Ambition is a complex human trait. For hundreds of years, literature has been exploring the nature of ambition, and many texts come to a conclusion about its nature–except, the conclusions are often not the same. The Shakespearean play ‘Macbeth’, the poem ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the film ‘Gattaca’ directed by Andrew Niccol and ‘The Flight of Icarus and Daedalus’, a Greek myth, all have a common theme. In the four texts, ideas about the nature of ambition present themselves through the results of a character’s own actions. The authors build on the core idea surrounding ambition; everyone has some form of it, and it can be helpful and good if you use it with the right intentions. As soon as you become hungry for power, sacrifice your morals in the pursuit of your goals, or simply get too caught up in your ambitious desires, ambition can become dangerous and can have disastrous effects. How a person allows their ambition to affect them is key in how we perceive the success or failure of their pursuits.
One aspect of the nature of ambition is presented in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Through the character of Macbeth and the decisions he makes, Shakespeare shows the reader that ambition can become dangerous to you and to others when you sacrifice your morals and what you believe in, and instead prioritise what your ambitions can get you. Macbeth’s ambition, when he allowed it to drive his pursuit for power, had disastrous effects on those closest to him and eventually led to his own death. In Act 1 of the play, Macbeth hears a prophecy from 3 witches that he “shalt be king hereafter”. He decides the only way to fulfil this prophecy and become the King of Scotland is to kill the current King, his friend and cousin. Macbeth says “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.” He says that the only ‘spur’ that drives his murderous intentions is his ambition, which he allows to overcome him. Macbeth compromises his morals and he kills Duncan. This starts him on a slippery slope into murder and paranoia as he attempts to become more secure in this unjustly-acquired throne.
Macbeth then says in Act 3 of the play “I am in blood, stepp’d in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er”. Shakespeare symbolises blood throughout the play to represent guilt and murder. Macbeth in this moment is saying that he has waded so far into these murderous deeds that even if he didn’t continue, it would be more difficult to return to being noble, honest Macbeth than it would be to continue with this murderous streak. By allowing his ambition-fueled desires to take over, Macbeth has done things he regrets; more because of the way it has affected him rather than the fact that he killed two of his closest friends. The moment Macbeth sacrificed his morals and instead pursued power is when he began the descent to his eventual demise. Shakespeare, through the character of Macbeth and the choices he makes, communicates the idea that ambition can be disastrous if you compromise your morals for personal gain. He shows ambition as something not to be taken lightly; if you allow it to take over, it can negatively affect those around you and will often leave you in a worse state than before.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ is a poem that also conveys the dangers of ambition. The text presents the idea of power, and how ambition can be detrimental to a person’s character when they pursue power because of selfish or greedy reasons. In the poem, a traveller from an “antique land” describes the broken statue of Ozymandias in the desert. On its pedestal, it says “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” However, around the statue, “Nothing besides remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” Ozymandias believed he was ‘King of Kings’, the most powerful, important person there could ever be; the ruler of all. He told even the mightiest people to look at the works he had done and despair, but ironically, there is nothing around the statue at all. There are no great works, and the sand is simply ‘boundless and bare’, or completely empty.
There are two important things to consider when analysing how Ozymandias portrays the dangers of ambition. Firstly, the broken statue symbolises the fact that great and powerful things are often more fragile and less important than they seem. Ozymandias had this mighty statue built in his honour, in order to extend his power by becoming ‘immortal’ in a sense. By having the statue created, he was trying to extend his presence beyond his own lifetime, in order to become more powerful than he already was. His ambitions in trying to extend his power in this way only make Ozymandias look like a fool when his statue breaks. His powerful, immortal presence was easily shattered, and no matter how powerful Ozymandias tried to become, he was still just a human.
Secondly, the irony in the fact that there are no great works around Ozymandias’ statue shows that he believed he was extremely important and better than everyone else, when in fact, he was simply a power-hungry man with a “sneer of cold command,” and had no good works to show for his life. Ozymandias’ ambitions in trying to become more and more powerful may have seemed successful to him. He may have believed he had succeeded in gaining this ultimate power by having himself ‘preserved’ in this statue, but if he resulted as a prideful, arrogant man with nothing more than a crumbling statue to show for his deeds, was he really successful? The ideas Percy Bysshe Shelley conveys in Ozymandias are very similar to those in Macbeth – when you become too ambitious and greedy for power, it will often leave you unsatisfied and craving more and more, whether that be security, power, or material objects. Success, when achieved in immoral, inconsiderate or selfish ways, is meaningless.
The film Gattaca, directed by Andrew Niccol, also has an underlying theme of ambition. Niccol shows ambition to be a helpful tool for real success, if not a necessary human trait, when used in balance and with the right intentions. He also shows it to be a trait often installed by other people. Gattaca is similar to Macbeth and Ozymandias in that the main character has ambition and uses it for personal gain. The difference is that Vincent Freeman in Gattaca keeps hold of his morals, doesn’t use people unwillingly to reach his goals, and doesn’t pursue power and success because of greed or paranoia.
Vincent Freeman is ‘invalid’. He is a person conceived out of love in a society where genetic selection is said to be the only option for a successful life. He wants to travel to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, but because he is genetically ‘invalid’ and also has a heart defect, he is told countless times that his dreams and ambitions are impossible and will never be a reality. People tell him things like “Vincent, the only way you’ll ever see the inside of a spaceship is if you’re cleaning it”, and these discriminative comments install a powerful ambition inside Vincent to succeed and to prove people wrong. Vincent’s younger brother, Anton, is genetically ‘perfect’ and one day, they repeat a childhood competition of seeing who can swim out to sea the furthest. Anton gives up, saying “Vincent, how did you do this? How did you do any of this?”, and Vincent replies with “This is how I did it, Anton. I never saved anything for the swim back.” This shows how strong Vincent’s ambition is; he gave it absolutely everything he had, regardless of the consequences. This ambition to succeed, both in this swim race and in his life, could also be because of his heart defect—his heart is “10,000 beats overdue” and he doesn’t know how much longer he has in this world. Because of this, he craves success even more as he knows he may not have much longer to achieve his goal of going to Outer Space.
Because of the discrimination against him, Vincent is stronger, more persevering and more ambitious than his brother and many other ‘valids’ in the story of Gattaca. Through this, Niccol portrays the idea that our ambition is often influenced by other people and the wider society, and ambition is in fact a necessary part of success. This is similar to Macbeth; Macbeth’s ambitions were influenced by the witches and by Lady Macbeth, and some could argue that it was purely this influence that led Macbeth to kill Duncan. Ozymandias’ ambition was influenced by his subjects; if he had no one to rule over, then he would have had no reason to pursue power. The main difference between Macbeth’s and Ozymandias’ “bad” ambition and Vincent’s “good” ambition is their intentions. Macbeth’s ambition caused him to compromise his morals and harm others for his gain, and Ozymandias’ ambition led him to crave power and want to rule over everyone. Vincent’s ambition was purely to achieve his dream of getting to Outer Space, and he did not use anyone unwillingly to achieve this. Through this, we see that ambition is in fact more complex than first portrayed in Macbeth and Ozymandias.
The Fall of Icarus, also known as Icarus and Daedalus, is a Greek Myth that tells an important part of the theme of ambition not shown in the other texts; sometimes, even without bad intentions, being overly ambitious can be a person’s downfall. After being imprisoned in a labyrinth, master-craftsman Daedalus designs wings out of wax and feathers so he and his son Icarus can fly away and escape without being caught. This plan is successful and while flying away, Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun. If he does, the wax in his wings will melt and they will fall apart. Icarus initially obeys his father, but he becomes consumed with the thrill of flying and forgets the warning. He tries to fly higher and higher, and then the worst becomes a reality; the wax on his wings melts and Icarus falls into the sea and drowns. The moral that this story conveys is not to become too ambitious, because it could be your downfall. However, it also shows another important idea. Although Icarus did not compromise his morals like Macbeth and did not become power-hungry like Ozymandias, his ambition was still dangerous to him. Even though Icarus did not have bad intentions and did not hurt others in the process of trying to fly higher and higher, when he let himself get caught up in the thrill of the moment and let his ambition take over, it ended badly for him. This shows another part of the nature of ambition; sometimes, what you want is not nearly as important as the risk of losing what you have.
Similar to Vincent in Gattaca, Icarus finds a thrill in the world outside our own and doesn’t listen to what others tell him when trying to reach his goals. Maybe it was simply easier for Icarus to reach such heights, or maybe Icarus just had less common sense, or maybe Vincent was older than Icarus and thought things out in more depth. I don’t think it matters–perhaps Icarus was just simply unfortunate. Maybe in this world, there is only so much you can control. Maybe, regardless of your intentions or your morals or how you let your ambition control you, sometimes your choices are only part of what results. The previous texts have shown it is important to not let your ambitions run ahead of you, and it is important to not step on toes to get to the top. But perhaps there is only so much we can do in this world. It is important to keep hold of our morals when chasing our dreams, and it is also important to keep things in perspective and realise that sometimes what we think we want is not what is right, good, or necessary. Keeping this in mind will prevent us from becoming overly ambitious, and with a bit of luck, will prevent us from becoming like many of the characters in these four texts.
Through the analysis of Macbeth, Ozymandias, Gattaca and The Fall of Icarus, we get a much deeper understanding of the complexity of ambition than analysing one text independently. They all convey a key idea of the nature of ambition, but they all reach a slightly different conclusion. Macbeth’s ambition caused him to hurt other people, and he ended up a lesser man because of his actions. Ozymandias’ led him to crave success, and it left him with nothing more than a broken statue to show for what he had really achieved. Vincent’s ambition caused him to achieve his goals in a moral way, and Icarus’ led to his untimely death. The texts show that ambition can sometimes be helpful, but only when used in balance with morals, common sense, and the opinions of others. It is good to be ambitious. However, ambition can be dangerous if it drives the pursuits of power at the expense of others, or if you simply let it take over. These four texts helped me to reach a conclusion about the nature of ambition–that it is in fact far more complicated than it seems.