth is intrigued that he will become King and astonished that he has another title of a man that he believes is still alive and loyal to King Duncan. Also one can see some foreshadowing in this excerpt because the Thane of Cawdor was a traitorous individual, and by Macbeth gaining that title it only strengthens his misguided ambitions.
At the end of 1. 3. , Macbeth already attempts to go against human nature when he questions his own character:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock against my ribs,
Against the use of nature? …(1. 3. 134-137)
Here, Macbeth questions his very being by asking if he should against nature, by killing the King of Scotland instead of waiting out the prophecy given to him by the three witches. Human nature is questioned in this excerpt as well because the act of killing, or murder goes against human nature. Also Macbeth would be going against nature, or the natural course of things by forcing fate if he murdered King Duncan to become King.
In the very beginning of Act 2, Banquo addresses Macbeth about the witches’ prophecies saying, “I dreamed last night of the weird sisters. / To you they have shown some truth” (2. 1. 21-22). Now that Macbeth has be granted the title of Thane of Cawdor, Banquo realizes that all that is left for Macbeth is to become King. This assertion also indicates that Banquo is also interested in the prophecies because of Macbeth’s prophecies are starting to be fulfilled, than so will his. Banquo’s prophecy was that his issues or bloodline would become King, so although he himself will not take the throne, he can be assured that his feature generations will.
Now that Macbeth has claimed the throne threw unlawful deeds, he begins to wonder about the heirs to his throne. He is unable to conceive a male heir with his wife Lady Macbeth and begins to ponder about Banquo’s issue saying, “To make them kings-the seed of Banquo kings! / Rather than so, come, Fate, into the list, / And champion me to utterance! …” (3. 1. 70-72). Here, Macbeth formally states that he will go against fate, which as stated is inexorable or unchangeable. At this very moment, Macbeth has just sealed his fate, by trying to defy anothers.
Shortly after, Macbeth claims the throne through the murder of King Duncan. Clouded in his own personal goals, Macbeth attempts to go against the prophecy given to Banquo:
… And with him-
To leave no rubs nor botches in the work-
Fleance his son, that keeps him company,
Whose absence is no less material to me
Than is his father’s must embrace the fate
Of that dark hour. … (3. 1. 133-138)
At this point, Macbeth plots the murders of Banquo and his son Fleance, in order to stop Banquo’s issue from becoming heirs to Macbeth’s throne as prophesized by the three witches. He states he will leave no remnants of Banquo’s bloodline in order to stop that prophecy from becoming true. Macbeth’s ambition to remain King and do what he sees fit only further affirms his very own demise.
Macbeth is becoming more ruthless as the play progresses. In 4. 1. , Macbeth is approached by three apparitions, all of which tell him more of his prophecy. Macbeth is told Macduff is the only man Macbeth has to fear despite the fact that another apparition tells him that no man born from a woman can harm him. Macbeth’s ambition leads him to make further irrational decisions concerning these prophecies:
Then live, Macduff. What need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate. Thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. (4. 1. 82-86)
Macbeth’s ambitious nature clouds his better judgment, which leads him to want to stop this prophecy from happening as well. He failed at killing both Banquo and Fleance but that does not alter his plot of killing Macduff. Macbeth gets some assurance from the witches however when they claim no man can harm Macbeth. For this reason Macbeth damns himself further by believing he is invincible. It is only a matter of time before Macbeth will fall by the hand of Macduff.
When Macduff confront Macbeth, Macbeth is fearless because he was told he could not be harmed by anyone of being born from a woman. However, Macduff is an exception to this rule and tells Macbeth “Tell thee Macduff was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped” (5. 8. 15-17). Now Macbeth realizes that his judgment was incorrect, there nothing he can do that will save him from the ultimate mistake which ends his life.
Not long after being confronted by Macduff, Macbeth comes to the realization that he is doomed saying, “Accursed be that tongue that tells me so, / For it hath cowed me better part of man!” (5. 8. 17-18). At this point Macbeth knows he cannot defeat Macduff because Macduff is the one exception to the witches’ prophecy. He can no longer cower away in his castle, nor make any more extremely misguided decisions. Perhaps if his ambition to be the best and the King of Scotland has not overtaken his better decision-making abilities, he would not have been damned to hell for murder, but he wouldn’t be slain for treason as well.
Finally in his last action Macbeth makes one last charge toward Macduff despite the fact that all signs are pointing to his death and demise:
Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinance,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damned be him that first cries ‘Hold, enough!’ (5. 8. 30-34)
Macbeth knows there is no coming back from his mistakes and decides to go out in a valiant clash of metal swords. Macbeth is slain, and Macduff is the hero. It is impossible to assume that Macbeth would have done anything different had he known Macduff would kill him because it is part of Macbeth’s human nature. In closing, Wendy Greenhill, in her book Shakespeare: Man of the Theater concludes that, “As the play unfolds the audience and with the Macbeths, become painfully aware that destiny and choice are two edges of the same sword” (18). In one aspect of human nature, ambition was able to take a once noble hero, and transform him into a ruthless King that sealed his own fate by following clouded judgment.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead, 1998.
Greenhill, Wendy. Shaespeare: Man of the Theater. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2000.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Adventures in English Literature. Ed. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. New York: Harcourt School, 1996.179-249.