One of the major themes of Macbeth is ambition. In itself, having ambition is often a positive human quality, but Shakespeare’s play tells the story of a man whose lust for power ends up destroying him. Macbeth’s ambition is ignited by the witches’ prophecy in Act 1, Scene 3, but we get the impression that he has been thinking about becoming king before then. His man asides in this scene show how quickly he starts playing with the idea of being king.

The play shows how political ambition can turn you into a monster. Macbeth initially does not have the brutality and cynicism that must accompany great ambitions. His wife describes him as not being “without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it.” (1.5.19-20). We might call this softness or moral character. In any case, it makes Macbeth ill-suited to usurp the throne. However, as things spiral out of control, Macbeth puts his conscience aside and turns into a brutal tyrant. From then on, he puts our sympathy to the test.

Macbeth’s ambition also makes him paranoid and blind. Once his initial prophecy has come true, he expects Banquo to be equally ambitious about having his own prophecy come true. Thus, Macbeth reads his own ambition into Banquo and eventually has him killed. However, Banquo was innocent, just like Duncan. Shortly after seizing the throne, Macbeth realizes that becoming king is not enough - he needs to remain king. And that requires more killings and more lies.

Macbeth’s ambition is closely connected to his role as the tragic hero with the tragic flaw. His flaw is his ambition, which he fails to see the danger in before it is too late. His ambition is ultimately what leads to his downfall. 

Fate vs. Free will

Macbeth is heavily influenced by its Elizabethan context. Paradoxically, the Elizabethans believed in free will while also believing in destiny. Although superhuman forces controlled the universe, humans had been given free will and the gift of reason by God. It was then up to the individual to use his or her abilities the right way. As a tragic hero, Macbeth fails to do this. Partly because he is flawed, and partly because he is tricked by supernatural beings.

The play raises the question of responsibility: Is Macbeth’s tragic end entirely his own fault, or was he manipulated into it by the witches and his wife? In connection with this, we have the question of whether the play’s supernatural elements, such as the floating dagger, Banquo’s ghost, and to some extent the witches, are real or just figments of Macbeth’s imagination? If we think of these elements as real - particularly the witches - it takes away some of Macbeth’s responsibility because we can argue that he was manipulated by evil forces. 

In connection with this, it is an important point that Macbeth does not trust fate to sort everything out for him. Although he initially says that “chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.154-155), he soon decides to take matters into his own hands. In order to make the prophecy of becoming king true, he kills King Duncan himself. Later, he has Banquo murdered too because Banquo, according to the prophecy, poses a threat to Macbeth’s royal line.

When Macbeth seeks out the witches and gets the second round of prophecies in Act 4, Scene 1, he still does not trust that fate will del...

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