The human quality of ambition is a useful tool that writers and film creators manipulate to tell a story. The dictionary defines ambition as “a strong desire to do or achieve something”. Ambition is shown to be the cause of both good and evil occurrences, and I will be discussing how different texts in literature and film represent this factor of ambition by using their characters.
The sonnet, Ozymandias, written by Percy Bysshe Shelley tells the story of an ambitious king overcome with hubris. The poem begins with the poet meeting a foreign traveller that describes the broken statue of a fallen king, Ozymandias in the desert “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert. . . Near them, on the sand, half sunk a shattered visage lies. . .”. The king shows ambition to be remembered in history based on the traveller’s retailing. In this poem, Shelley utilizes his character Ozymandias to show that some forms of ambition can cause demise rather than the achievement of one’s goals. An example that shows that the king desired to be commemorated is; “And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”. In the quote, it tells that the king saw himself as powerful and important when the reality is that his statue is broken and crumbling in the desert, forgotten by all. Ozymandias’s ambition to be recognized is a selfish desire that he will do anything to ensure he achieves, the king goes so far to instill fear in his people. Shelley makes clear of this fact and writes “… whose frown and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” describing the king’s broken statue, to make certain the reader knows that Ozymandias was so invested in being remembered that he had the sculptor make him look formidable. The character of the King, Ozymandias demonstrates the result of having ambition with only selfish goals.
Similar to Ozymandias, Macbeth, written by William Shakespeare uses selfish ambition within his characters to progress his story. The tragedy displays Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, driven by their want for power. Infamously ambitious, Lady Macbeth takes a dark turn when her husband tells her of a possibility of her becoming the next Queen of Scotland. She takes it upon herself to secure that position by manipulating her husband into completing what she believes, needs to be done. She goes as far as to call upon evil spirits to possess her and give her the strength she requires “Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here; and fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty”. This shows the determination and commitment she has to attain her objective. Shakespeare skillfully employs Lady Macbeth’s unwavering ambition for power and status to show an example of the evil occurrences that unfold when goals are achieved by means of lying, manipulation, and murder. Another example that proves her corrupted ambition is that throughout the story she uses her own husband to get what she wants. She constantly takes advantage of his weak will by stating things such as “Thou’rt mad to say it.” and “Infirm of purpose!”. Ultimately calling him mad and useless. She willingly dismisses her role “wife” and takes the strong lead in the relationship; very rare for the time she is written in. Lady Macbeth manages to achieve her goal but becomes overwhelmed with the guilt of the actions she has taken and as a result, commits suicide to ease her troubled mind “The queen, my lord, is dead”.
Gattaca, the 1997 movie by Andrew Niccol, also has a character driven solely by ambition. Similar to the other texts, the character Vincent Freeman, uses ambition for selfish desires and will go to great lengths to accomplish his goals. In Gattaca, those that aren’t genetically modified before birth are considered “Invalid” and have fewer opportunities. Therefore, Vincent, a “god-child” must possess a new identity, breaking the law. For Vincent’s dream of going to Space, it is necessary that he breaks laws because of the unjust system he was born into. Due to the prejudice he faces, it allows the extreme actions Vincent takes acceptable. As proof of commitment to his goals, Vincent teams up with Jerome Morrow, a genetically perfect individual crippled in a suicide attempt, and uses his DNA to begin working at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. Everyday Vincent goes through a meticulous routine of scrubbing off dead skin cells and using samples of Jerome’s urine and blood to avoid detection. Creator, Andrew Niccol, displays the positive result of a character using ambition righteously. Vincent has all the odds stacked against him, including his genetic code, but because of ambition with determination, he fulfils his dream. Vincent demonstrates this determination when he is challenging his genetically superior brother “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton; I never saved anything for the swim back.”
The Help, contrary to the other texts contains a character that uses her ambition to help others. In Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 book, The Help, aspiring writer Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan applies her knowledge and platform to further her career, but also to give the oppressed black maids a voice. The novel is set during the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. As written, many of these women experience poor treatment and discrimination. Skeeter begins to notice this and the racism prevalent in her childhood friend, Hilly Hillbrook. Skeeter, driven by the thought of change decides to act on this opportunity. One day when at a high society bridge game, Hilly discusses her plan to make separate bathrooms for “the help” mandatory within earshot of maid, Aibileen Clark. Later, Skeeter approaches Aibileen and apologizes on behalf of Hilly, and also states “Do you ever wish you could…change things?”. This statement enlists Aibileen to help Skeeter with her book about the mistreatment of maids. Skeeter’s ambition to change the status quo and help those around her, she receives support in return. Stockett exhibits the good occurrences that can come with ambition. In learning about what the maids go through, Skeeter’s drive to become an accomplished female author also turns into aspirations of being educated in segregation and the systems that oppress African-Americans. She is ambitious and brave enough to risk being discovered by the white population of the town to do this “…I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe.”
In conclusion, it is evident from these texts that those that use ambition with morality are able to not only achieve their goal but ultimately end up happier and more successful. The above-mentioned authors and creators all cleverly applied their extremely different characters to tell varying versions of ambition.