Ambition is the greatest human virtue that provides purpose in peoples lives by giving them the desire to achieve success or power. Having ambition in our lives means that we dream of accomplishing big things and strive to achieve them. When ambition works alongside strong morals and the right intentions, it will normally have a positive outcome. But, with the nature of ambition being such a fragile concept, people can often unknowingly cross the border and become too ambitious, seeking things not meant to be. The thirst for power can never truly be satisfied, and once ambition has clouded our judgement and morals, there will be detrimental effects on not only us but the people around us.
In Macbeth by Shakespeare, Ozymandias by Percy Shelley, Viva la Vida by Coldplay and Gattaca by Andrew Niccol, the nature of ambition and it’s limits has been explored and the texts all reach different conclusions about ambition, allowing the reader to understand that ambition is NOT a simple thing.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the damage ambition can cause is portrayed through the main character Macbeth. Macbeth is a loyal friend, soldier and war hero first described as “valours minion” after the battle against Norway, who served King Duncan honourably and never thought to question his position. Macbeth is exposed to a prophecy that says he will become Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland.
The prophecy has a great impact on Macbeth and he realises his true desire for power. The prophecy ignites a wildfire of dark ambition in Macbeth, and in the process, Macbeth sacrifices his morals to become King.
After the murder of King Duncan, Macbeth says “I am in blood, Stepped in so far,that should i wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er”. Shakespeare does this to show how Macbeth believes that he has already sacrificed his morals in the murder of Duncan that going back is not an option for there is nowhere to return to. The acceptance of his dark ambition allows Macbeth to let go of anything holding him back and this leads beautifully into his line “I have no spur to prick the sides/Only vaulting ambition which o’oerleaps itself/And falls on th’other..” Here Shakespeare shows how Macbeth has nothing to hold him back from his ambition (no spur to prick the sides), and his thirst for power is so strong that it vaults over istelf and lands on another side, the evil and darker side of ambitions capabilities. This opens the door for Macbeth to become morally and mentally corrupt, which leads to the destruction and death of his friends, wife and even himself.
The true nature of ambition was revealed in Macbeth by Shakespeare and we see how if taken too far, the thing that pushes us to our potential can also be the thing that ruins us.
In a similar way as in Macbeth, in the poem, Ozymandias by Percy Shelley, the self-confident and ambitious Ozymandias desires for his legacy to be remembered after his death. He makes a statue of himself and places it in the desert as a way to be remembered forever and for people to see. However only “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert”. Shelley uses this to infer that all that remains of his mighty statue are is legs. “Near them on the sand/Half sunk, a shattered visage lies”, this says that Ozymandias’ visage, meaning his face is broken and lieing in the sand. We start to get the idea that the very person Ozymandias desired to be remembered as is not who he really was, in truth he was as broken as his statue now is.
The poem goes on to say that on a plaque on the statue it reads “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings”
Here we really ssee Ozymandias’ desire to be seen as a powerful man. Ozymandias thinks that he is the King of Kings, and because Kings are believed to be powerful and Gods appointed ruler, Ozymandias’ is declaring that he is the most powerful King to have lived, and essentailly he is the ruler of Kings, a position in history that is seen to be Gods. “Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!” // Nothing beside remains, Round the decay of that colossal wreck”
Here Ozymandias says that people should look on his ‘works’ and lose hope in themselves at the greatness of them, ironically though, nothing beside his ‘mighty and powerful’ statue remains to show for his works and accomplishments. This shows the reader how if we get too enveloped by our own ambitions and personal greatness, we lose sight of what’s really around us and become isolated from the real world. Ozymandias statue represents all that was wrong with his ambition and the very thing he desired to be remembered as was the opposite of what was seen from the statue.
Ozymandias by Percy Shelley explores ambition and the ways it can retaliate against us, even after death, and in the same ways as Macbeth, both men lost the things they desired most due to their ambition.
Viva la Vida by Coldplay explores ambition in a slightly different light than the other two texts, in that the main character, a King, has already lost everything he had desired through his ambition, and the song explores what consequences come to those who become power hungry.
The song begins with the line ” I used to rule the world, Seas would rise when I gave the word” which implies that the King ‘used’ to rule everything and believed he was so powerful that he even ruled nature and seas would rise when he told them to. This is an impossible act and one only ever accomplished once in the Bible, when God allowed Moses to split the Red Sea and cross it. The King believes he too can raise seas, implying that he has powers similar to Gods and can accomplish the same things, a sign of his self confidence.
Soon after the King faces the consequences of his ambitions, seen in the line ” One minute I held the key, Next the walls were closed on me, and I discovered that my castles stand, upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand”. This is a telling part of the play, when the King loses they key to his own castle and realises that the very foundations of his castle are built upon instable and uncertain pillars of salt and sand, and not reliable pillars of stone. Salt is a metaphorical symbol of durability and permanence and it acts as another biblical reference, a pillar of salt is a symbol of sin, refering to Genesis when Lot’s wife looked back on Sodom even though she was warned not to and as punishment was turned into a pillar of salt for all eternity. Because of these references to the Bible, this line makes us believe that the Kings castle was built upon sin, which implies that the King got to his position through sinful ways, just as Macbeth did. The castle pillars however are not durable and permanent like the concept “pillars of salt” would suggest, because the pillars of sand imply that the castle is built upon loose and unstable sand pillars too, therefore the castle is built upon sin and instability.
Nearing the end of the song, the King then reaches what I think to be the worst of his consequecnes, when he says the line “I know Saint Peter won’t call my name”. The true extent of the Kings consequences is shown here, when he says that Saint Peter, the angel that guards the gates of heaven won’t call his name to enter the afterlife, and he instead will go to Hell.
As King he is seen to be Gods appointed ruler on earth and the belief that he will not be accepted into heaven is a sign of despair and a complete loss of faith, due to the ambition he had.
Viva la Vida explores the consequences of a power hungry ambition, similar to the way Ozymandias and Macbeth do, through the character of a King who seeks power and in the end, loses it all.
After reading the last three texts, you might have the impression that ambition is a dangerous and fragile human virtue that only causes harm to humans. Contrary to this belief, ambition still has the potential to give real purpose to our lives, without having negative consequences if we play by the rules and don’t sacrifice our morals.
In the dystopian film Gattaca by Andrew Niccol, a society is built upon the idea that genetic selection is better than natural conception, and ‘invalids’ or naturally conceived humans are of lesser status. Vincent Freeman is an ‘invalid’ who was born with a rare heart disorder that could kill him before 30. All throughout Vincent’s life, he suffers under the burden of discrimination and inequality of the Gattaca society.
Vincent uses ambition as a way to give his life purpose, and he strives to overcome the disadvantages of his inferior genetics.
When Vincent says the line “Eugene never suffered from the routine discrimination of a ‘utero’, a ‘faith birth’ or and ‘invalid’ as we were called” he shows how genetically perfect humans never had to experience the same prejudiced treatment that Vincent and others like him suffered everyday. This helps to show us that Vincent and other invalids were hardened by their harsh treatment because they routinely endured it.
Vincent then goes on to say “He suffered under a different burden: The burden of perfection” which poses a very important idea that perfection can be a burden in society and in Gattaca, those who have had their lives handed to them on a silver plate like Eugene; suffer under perfections high expectations. Vincent and Eugenes status in society are at opposite ends of the spectrum, however, both suffer under some burden, and it is how they overcome the burden that tells of their strength as humans.
Because of Vincent’s upbringing in Gattaca’s society, he learns that in order for him to ever succeed in life and overcome his burden, he will have to fight against every single molecule of his genetics if he wants to succeed. This means that to be an astronaut and get to Titan as he dreamt of, he needed to have the ambition to get himself there , unlike Jerome who just needed the genetics.
In the line “Jerome had been engineered with everything he needed to get into Gattaca, except the desire to do so.”
Niccol uses this line to show how Jerome’s (Eugene) genetics meant he had everything he needed to succeed, except the ambition to do so. This shows of the expectations that perfection placed on him and without the desire to achieve, his genetics were just as ‘invalid’ as Vincents.
Vincents most powerful line “This is how i did it Anton, I never saved anything for the swim back” shows us how completely determined Vincent was to achieve his dreams, that he never saved anything for the ‘swim’ back or in other words, he had nothing left to go back and could only go forward. Niccol uses this as a way to show that Vincent’s ambition meant he gave everything to achieve success and had nothing to hold him back.
This can be linked to Macbeth’s ” Should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’oer” quote, in that both men felt that they had no way to turn back from their ambition, and they had to let it take the reigns entirely. However, the difference in the two men is that Vincent never comprised himself or his morals like Macbeth did and that is why his story ended in success and not destruction.
In the four texts, Macbeth by Shakespeare, Ozymandias by Percy Shelley, Viva la Vida by Coldplay and Gattaca by Andrew Niccol, the nature of ambition was explored in distinctly different ways, and all the texts came to a different conclusion about ambition and it’s potential either better or worse our lives.
From investigating these texts, we can understand that ambition can either be the greatest human virtue or the greatest undoing of humans and it is a force to be reckoned with.