Lady Macbeth WLTM...

“Would you describe yourself as ambitious?” Having pinged quickly through most of the seemingly endless questionnaire on this online dating site, aided and abetted by a friend and her very potent G&T recipe, this question stayed my hand. My friend and I looked at one another nervously. The site gave me several potential answers ranging from “Yes” to “I am not at all ambitious, I barely have enough ambition to complete this profile”, with some alarming choices in between. There was a plethora of options that went something along the lines of “I am very goal oriented but I would not describe myself as ambitious”, or “I work hard and I might be perceived by some people as ambitious”. I let the cursor hover over the simple “yes” option with an uneasy sense of tipsy paranoia until my friend grabbed the mouse with a scream and selected “I am passionate about work but it is not my sole focus”. We breathed a sigh of relief. The smorgasbord of noncommittal answers made it very clear that admitting to the deadly sin of ambition would be a dating disaster! “You don’t want them to think you’re some kind of Lady Macbeth” she squeaked, spilling her drink. No, I thought, I probably didn’t, as I scrubbed her cocktail off my hands with a tea towel.  Macbeth and his fiendlike queen are famous in Shakespeare’s canon for their “vaulting ambition”, but is ambition really all that bad?

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are certainly very ‘goal-orientated’ and during the action of Shakespeare’s play their particular goal is the Scottish crown. Macbeth, a successful warrior, whom his wife describes as “not without ambition” (perhaps my dating site should make that an option?), comes across three witches who predict he will become king of Scotland. Naturally the Macbeths, choose to respond to this news as any ambitious young couple would: by inviting Duncan (the current king) round to theirs and killing him in the night. Sorted. Of course, “blood will have blood”, and to keep things neat they have to kill a number of other people as well. They are so racked with guilt that they both go a bit mad, Lady Macbeth kills herself and Macbeth fails to defend his castle effectively from attack, believing that no one of “woman born” can kill him. To be fair, if they had been a little more focussed on their goals, and not distracted by guilt, remorse, and so forth, they might have been OK. The big questions is: why is it that Shakespeare chooses to make his ambitious characters, such as Macbeth, Cassius and Lear’s murderous daughters (in Julius Caesar Antony describes the conspirators as ambitious, while Cordelia uses the word in King Lear to contrast herself with her sisters) murderous villains? The answer is simple, in Shakespeare’s England ambition was seen as a very bad thing indeed.

The OED defines ambition as “The ardent (in early usage, inordinate) desire to rise to high position, or to attain rank, influence, distinction or other preferment.” Early uses of the word show that to be ambitious meant to be out of control, and to be beyond reason, and to aspire to have those things which you had no business having. In Shakespeare’s time ambition was seen to be as much a sin as envy. When Shakespeare was writing England was a highly hierarchical society in which everyone knew their places. That some people were born to be beneath others was considered to be the natural order of things. To want more was thought to be unnatural. There were even laws to govern what you could wear, depending on your social status, just to make sure that no mistakes could be made as to who was whom. Any threat to this order was seen as a dangerous threat to society. However, England at this time was going through changes. Trade meant that there was a growing, wealthy middle class, and Elizabeth I’s management strategy meant that power was shifting from the great households to the court. These changes made people even more anxious about threats to the status quo. As such, writers like Shakespeare made characters who sought to move on up out of the social sphere to which they were born, from Malvolio to the Macbeths, into villains or objects of ridicule.

Macbeth, despite being the one to actually do the murders, is let off light compared to Lady Macbeth. At the end of the play the pair are described as “this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen”. Fiend means devil. While Macbeth is described as human, Lady Macbeth’s ambitions make her un-human and unnatural, supernatural, like the devil. Lady Macbeth is the most ambitious of the pair, but it is Macbeth who actually does the deed. His wife admits that the sleeping king looked too much like her father for her to have killed him (II.2). Is ambition really worse than murder? Out of the pair, Lady Macbeth is the not the least remorseful, so why is she described in the most monstrous terms? You guessed it. It’s because she’s a woman. The desire for power was considered to be unwomanly in the early modern period. Lady Macbeth, therefore commits the crime of ambition twice over by aspiring to more than her status allows, and aspiring to more than her sex allows.

So, the question is, if I want to take a date to the new Macbeth film starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard (you knew that was the only reason Macbeth came to mind, don’t you?) dare I admit to my own ambitious nature in my online dating profile? Would defining myself as ambitious scare of any potential dates? Let’s be honest, you wouldn’t want a bloke who was scared off by a little ambition (even if he did look like Michael Fassbender - sigh). Ambition is such a problem in Shakespeare that more often than not, it goes hand in hand with murder, but without ambition where would Shakespeare himself have been? I think he’d have been an unremarkable glove-maker from Stratford with no aspirations towards, moving to London, becoming a playwright, or even becoming a local property magnate. Ambition is a good thing. Murder? Not so much. 


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