Themes Uncontrollable Ambition, the Versatile Nature of Guilt and the Concept of Time in 'Macbeth' and 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

The critically acclaimed play ‘Macbeth’, by William Shakespeare, and the film, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, directed by Martin Scorsese, both illustrate an array of literary techniques and stylistic features in order to convey the central themes of unchecked ambition, greed, and guilt. In The Wolf of Wall Street, the notion of ambition is displayed through the protagonist, Jordan Belfort, an egotistical degenerate fixated on financial success. Similarly, protagonist Macbeth illustrates a strong ambition for power, which sees him committing various wicked acts for his own avaricious. Ultimately, the ambition and greed of both protagonists becomes customary, with the text’s exploring both Belfort and Macbeth’s rise and eventual collapse. In addition, the quilt is a recurring theme employed, with the dichotomous nature of guilt illustrated through the different ways it manifests in both protagonists. As Belfort displays a lack of guilt, Macbeth experiences conscious guilt and Lady Macbeth suffers guilt through her subconscious.

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In respect to their texts, Both creators illustrate the themes of ambition through the use of characterization, literary allusions, and camera angles. Macbeth’s desire to attain the prophecy, “All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!”, overrules his morals as murders King Duncan, symbolizing the uncentered ambition of the Macbeth. In addition, Shakespeare portrays the theme of ambition in the equally motivated secondary character, Lady Macbeth. This is illustrated when Lady Macbeth uses the metaphor, “ornament of life” representing her ambition to attain the crown and calls Macbeth a coward for his reluctance to this desire, “live a coward in thine own esteem?” Lady Macbeth is able to achieve ambition through the manipulation of her husband. Due to the sexist stereotypes, the viewers in Shakespeare’s time would have been unfamiliar and perhaps troubled by her ‘rule’ over her Macbeth. Prior to the murder of King Duncan, Shakespeare employs a metaphor by comparing Macbeth’s ambition with a horse rider who falls off when trying to jump excessively high, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself and falls on the other side.” This soliloquy uses irony, because whilst Macbeth recognizes he does not desire to kill the King, he proceeds to anyway, allowing the viewers to understand the power Lady Macbeth has over her husband. Furthermore, to illustrate the theme of unchecked ambition Shakespeare employs irony when Macbeth announces to Thane of Lochaber Banquo, ‘Tonight we hold a solemn supper sir … and I’ll request your presence’. The viewers discover that Banquo is a danger to their future and could not attend the banquet as he was murdered by Macbeth. Shakespeare endures this irony throughout the play, as King Duncan gives the Thane of Cawdor title to Macbeth, who he believes is most honorable. However, ironically King Duncan’s murder is later committed by the previously ‘honorable’ Macbeth. Ultimately, the theme of ambition to attain power is evident through Shakespeare’s characterization, use of irony, and metaphors.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort is characterized as a young man who uses his ambition and unlawful scheme of “pump and dump” money production in the attempt of making it to the top of Wall Street with his business, Stratton Oakmont. Belfort’s dialogue illustrates how Scorsese uses war as an extended metaphor in the film, “do not hang up the phone until your client buys or f**king dies!” This antagonistic and exaggerated linguistics highlights the protagonist’s aggressive and potty-mouthed personality, as well as his brutal ‘buy or die’ attitude, which allows the audience to scrutinize the culture of modern-day America. Scorsese further characterizes Belfort as extremely intense as he is seen barking orders to his captivated ‘minions’ (stockbroker employees), who are following Belfort on the road to financial freedom. The cult-like environment at Stratton Oakmont is more distinct through the array of cinematic strategies Scorsese uses, including the long and low-angle camera shots. This shot displays Belfort with his arms outstretched in a Christ-like position, preaching to his mesmerized employees, “You be ferocious, you be relentless, you be telephone f**king terrorists.” Additionally, during the initial stages of constructing the Wall Street empire, the techniques of foreshadowing and allusion are used by the director to provide the audience with an insight into the inevitable future. Belfort speaks, “you schnooks will now be targeting the wealthiest one percent of Americans. I’m talking about whales here. Moby f**king Dicks. And with this script, which is now your new harpoon … I’m gonna teach each and every one of you to be Captain f**king Ahab.” In this dialogue, Scorsese is alluding to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and its main character Captain Ahab, which foreshadows the eventual descent that Belfort and his business receive when their greed and deceit catch up with them. With the use of various literary techniques and cinematic devices, Scorsese is able to convey the intricate details of Belfort’s uncentered ambition.

In the Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese exhibits the theme of guilt, or lack of, in the deceiving protagonist and his fraudulent associates. This notion is displayed in a specific scene where Belfort makes an unsolicited phone call to, a deemed to be, a wealthy individual. In this call Belfort delivers a ‘misleading script’ to the naïve customer, manipulated into purchasing stock. After ending the call Belfort laughs and belittles the man by horribly yelling “f**k that mother**ker.” This scene exhibits the protagonist’s absence of empathy and quilt for his victims. The dearth of remorse in Belfort and his employees is symbolized in their enjoyment of tormenting and throwing Dwarfs in the office space. Prior to this scene, Belfort belittles the Dwarfs, sarcastically stating in a meeting “if we don’t consider him a human and just consider it an act then I think we are in the clear.” Illustrating his absence of guilt, through his continual mockery. The theme of guilt, of lack thereof, is conveyed by Scorsese through the symbolism of particular scenes.

In contrast, Shakespeare illustrates Macbeth’s relentless consciousness of guilt after arranging and ordering the vicious murder of King Duncan. This guilt is depicted through Shakespeare’s script, “I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ stuck in my throat.” Through this script, the viewers can understand that Macbeth recognizes his sins, as he is praying. Furthermore, the figurative use of ‘Amen’ getting stuck in his throat illustrates Macbeth’s psychological distress. Additionally, the phrase, ‘Macbeth shall sleep no more’ implies he will suffer to sleep because of his guilty conscious, it also accurately foreshadows Macbeth’s fate. Eventually, the ghost of Banquo and Macbeth face one another, with the ghost stating, “Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that. Which might appall the devil.” The ghost symbolizes Macbeth’s continual guilt, almost resulting in Macbeth revealing the truth of King Duncan’s “death”. Conversely to the conscious guilt displayed in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth exhibits guilt from her subconscious nightmares, conveying that she is unable to escape the liability of her actions. Additionally, Shakespeare uses blood as a recurring motif of the protagonist’s guilt. In the opening scene, blood is displayed in the combat between the Norwegian invaders and the Scotts. Upon Macbeth and Lady Macbeth embarking on their murderous and malicious journey, blood begins to emerge symbolizing their continual guilt. Following the murder, Lady Macbeth articulates that ‘A little water clears us of this deed”, ironically she eventually hallucinates blood that will not be rinsed off by water, portraying her festering internal guilt. Both characters begin to feel as though their wrongdoings have blemished them and cannot be rinsed clean. This is further illustrated when Macbeth utters these words after Duncan is killed, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand?” Similarly, Lady Macbeth shares this plague of guilt rhetorically by stating, “Out, damned spot; out, I say . . . who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” Evidently, the audience is able to identify blood as a motif that symbolizes the guilt that is imbedded on the moralities of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

The theme of time is employed throughout both Scorsese and Shakespeare’s text. In the Wolf of Wall Street Scorsese regularly uses the cinematic device of manipulating time, portraying an out-of-body experience for the audience. There are various scenes where the intensifying action is extraordinarily directed and edited to exemplify the character’s under the influence of illicit drugs. On a daily basis, Belfort and his colleagues pride themselves on the distressing number of drugs they consume. To depict the effects of the addiction, the director uses little screen time, “I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my ‘back pain’, Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, pot to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine… Well, because it’s awesome.” Whilst Belfort narrates this dialogue, the film spirals into an intoxicated and blurred medley of shocking images and actions, this inebriated first-person viewpoint allows the audience to experience this distorted state. After Belfort and his colleagues first experience these illicit drugs, they become increasingly more infatuated, and from this point on Scorsese uses the recurring motif of drugs to put emphasis on the distorting impact it has on the protagonist’s observations and consciousness of time. Additionally, the director utilizes the editing technique of slow-motion to further characterize Belfort’s mental and physical descent as a result of his drug abuse.

Similarly, the notion of time is explored in the film Macbeth as it is evident that once Macbeth murders King Duncan time comes to a ‘halt’. The ominous integration of “knock, knock, knock” is constantly referred to when the protagonist experiences guilt, symbolizing the importance of time and the eventual and unfortunate end of Macbeth. Eventually, Lady Macbeth eludes her battle with lucidity and kills herself. The end of the film uses the literary device of a soliloquy, which is illustrated in Macbeth’s famous speech, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”. This soliloquy conveys Macbeth’s established understanding of time. He acknowledges that he was unsuccessful with the notion of time, he releases life is a “brief candle” that will go out and unfortunately he has not built a meaningful life. This notion of time portrayed in Macbeth’s soliloquy allows the audience to understand the concept that you can have plenty of time to experience a fulfilling life if you reject Macbeth’s ambitious and greedy narrative. Whilst the notion of time is more evident in The Wolf of Wall Street, Shakespeare dapples with this concept through the character’s final soliloquy.

Martin Scorsese and William Shakespeare, in respective to their texts, exhibit the various cinematic and literary techniques which assist them in presenting the major themes of uncontrollable ambition, the versatile nature of guilt, and the concept of time. Furthermore, in order to captivate and engage the audience the critically acclaimed texts in cooperating the use of an extended metaphor, motifs, characterization, allusion and foreshadowing. Although produced in two completely contrasting eras, directors Scorsese and playwriter Shakespeare give the audience an insight into the dangers of uncentred ambition and greed, the foremost importance of ethical decision-making, and the understanding of time, illustrating that perhaps these themes are universally explored. 

07 July 2022

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