The first is from Macbeth. When we were studying it, we eventually got to Act 2, Scene 3, where Porter shows up to provide some comic relief for the groundlings.
Was it so late, friend, ere you went to bed,
That you do lie so late?
‘Faith sir, we were carousing till the second cock: and drink,
sir, is a great provoker of three things.
What three things does drink especially provoke?
Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine.
Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes
the desire, but it takes away the performance: there-
fore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator
with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him
on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and dis-
heartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in
conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the
lie, leaves him.
I don’t have many memories of distinct episodes from high school. I can remember the people, and what I learnt, and practically every embarrassing thing I said or did. This hits all three.
Our teacher, Mrs Keates, told us (in a fashion I have since learned is common to English teachers everywhere) that this wasn’t merely bad comedy but that it had a Deeper Significance. Macbeth, as it turns out, is a play largely about ambition, perhaps best highlighted in Macbeth’s claim that he has “no spur to prick the sides of [his] intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’other”.
And just as a rider who too eagerly tries to mount a horse and falls on the other side, or as a man incited to lasciviousness by too much liquor, the attempt to succeed is doomed to fail.
I was a lot younger than the others in my English class, and knew little of lechery or drink. I did know something of ambition however. I wanted to get out of small, dry, dusty Kingaroy, to see the world and to learn everything that it was possible to learn.
Because I didn’t understand the porter’s joke, and because I wanted to learn, I stayed after class to ask Mrs Keates what she was getting at. She explained, and did a fantastic job of masking her amusement. To this day, I can’t remember what she said, but I walked away embarrassed and knowing a bit more about lechery and drink than I’d be able to benefit from for some years.
I still don’t know what to think about Macbeth’s condemnation of ambition, as being entirely free of it doesn’t work either. The other fictitious drunk that I was reminded of is Sydney Carton, from A Tale of Two Cities. His defining trait is his lack of ambition. He wastes away his talents while his boss, Stryver (!), benefits from them. So much so that there’s a sense in which his famous last words aren’t saying much. Giving his life for Charles Darnay must be a far better thing than he has done, because it’s the only thing he has done.
I do not want to end with luke-warm Dumbledorizing that too much is bad, and too little bad also. Perhaps ambition is dignified or diminished by its object? There’s something in this. Macbeth shows that any gains you make by striving for the sake of yourself are ultimately hollow. The apostles also frequently warn against “selfish ambition”.
But to leave it there isn’t enough. It’s not just the aim of the ambition but the force behind it. Shakespeare also catches on the unruliness of the desire, the way it governs you rather than you it, and leaves you at its mercy.
In this, Macbeth and Sydney Carton have something in common, as Carton’s crush on Lucie Manette has the same self-defeating properties as Macbeth’s ambition. He’s consumed by it and rendered powerless by it. Boyish Crush is the lanky nephew of Drunken Lechery.
All of which perhaps explain what makes some ambition bad, but doesn’t say much about what makes it good. What is it that we admire about the ambition we see in others? In ourselves? How do we prevent our own noble ambitions – if there truly is such a thing – from losing their way and perhaps causing us to lose ours? A lack of time and a lack of insight conspire to prevent me from answering.
Shortly after I finished high school, my family left Kingaroy for Tasmania, and in the years since I’ve seen much of the world. I still don’t know everything, but it’s something to aim for, right?