Ambition is a virtue possessed by humans, a quality that installs a strong desire to do or to achieve something. Ambition is a force to be reckoned with, and when guided on the correct pathway, can accomplish marvellous feats. Small amounts of ambition are arguably the key to success, but what happens when the spark of ambition within one’s heart and soul flourishes into a raging wildfire? The four texts that I have studied all tell the tale of ambition, both the malignant and the benevolent kind: Macbeth written by William Shakespeare, Ozymandias written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Gattaca directed by Andrew Niccol and finally The Pearl, written by John Steinbeck. Despite having varying characters, plotlines, settings and morals, all four texts illustrate the power of ambition, and each conveys a very similar warning: All great things come with consequences, ambition included.
The play Macbeth is a perilous tale of dark ambition illustrated by the famous William Shakespeare. Macbeth, the main character, is a complicated man who suffers great consequences throughout the text at the hands of his ambition. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is portrayed as “valours minion”, praised as a valiant warrior whose loyalty to his king and his country is unwavering. At this point of the play, Macbeth has no taste for power or a desire to become King. The current King, King Duncan is his good friend and Macbeth would never think of denying him of his rightful position. Towards the start of the play, Macbeth is presented with a prophecy by the Witches. They hail him as “he who shalt be King hereafter”. This prophecy is a turning point for Macbeth, as the words of the witches install within him an ambition to achieve the prophecy and become King. However, Macbeth encounters one key problem, King Duncan is still very much alive. The play progresses and the seed of ambition within Macbeth flourishes into a developed and thriving entity, monopolizing his thoughts and actions and eroding away his personal morals and the loyalty he once had. His ambition to achieve the prophecy and become King reaches such strengths that he begins to act upon his ambition. One gloomy night, King Duncan is slain at the hands of his faithful friend Macbeth. Macbeth had fulfilled the prophecy, but his ambition did not come free to him, he paid a vital cost: the loss of his morals and his sanity. This is shown in the quote spoken by Macbeth towards the end of the play, where he says, “Will all great Neptunes oceans wash this blood//Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather// The multitudinous seas incarnadine// Making the green one red.” In this quote, Macbeth is saying that there is not enough water in the ocean to wash away the blood on his hands or the sins he has committed. Instead, the blood will turn the once green oceans red. This demonstrates that Macbeth has truly become a “minion” of his ambition which has caused him to sacrifice his morals and lose sanity as he realises what he has done.
The tale of the ambitious King Ozymandias is told by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poem Ozymandias. King Ozymandias is a power hungry King, who uses his ambition to gain power and status over his people and land.
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye mighty and despair!” In this quote, King Ozymandias is using a superlative, calling himself the King of all Kings. This emphasises his arrogance because as kings are historically the most powerful figure in the land, it illustrates that Ozymandias believes himself to be the best and most powerful man alive. However, this portrayal of himself is ironic, as further on the text, he is portrayed in a different light. “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.” This is saying that around the “Two vast and trunkless legs of stones” which stand in the desert, no mighty works exist as implied by Ozymandias’ previous quote. The irony shows that despite Ozymandias’ ambition for power and the statue of himself built in the desert to memorialize his status and power, his rule was not praised and remembered when he passed on, but instead abandoned and forgotten. Ozymandias wanted to be a powerful king, to be forever remembered and worshipped. However, unlike Macbeth where his ambition achieved his intentions to become King, this did not happen. The sacrifice that Ozymandias made at the hands of his ambition was that all the hard work and effort put into to making himself great and powerful did not pay off. In fact, it was a futile exercise that meant nothing, as demonstrated by his crumbling and lonely statue in the desert. This sacrifice is demonstrated by a quote otherwise unrelated to the poem which states that “If you don’t sacrifice for what you want, what you want becomes the sacrifice.” In the case of Ozymandias, his ambition to pursue power was so controlling and primarily selfish that he was not willing to make any sacrifices to achieve his goal. Ultimately, his power became the sacrifice as only a powerless legacy remained of a once mighty King. Percy Bysshe Shelley successfully conveys the warning that ambition comes with a cost in his poem Ozymandias, by showing how despite Ozymandias’ ambition to achieve great power, he ended up with no respected legacy as he had desired.
The novel The Pearl written by John Steinbeck in 1947 tells the tale of Kino, a pearl fisherman who finds himself grasped in the talons of ambition after a run of fortune, and the devastating consequences he pays for it. At the beginning of the play, Kino and his wife Juana’s baby, Coyotito is bitten by a scorpion while sleeping in his crib. Kino is a pearl fisherman along with the rest of his village, a trade destined for those not so well off. With no money or valuable assets to offer the towns Doctor, the treatment of baby Coyotito is denied. Juana fears for the life of her son, and pleads with her husband to go fishing in hope of finding a fortune great enough to pay the Doctor for the treatment of Coyotito. While fishing, Kino strikes gold, and discovers the largest and most beautiful pearl he has ever seen, worth more than enough to pay for the treatment of the baby. But Kino begins to want more. In the pearl, he saw a vision of himself marrying Juana, he saw them wearing fine clothes, even shoes. He saw himself with a rifle, a luxury for a poor man like himself. He saw his son Coyotito dressed in an elegant school uniform, and he decided there and then that his son would go to school. “This is what the pearl will do,” says Kino, and suddenly, no price that the towns buyers could offer him was sufficient, because Kino’s ambition to achieve the visions he had seen within the pearl was too strong. The way in which Kino’s ambition was ignited within him is very similar to Macbeth. For Macbeth, his ambition started when he was presented with the prophecy from the witches, whereas it was the Pearls visions for Kino. One evening, Kino commits the murder of a man who attempted to steal the “Pearl of the World”. His crime turns his village against him and he and Juana are forced to flee with their baby. Pursued by the villages scouts, their baby is shot through the head in a skirmish, and Juana and Kino are forced to return home with their dead baby in a bag over their shoulder. Similar to Macbeth and Ozymandias, the devastating story of Kino and his family strongly conveys the warning that ambition, like all great things, comes with great consequences. For Kino, his ambition comes with the sacrifice of his respect that his village had for him, the happiness and the safety of his family, and the life of his firstborn child, Coyotito.
The movie Gattaca directed by Andrew Niccol is set in a scientifically dominated future where genetic selection is considered superior to natural conception. Vincent Freeman is a man conceived purely out of love, and not unlike Macbeth, King Ozymandias and Kino, ambition is a dominant virtue within his heart and soul. However, the ambition growing within Vincent is contrary to the nature of ambition previously explored. Living in an advanced society where genetic perfection is sought after, “Godchildren” are continually disadvantaged. Vincent was born with a rare genetic heart disorder believed to kill him before he reaches the age of thirty. Because of this, society has rendered him incapable of achieving his one goal; to travel to space. This is demonstrated in the words of his father towards the beginning of the film, where he says, “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.” Through enduring the harsh discrimination of society, as demonstrated in the quote above, and the constant reminder that he is not good enough, Vincent’s ambition to achieve his goal flourishes to such lengths that he will not stop at anything to achieve what he wants. A scientific process to become Jerome Morrow, a perfect child in the eyes of the Gattaca society, allow Vincent to be accepted onto a mission to Titan. The ruthlessness of Vincent’s ambition is fully demonstrated in a quote directed towards his brother, where he says, “You want to know how I did it, Anton? This is how I did it: I never left anything for the swim back.” This quote demonstrates the lengths that Vincent was willing to go to achieve his dream, he was even willing to sacrifice his life so that he would be able to travel to space. Vincent’s powerful ambition, although selfish, sought only to achieve his goal of travelling to space and was not intended to bring harm to those around him. However, despite that Vincent’s ambition was not of the power-seeking, greedy kind like I have previously explored, Vincent still suffered a major consequence at the hands of his ambition; his life. In Andrew Niccol’s film, Gattaca, he successfully conveys the warning that ambition, like all great things, comes with a cost, by showing how even Vincent, who wanted purely to achieve his dream of travelling to space, had to pay the price.
Exploring the deep realms of the ambition of Macbeth, King Ozymandias, Kino, and Vincent has led me to one conclusion; that no matter how much we analyse ambition, it’s true nature will never be apparent to us due to the complexity of this human trait. However, through analysing their texts, William Shakespeare, Andrew Niccol, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Steinbeck have all taught me a valuable lesson about this convoluted trait; no matter the intentions of your ambition, good or bad, ambition like all great things comes with a cost. Their tales have illustrated and reinforced to me that the road to success, no matter how you define success for yourself, is not simple, nor is it easy. If you really do have ambition and desire to achieve your dreams, your hopes, and your goals, you have to be willing to make sacrifices along the way. After all, we are nothing but “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.” It is in our hands, and our hands only to carve our path in life, and make the sacrifices along the way in order to acheive our purpose and our goals.