But ambition exacts a price. It requires shelving some quaint old qualities, like humanity, sympathy, and modesty. It can become the killer fish in the aquarium that gobbles up all the others. Are we beginning to feel some ambivalence about crowning ambition as the prime virtue of our era? Do I detect some mixed feelings out there? Our dilemma may not be entirely novel. In 1606, nearly four centuries ago, an ambitious young playwright named Will Shakespeare was pleased to see his latest work, "Macbeth," produced in London. The play is about ambition run wild, and what it can do to people. The specter still haunts us, and consequently the play still grips us. This spring, two productions of "Macbeth" came to life on American stages. One, starring "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer, closed in New York after critics panned it. Another, staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in New Haven, Conn., and starring Antony Sher, has been enthusiastically received.
I am not surprised that the Thane of Cawdor is back. He is a creature defined by his driving ambition and his gnawing ambivalence about it. His other qualities, if he ever had them, have atrophied. Here is how he explains it to his equally:
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
and falls on th' other side.
But of course, Macbeth does retain the residues of a few other feelings, and they almost cause him to lose his nerve. And he does have a spur, a very pointy one named Lady Macbeth, the ideal corporate spouse, who keeps needling him onward and upward whenever he seems to falter.
Both Lord and Lady lose their minds before the play ends. She cannot, even with "all the perfumes of Arabia," rinse her bloody hands of that foul spot. He sees the troubled ghost of Banquo, whose murder he has arranged, at a banquet. They both go berserk, and both end up dead.
If so, it were a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it!
Yes, the Macbeths overdid the ambition thing. Stabbings, preferably while the victim was sleeping, were their M.O. for getting ahead. Our current methods of self-advancement are somewhat subtler. So it is fair to ask: Is there anything wrong with ambition, even of the "vaulting" variety, when taken in moderate doses? Has Shakespeare given us a fair test? Or was he, as he often is, too preoccupied with extremes?
Theologians and moralists have grappled with the same issue for centuries. Aristotle saw ambition as similar to pride, and positions it as a kind of golden mean between empty vanity on the one hand and groveling humility on the other. The early Christians and their medieval monastic successors, under the sway of the Sermon on the Mount, condemned both ambition and pride out of hand. They extolled humility as the prime Christian virtue.
However, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose life work was to reconcile Christian ideals with Aristotle, allowed that the rulers need a certain amount of pride and ambition, otherwise they cannot perform their function. But he warned against what he called "vainglory," exaggerated self-esteem. Nietzsche thoroughly despised Christianity and thought that the worst feature was its preaching of humility.
Shakespeare stands astride the conflicting ethical currents of our time and his. As Shakespearean actor Lisa Anne Porter says of the bard, his mind inhabited both a Christian universe in which love and gentleness and redemption was possible, and a cruel, fated world in which naked might made right. Macbeth worries lest the snarly thugs he hired to snuff Banquo are "too gospelled" to carry out the dirty deed. But he also frets that if he kills the righteous Duncan, the sovereign's blameless soul will be welcomed warmly into heaven and will make his own gory act appear even blacker.
In short, neither of Shakespeare's leading characters in this chiller seem fully capable of doing what needs to be done in order to get ahead--at least not without losing their sanity in the bargain. Drive they have, and even fire in the belly. But the drive wobbles and the fire sputters.
No, "Macbeth" is not a morality play. The bard's voracious appetite for all things human was too vast to allow him to create a cautionary tale. He loved the Bible but was no preacher. He was genuinely interested in bawds, thugs, and prevaricators (remember Falstaff), cowards, silly geese, and pompous peacocks. He delighted in them all, and he fills the stage with them in play after play. He was also fascinated by human folly, treachery, and self-delusion. He tries hard to be fair even to the kind of thinking that seems depraved or maniacal. He wants to understand it and he wants us to understand it too. He almost always refrains from making moral judgments.
But his genius is that his plays force us to think about what we are doing, what motivates us, and they do so like almost nothing else in world literature. Is it time we thought about whether we have let ambition--whether it be a grievous fault or no--get a little out of hand?