Ambition; a strong desire to do or achieve something. The nature of ambition has been explored throughout literature, for hundreds of years. Various authors, poets, directors and more have interpreted their ideas through the nature of ambition, and this is inflicted through their characters struggle for success. There are many different ways this is done and is usually presented through the character’s intention of good or bad ambition; also labeled as extrinsic or intrinsic ambition. Extrinsic ambition is used to describe someone who’s motivation is driven by gaining power, while intrinsic ambition is when someone is driven by their own goals. Four texts that especially display these ambitious tendencies are Shakespearean play ‘Macbeth,’ Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias, Andrew Niccol’s film ‘Gattaca’ and Greek myth ‘The Flight of Icarus and Daedalus.’
William Shakespeare’s, power-hungry, ‘Macbeth’ conveys ambition through the strong desire for power and the consequences that follow the character’s moral corruption. In the beginning, Macbeth is depicted as a courageous war hero in service of his country and King, who also happens to be his cousin. However, Macbeth’s progressive character development tells an entirely different story throughout the entirety of the play. Once visited by three Witches, who feed prophecy after prophecy into Macbeth, a lever in the back of Macbeth’s brain shifts from valiant to violent. These prophecies tell Macbeth of his soon to be claimed power, such as becoming the Thane of Cawdor. This sparks the first wave of curiosity, before being replaced with determination when he is told that he will also become the King of Scotland. Even though Macbeth ultimately decides he must kill his cousin, Duncan, to gain his position as King of Scotland, it is evident that he is still holding onto his moral values. This is displayed in the quote, “I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself And falls on the other” from Act 1, Scene 7. By this, Macbeth means that he has no urge to kill the King other than the fact that he is stopping Macbeth from obtaining his ambitious success; therefore he must make sure Duncan is not in the way to ruin that. Another strong quote that stands out is, “Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires” from Act 1, Scene 4. This quote shows the nature of ambition Macbeth possesses. Macbeth wishes for the stars to hide their lights so no one can see the dark desires he has lurking in the shadows of his mind. This dangerous desire causes corrupted intention inside of Macbeth as he journeys along with the fated path the Witches have paved for him.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias,’ shares similar aspects of ambition to Macbeth. This poem shows the consequences of avaricious behavior and how no matter how much power you believe you possess, it will not make a significant impact if you inflict harsh power. The poem of ‘Ozymandias’ follows a ‘traveler from an ancient land’ speaking of a statue that lies in the middle of a sandy plain. The mostly shattered statue portrays King Ozymandias. A quote that gives the reader a sense of what type of person Ozymandias was includes, “Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read.” This tells the reader that according to the facial expressions illustrated on the face of the statue, these expressions were extremely accurate to Ozymandias in real life. From this, we can gather that Ozymandias was a cruel and cold ruler. This idea is also confirmed with the quote displayed on the pedestal, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Hubris energy surrounds the fallen King, as even though he believed he was ‘king of kings,’ his memorial ended up alone and deserted. This is similar to the overconfident spirit Macbeth held when he became King.
Andrew Niccol’s 1997 dystopian film, Gattaca, explores the safer side of ambition. Gattaca follows the life of the ‘invalid’ Vincent Freeman who’s ambition is fueled by his aspirations to travel to space. For the entirety of his life, Vincent has lived in total contempt of being genetically inferior. The main tagline of Gattaca is ‘there is no gene for the human spirit.’ This line challenges the way that society perceives a person’s ability to do something everyone doubts they can do. The doubt and uncertainty of Vincent attempting his dreams only made him try harder, and this was an ambitious trait that showed positive determination. A quote that especially displays this idea is “For all my brave talk, I knew it was just that. I made up my mind to resort to more extreme measures.” This kickstarted the first step to Vincent’s steep staircase to achievement. He soon takes the identity of ‘valid’ Jerome Morrow, to help him get even closer to his chances by becoming a part of a world where his dreams can become a reality. A visual example that Niccol uses in his film is the use of a helix staircase. The helix staircase represents the genetic complications Vincent has experienced his entire life and had to overcome. All these difficulties are only what pushed Vincent to break down all the physical and mental walls he never even dreamt of overcoming.
The Greek myth, ‘The Flight of Icarus and Daedalus’ follows master craftsman Daedalus and his son, Icarus. Themes of ambition are shown through the blurred line between ambition and dangerous curiosity as well as the downfall this causes. Imprisoned by King Minos of Crete, Daedalus builds a pair of giant wings made out of feathers and wax in an attempt to escape. Before they escaped Daedalus told his son, “Now son, remember, you must be cautious when we fly. Fly too close to the sun, and the wax will melt, and you will lose feathers. Follow my path closely, and you will be fine”. Icarus, overcome with the excitement of soaring through the sky, took limits too high and the sun caused the wax in the wings to melt. As the wax melted, the feathers loosened, and Icarus plunged to his death into the cold sea. Icarus lost sight of the limits he could take his freedom to. In a sense, the tale of Icarus connects to Gattaca as both of the main characters are told not to do something that could land them in a dire situation.
These four texts display their forms of ambition along with a seamless connection between similar ideas. The overwhelming drive of ambition causes each character to exceed their limits. This is determined through Macbeth’s will for power ending in murderous destruction, the obsessive need for command of Ozymandias, the dreams and aspirations achieved in Gattaca and of course the downfall of Icarus after losing sight of the limit for freedom. Each different text leaves an imprint on my idea of how ambition affects the modern world of achieving success. These ideas show me that ambition is affected by how people and society view you and how you decide to interpret that judgment.