This task is an extension of our investigation into the nature of ambition. This is an opportunity to explore how unifying elements are employed across different texts by different authors that lead you to deeper insight into this very human drive.
There is no gene for ambition. For most people, ambition comes from the people and environment that surrounds them and how it affected their lives. Ambition comes from the words and works of others or the need to prove themselves after being told that they can’t do something. This reoccurring theme constantly drives the characters and the stories that the characters are set in. I will be exploring the source of the character’s ambition in the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare, the poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley, the Greek myth of The Fall of Icarus and the movie Gattaca directed by Andrew Niccol.
In the tragedy, Macbeth, a play written by William Shakespeare, the main character Macbeth starts off as a war hero, who’s one goal is to serve his country and his king. However, as the play progresses, Macbeth is presented with a prophecy, told by three witches, that plants a seed in his mind that soon grows into an ambitious obsession. The prophecy in question, tells of Macbeth one day becoming king of Scotland. At first, Macbeth is afraid of the seed they had planted in his mind and is frightened of the ambitious thoughts that spring from it. Not long after the prophecy is said, Macbeth says to the audience “Why do I yield to that suggestion Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair and make my seated heart knock at my ribs, against the use of nature?“. In this quote, Macbeth is expressing his fear towards his growing ambitions, the “horrid image” that Macbeth mentions, is no doubt referring to the thought of killing King Duncan. However, he is not only afraid of the ambition itself but is also scared by its temptation and the crimes he might commit because of it. This is shown through this quote by Shakespeare’s use of metaphor by saying that when Macbeth thinks about it, it “make my seated heart knock at my ribs”. This conveys Macbeth’s fear about the reaction he is having to the temptation that the prophecy gave him. This ambition would never have sprouted if the witches didn’t tempt him with their words. To further enhance this theme I am exploring, it is important to notice that as Macbeth was having these doubts, his fears were sent away by the cruel encouragement of his wife Lady Macbeth. She says to him after he admits that he can’t kill his king, “When you durst do it, then you were a man; and to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man.”. Lady Macbeth is telling Macbeth that when he told her of his thoughts about killing the king, he was acting like a man and if he were to go through with his plans, then he would be more than a man. She uses his manly pride against him and chases away his doubts by making him feel like he has to prove himself by giving into this temptation. These two quotes show the two sparks that ignited Macbeth’s ambition. Without the witches prophecy, those thoughts would never have entered Macbeth’s head and sparked his ambition and without his wife’s harsh encouragement, Macbeth would never have acted on that ambition.
Ozymandias is a poem created by Percy Shelley. Ozymandias carries the same theme that we discussed with Macbeth, that ambition is sparked by the words and works of others. Ozymandias himself is not in the poem, the poem is only about a ruined and abandoned statue of him. What is left of the statue are “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone“, and a pedestal saying, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.” It is obvious that Ozymandias was a man of great power, and thought very highly of himself. The stone face that lies shattered beside the ruins is described as having a “frown and wrinkled lip and a sneer of cold command.“. The metaphor “a sneer of cold command” undoubtedly shows his arrogance and the severe attitude towards his subjects. This notion is further strengthened by the following line, saying “It’s sculptor well those passions read.“. The sculptor or the creator of the statue was subject to his rule and knew of his hubris and carved it into the stature. We know from the pedestal that Ozymandias is a king, and his ambition to keep his power eternal through the sculpting of a large statue of himself comes from the power he had at the time of the statue’s construction. A king cannot be a king without having people under him who support him. His ambition was sparked by the power his subjects had given him by accepting him as being their king. We know that he was accepted or at least tolerated because of what they did for him, which in this case is building the statue. This statue that the sculptor created for him fed his ambition to be greater than he is and to leave a piece of his power and greatness eternal. Ozymandias shares the theme we discussed in Macbeth because both characters want to be greater than they are and have the power that comes with it. They take and use the words and works of others, in the case of Macbeth, the witches prophecy and in Ozymandias’ case, the sculptor’s statue of him, to provide for the needs their ambition gives them.
The well known Greek myth of the Fall of Icarus, or otherwise known as Icarus and Daedalus, is a common story of ambition and how ambition can be someone’s downfall. Looking at the theme of ambition that we saw in Macbeth and Ozymandias, that ambition comes from the words and work of others, The Fall of Icarus relates well to Ozymandias because their ambitions are both fed by the work done by others to help them or their status. The sculptor created Ozymandias’ statue to give him something that symbolized his power and Daedalus gave his son wings as a symbol of freedom as they escaped from the labyrinth. “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’ll be fine.” This was the warning Daedalus gave to his son before Icarus ignored his father’s guidance and flew too close to the sun and consequently fell to his death. Icarus’ ambition lead him to his downfall, literally, and came from his overconfidence in himself and what his father created. Because what his father had created for him symbolized his freedom, it also stimulated his ambition to take this freedom as far as he could. His father told him not to fly close to the sun but after their long imprisonment inside the labyrinth, this warning was just another wall that confined Icarus. He had escaped the labyrinth and didn’t want to hold back now that he was free with wings that could take him anywhere he wanted. His ambition was fed by the power and freedom his father’s wings had given him and was only given more leverage when Daedalus tried to restrict him yet again.
Gattaca, a futuristic dystopian film by Andrew Niccol, follows the story of the disadvantaged Vincent Freeman as he pursues his dream to go into space. Gattaca links to the tragic story of Icarus because both of the main characters are told not to do something that they can’t do. They both ignore the warning or the lecture because of their ambition which is also fed by those discouraging words. “Vincent, for god’s sake, you gotta understand something. The only way you’ll see the inside of a spaceship, is if you are cleaning it.” These are the words of Vincent’s father near the beginning of the film. These words were said to discourage Vincent from risking his life to follow his dream, but all they did was make Vincent try even harder to prove that he can make his dream a reality, to his father, to all those who doubted him and most importantly, to himself. Vincent’s ambition came from everyone else being more capable than he was and telling him that he would never get there. He knew his father was right, he admitted it to the audience near the beginning of the film, but it did not stop him. “For all my brave talk, I knew it was just that. I made up my mind to resort to more extreme measures.” He looked for different ways to act on his ambition, in the end, the “more extreme measures” that Vincent resorts to, is using someone else’s identity and becoming an imposter in the world he so desperately wants to be a part of. One way the film itself represents the struggles Vincent faces and how he overcomes them through his ambition, is the spiral staircase in the shape of the helix that makes up the structure of DNA in his apartment. This symbolizes the discrimination against Vincent and his “second-rate” genes and also the discrimination he defies every day as he walks up and down those stairs. For Vincent, the thought of turning to illegal fraudery would never have entered his mind if it was not already restricted by how incapable people thought of him and how they made him feel like he didn’t belong in their futuristic society. These restrictions and the discrimination towards him created the perfect environment for his ambition to flourish and try to push against those barriers.
Between these four unique texts, we can easily see the beginnings of each character’s ambition. We see the link between the meaning behind the words and the works of others that directly affect the characters and how it triggers their ambition and the actions their ambition makes them achieve. It makes Macbeth forget his morals and kill the king of Scotland, it causes Ozymandias’ obsession with being eternally powerful, it tempts Icarus to fly too close to the sun and drives Vincent to achieve his dream. It shows us that ambition is not something we are born with, ambition comes from how individuals interact with the people and society around them.