black and white Macbeth in sword battle (1061 x 765)
Photo attribution: KFFOWLER [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Shakespeare’s classic play Macbeth is often called “a play of greed and power.” And it most certainly is. But as I watched the play for the umpteenth time, I had the feeling that it is about more than that.

And then it came to me in a flash. It is also an exploration of the perverse impact that unbridled ambition can have on some people.

Ambition, in Shakespeare’s own words

Shakespeare, as he is wont to do, is in fact subtly delivering a bigger message about the human psyche.

Remember that one of the central events of the play is Macbeth contemplating the murder of Duncan, the benevolent king who is not only his kin but also a guest in his castle. What, I wondered, would propel him to commit such a treacherous act?

Macbeth explains,

“I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself

And falls upon th’ other”

Or in more modern, but less brilliant language, “the only thing motivating me is ambition, which makes people rush ahead of themselves toward disaster.”


Ambition has been the subject of many genetic, psychological and anthropological studies. And yet, its nature and its driving force remain elusive.

Evolutionary biologists contend that ambition has great survival value. Hence it is coded in our genes and hard-wired in our brains.

Many animals are known to signal their ambitious tendencies almost from birth. Even before wolf pups are weaned, they begin sorting themselves out into alphas and all the others. The alphas are quicker, more curious, greedier for space, milk, and Mom — and they stay that way for life.

Alpha wolves wander widely, breed annually and may live to a geriatric 10 or 11 years old. Lower-ranking wolves enjoy none of these benefits. Instead, they stay close to home, breeding rarely and usually dying before they’re 4.

This example and others, taken from the animal world, demonstrate behavioral determinism that is controlled by genes. Humans are different in a very important way: we make long-term plans. And what could ambition require if not conscious, deliberate long-term planning?

Is nature a zero-sum game?

The natural selection argument makes the implicit assumption that nature is a zero-sum game. And it is probably true in an environment of limited resources. Every antelope that I hunt for my family is one less antelope for yours.

Except that a visit to the African Bush would quickly disprove this premise. The place is teeming with antelopes and other prey, grazing peacefully by the hundreds and thousands.

The argument, however, has a more plausible ring to it when we consider modern societies. In societies, like ours, that are comprised of largely poor and lower middle classes, we admire Horatio Alger-type stories. Never mind that most of them are apocryphal.

Status anxiety

Sociological studies have shown that ambition is especially high among the lower and middle class. Psychologists call it “status anxiety”. It is fueled by the fear that although your present job is sort of OK, if disaster strikes you won’t have enough resources to feed your family. Parents sacrificing for their children so they would fare better in life is a variant of “status anxiety.”

Social status, upbringing, genetics may contribute to the development of ambition. But they don’t explain everything. Just consider President Jimmy Carter and his buffoon brother Billy. Or FDR, born to an aristocratic family. He didn’t have to worry about finances. He had no obvious socioeconomic reason to be ambitious to reach any heights. However, early on he was dismissed by Tammany Hall as an effete rich boy. Then, later in life, he contracted polio and had to overcome physical adversity. That and his philanthropic work with polio victims brought him face to face with hardship and social deprivation. Eventually, a towering leader emerged.

Which brings me back to Macbeth

In the fog-shrouded time of Macbeth, “fire in the belly” gave rise to plots, assassinations and mass murders. And in our own, more enlightened days?

Well, plots, assassination, and genocide are still very much with us. Yes, we have had Steve Jobs. But for every Jobs, we have many Bernie Madoffs. For every Jonas Salk, we have had Elmer Gantrys and other assorted religious charlatans. For every Bill Clinton, we have Ted Cruzes, willing to sink the world economy for their vaulting ambitions.

So is ambition good or bad? Like everything else, it depends.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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