An Analysis of Ambition and Greed in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Macbeth, the tragedy by William Shakespeare, tells of the trials and eventual demise of the Scottish noble, Macbeth, who inevitably falls due to his vaulting ambition and greed. Shakespeare’s plays weave together powerful motifs that stay within the mind of the reader and are important to the overall meaning of the play. One of the most important motifs in establishing the meaning of the play is sleep and the disorder that is caused when one lacks sufficient sleep. In his play, Macbeth, William Shakespeare stresses the importance of sleep by using sleep deprivation as a sign of guilt, punishment, and even death. Throughout this play of dark nights, Macbeth faces many nights without sleep due to his vaulting ambition and greed that will inevitably lead to his demise.

At the beginning of the play, we encounter three witches. The witches prophesize the ascension of Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman, to the throne of Scotland. However, before the prophecy is fulfilled, the sisters come together after a strange incident involving a sailor’s wife. The sailor’s wife refuses to give one of the witches a chestnut. The witches comfort her and promise to punish the sailor. “I’ll drain him dry as hay. Sleep shall neither night nor day hang upon his penthouse lid. He shall live a man forbid. Weary sev’nnights nine times nine Shall he dwindle, peak and pine,” (Act 1 scene 3).

The witches use sleep deprivation as a punishment for the sailor and his wife due to the wife’s unkind actions towards the witch. As a result of the wife’s greedy and selfish actions she will later be punished by not being able to sleep. This scene foreshadows Macbeth’s consequences for his greedy actions and vaulting ambition. This scene is the first time in the play we see Shakespeare use sleep deprivation as a punishment for a character due to greed. Sleep symbolizes order and a natural resting period; without sleep it one would inevitably die. By taking away one’s sleep, one is in essence killing them due to lack of natural rest and order. This relates back to the meaning of the play in that due to Macbeth’s vaulting ambition he was unable to sleep. This lack of sleep and order would inevitably lead to Macbeth’s demise.

As Macbeth progresses, the witches reveal their prophesy to Macbeth and Banquo; Macbeth shall become Thane of Cawdor and then king, but the son of Banquo shall also become king. The witches disappear and Macbeth writes to his wife about the prophecy. They come up with a plan to kill the king and pin the blame on his guards. Following dinner, Macbeth kills King Duncan. After the murder, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth meet and discuss the crime that was just committed. Macbeth speaks of how his guilt has murdered innocent sleep: “Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep”-the innocent sleep,” (Act 2 Scene 2).

By killing the king, Macbeth killed natural order and law. Lady Macbeth tells him that sleep can’t hurt him anymore than a picture can, and she questions his manliness: “The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures. ‘Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil. If he do bleed, I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal, For it must seem their guilt.” (Act 2 Scene 2). Lady Macbeth ignores her husband’s guilt and continues to plot the final steps of their murderous plan. Here, sleep is being used in a positive, restorative sense. It’s what rejuvenates men and women, yet Macbeth has “murdered sleep” and cannot rest because he is guilty of a heinous crime that weighs heavy on his head. Macbeth is truly worried that he will not be able to reach a state of peace again because King Duncan’s murder, an act of vaulting ambition, is haunting him to his grave. In both cases, sleep is referred to as an important rest that is necessary for one’s wellbeing. Lack of sleep seems to be a fitting punishment for a guilty, greedy mind.

Macbeth’s guilt over the murder of Duncan plagues him throughout the play. In Act 3 Macbeth expresses that he is having trouble sleeping; he says “In the affliction of these terrible dreams that shake us nightly. Better be with the dead, whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, than on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave. After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well. “(Act 3 Scene 2) Macbeth’s nightmares and lack of sleep are derived from his guilt and greed over the murder of King Duncan. He feels remorse, which is depriving him of sleep. He calls sleep a rest and when dead you are asleep or at rest. Death was said to be a sleep in which nothing can hurt to you any further. Killing Duncan was due to Macbeth’s vaulting ambition, which is leading to long nights without sleep and order.

The play continues and Macbeth’s remorse due to his ambition grows. He has Banquo murdered, as well as the family of Macduff, and everything begins to go downhill from there. At he the beginning of Act 5 we meet a physician and a gentle woman. The gentlewoman has observed Lady Macbeth sleepwalking and has called the physician. In her trance Lady Macbeth talks of the crime she and her husband have committed: “!-Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” (Act 5, Scene 1)The Lady expresses her guilt in her sleepwalking/trance. Shakespeare’s use of sleep deprivation or unfruitful sleep is seen executed in this scene. Lady Macbeth is feeling guilty for the crimes she helped to plan and commit and it is shown in her babbling while sleepwalking. The witches are able to create situations that are conducive to preventing sleep. This phenomenon can be witnessed throughout the play in characters thoughts.

William Shakespeare’s use of the motif of sleep and sleep deprivation in his play Macbeth is very important to the overall meaning of the play. Macbeth experiences unfruitful nights of nightmares and sleepwalking because of their deep-rooted guilt due to his vaulting ambition. Macbeth feels remorse for his actions and Shakespeare punishes him by not allowing them to rest, or to sleep. Shakespeare’s clever use of graphic images brings the reader into the story and allows the gruesome tale, Macbeth, to come alive.

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