Macbeth's Ambition and Smith's Words of Warning

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Lucia Alden for AdamSmithWorks

"Smith posits that the way to avoid ambition and 'live free, fearless, and independent' is to never raise the poisonous chalice of place to one’s lips..."
When someone mentions William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you may think of  blood, daggers, – “is that a dagger, I see before me? . . . – and ambition. Indeed, ambition is such a known feature of the Scottish play that it has even made it into Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. The charismatic Alexander Hamilton sings of his rivals “They think me Macbeth, ambition is my folly / I’m a polymath, a pain in the a** and a massive pain.” But was Macbeth actually ambitious? Answering that requires us to consult the play itself and Adam Smith (instead of the three weird sisters).

Like many of Shakespeare’s most compelling characters, Macbeth seems to have two selves. He claims to have ambition early in the play, yet his actions and later mental breakdown suggest otherwise. In act 1, having been told by the witches that he will be “king hereafter” (1.3.53), Macbeth begins to consider how, given that the living King Duncan, has two heirs: 

. . . 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. 

Macbeth wants to kill Duncan – his hand is ready to act – but does not wish to witness or shoulder the aftermath – his eye fears it. Then comes his real error: he tells his wife. In a letter to Lady Macbeth, Macbeth shares the prophecy of his royal future with his wife, writing “This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou might’st not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee. Lay it to thy heart, and farewell.” Next thing you know, Macbeth is standing over the sleeping Duncan with a dagger. In an earlier soliloquy, Macbeth claims to have nothing but “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on th’ other.” His multiple ambitions tangle with one another and, ultimately, go nowhere, for though Macbeth has ambition, he knows he has “no spur / To prick the sides of [his intent]” (1.7.25-8). Lady Macbeth provides that spur. 

Macbeth may want to be king, but he does not have the ambition to achieve it. Lady Macbeth does. In writing of ambition in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), Adam Smith quotes François VI, duc de Rochefoucauld who writes “Love is commonly succeeded by ambition; but ambition is hardly ever succeeded by love” (I.iii.2.7). Nothing could be more applicable to the Macbeths. As arguably Shakespeare’s only “successful” marriage, ambition surely supersedes their love, ends their love affair, and sours Scotland’s love for King Macbeth. Smith attributes this poisonous ambition to man’s obsession with “place, that great object which . . . is the cause of all the tumult and bustle” (TMS, I.iii.2.7). He contrasts place with rank, where “the propriety of his conduct renders him the just object of approbation, [but] it is of little consequence though he be neither attended to, nor approved of” (TMS, I.iii.2.7). 

This seems an apt description of Macbeth’s two selves: the humble warrior of act 1 and the seemingly ambitious king of acts 2-5. Smith posits that the way to avoid ambition and “live free, fearless, and independent” is to never raise the poisonous chalice of place to one’s lips: “Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition” (I.iii.2.7). Smith’s advice is hauntingly similar to Macbeth’s excuse for continuing to kill in act 3: “I am in blood / Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er” (3.4.168-70). Macbeth has entered the circle of ambition and can find no way out.