The quest for fame has nearly always been seen as a double-edged sword. Ambition—the desire to better oneself, to make full use of one's talents—is surely a noble human aspiration. But uncontrolled ambition and the craving for fame has throughout history been seen as ultimately destructive. Unfortunately, simple ambition can quickly grow into an obsession for power; success breeds success, and power corrupts as it grows. Drama is the main vehicle for the study of the overly ambitious: most of Shakespeare's tragic heroes are driven by overweening ambition, and the epitome of the type is Faust, who sells his soul to obtain superhuman power. Faust's miserable end, tumbling and vainly screaming into the pit of hell, is the most graphic of the falls that await the overly ambitious. The theme is thus closely related to pride or “hubris,” the first of the seven deadly sins and the most important of the vices depicted in Greek tragedy. It is also akin to vanity, against which we are warned by the preacher in Ecclesiastes. Even the quest for knowledge, Faust's original ambition, can be dangerous, as the preacher tells us: “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” This section discusses poems that focus on the quest for political, literary, or athletic glory.
One of the most powerful admonitions against the ambition of rulers is found in the seventeenth-century dramatist James Shirley's play Ajax and Ulysses (1659). “The Glories of Our Blood and State” was said to have been sung to King Charles I (who was beheaded by parliament) and served as a warning to Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the commonwealth that succeeded Charles's rule. Similar in theme to the poems that remind us that death comes to all, regardless of station, the poem warns, “there is no armor against fate;/Death lays his icy hand on kings.” The proud ruler is reminded to “boast no more your mighty deeds”; only