Death is inevitable. It will come to all. The text’s Macbeth by William Shakespeare, Gattaca written by Andrew Niccol, Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelly and Fear of Dying by Claire Galpin all contain, or are based around characters that have varying degrees of understanding of this concept and largely different reactions. Macbeth and Ozymandias – both ‘great’ kings respond to their inevitable demise with fear and denial. In their hubris they wish or believe they will be immortal, and value their power above all else. Macbeth squanders his time in fear that his line will not continue to be king, therefore making his power and rule as brief and transient as his life. Ozymandias – king of kings – had a larger than life effigy cast in his likeness in order for his greatness to be remembered.
On another level, in the poem Fear of Dying, Galpin writes from the perspective of a thanatophobiac – a word which literally translates to “a person who has a morbid dread of death.”
However, unlike Macbeth, Ozymandias and Galpin, Vincent (the lead character in Gattaca) responds to the inevitability of his death in the best way humanly possible. Because of the nature of his heart condition he could die at any second, but instead of responding in fear or denial, he embraces life and pushes its boundaries.
The knowledge that life is transient and death is inevitable ties these texts, but while they are linked, they are in no way the same, as each highlights different elements of human reaction to this realisation.
Macbeth’s mind becomes sickened as he assumes the role of king. In this state, his title, his crown and his power is the stuff off which he lives. To lose these would be like dying. In other words it is not death itself Macbeth fears – for he believes he can not be killed – but the loss of the only thing worth living for.. power.
By substituting ‘power’ – or the title of king – for ‘life’ it is clear that, upon coming to the realisation that life is transient Macbeth becomes consumed in trying to hold on to his power. In his fear, he has any man or woman who might take it away from him killed.
In act four, scene one of the text the witches are prophesising to Macbeth. They tell him “beware Macduff”, but also that he can not be killed by any man borne of a woman – which makes him unafraid of death. He responds to this supposed immortality by saying: “Then live, Macduff. What need I fear of thee?” Here Macbeth decides that Macduff does not need to die, as he poses no threat. But Macbeth quickly changes his mind and says: “yet I’ll make assurance double sure, And take a bond of fate. Thou shalt not live”
Macbeth decides to have Macduff killed because he is afraid of the ending of his power and reign. Of course, with death all comes to an end, and Macbeth lives in fearful denial of this fact, and reacts by trying to eliminate any possible threats.
Ozymandias, like Macbeth, values power and control over all else, as, in his over confidence he believes himself immortal. For both characters the lines between life and power had become blurred, in their vanity the men came to count more on measurable things – for Ozymandias this was his ‘works’ and the greatness he had achieved as king. So great extensive was his confidence and arrogance that he did not believe that all which he had achieved in life would ever cease to exist. In this way Ozymandias was not aware of the transience of life, the inconsequentiality of his own, and the inevitability that it would all come to dust in the end. This is shown in the words left on the pedestal where the statue of the great king once stood: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” – Ozymandias is commanding the reader to behold all he had achieved, but Shelley tears down the kings hubris, and reminds us of the inevitability of death and the ultimate destruction of all things as the traveler goes on to say: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.” In these few lines the crushing mortality of all things is made clear to us. Despite Ozymandias, “king of kings” having a statue created of himself – and doubtlessly overseen the making of many other ‘works’ in an attempt to be remembered, nothing remains, and the “lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Both Ozymandias and Macbeth valued their power over life, but while Macbeth was fearful of losing his title – well aware of its possible transience, Ozymandias was oblivious to the inevitability of death and the destruction awaiting all.
Unlike both Ozymandias and Macbeth, in the poem Fear of Dying Galpin speaks of being afraid that life in its simple form will end. Galpin has realised how short life is and the undeniability of death.
Out of the texts Macbeth, Ozymandias and Fear of Dying, Galpin perhaps has the clearest understanding of the ineludible circle of life – however has become caught up in useless fear.
The inevitable has the potential to scare, as, despite dread, or any efforts to elude it will always come. This is what has shaken Galpin, shown in the lines “I’m going to die, I can feel it inside, I can’t do a thing”
By saying “I’m going to die” Galpin is acknowledging the inevitability of death – a healthy thing to do… neither Macbeth nor Ozymandias had the sense to realise this in its simple form. However, Galpin shows the change from healthy acceptance of mortality to the obsessive, morbid dread of death that she has in the line “I can’t do a thing”
Instead of quietly accepting that one day her life will come to an end, Galpin fights against the inevitable, lamenting that she can not “do a thing” to stop it from coming.
So great is Galpin’s dread of death that her life has crumbled under the weight of her fear. By being terrified of death Galpin is putting herself in an unhealthy, ironic position – her life has become not worth living because she is so petrified of dying.
Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca shows us the point at which the knowledge of the brilliant transience of life and the ability to continue living well has reached equilibrium. Gattaca’s lead character Vincent Freeman has both perfectly balanced.
Vincent has a ninety nine percent chance of heart failure, with a short life expectancy of thirty years. Death is far closer for him than the lucky percentage of us, and this fact has potential to terrify him, however he accepts it – simply throwing himself into life – eager to fill every short moment of it. When speaking about his oncoming death Vincent says: “mine is already ten thousand beats overdue”. He knows that death is inevitable – in fact for him it should have already come. But far from add fear to his life he sees the extra time he has as a gift. Perhaps it is the fact that he knows he could die at any moment, or simply that he has nothing to lose, but Vincent takes ambitious risks – hurling himself head first at life.
As kids, Vincent and his brother Anton would swim out into the ocean as far as they dared – a competition to see who would turn back first. When they were children Anton would always win these challenges, but years later trying their test again it was Vincent who got the furthest – having to drag his exhausted brother into shore. Later Vincent remarked to Anton: “You wanna know how I did it? This is how I did it Anton. I never saved anything for the swim back.” This quote is directly representative of the was Vincent lives his life. By saying “I never saved anything for the swim back” Vincent is showing that he is slightly reckless, but also so determined that a life lived in victory is worth the risk of the chance of death.. something which he has come to realise is inevitable anyways.
Both Galpin and Vincent have realised that life is transient. With this knowledge Galpin is almost unable to proceed, so frozen by the fear of her oncoming demise, whereas Vincent embraces life’s impermanence and lives purposefully, seeking to fulfil his ambitions in the time given to him.
Life is transient. Death is inevitable. The knowledge of this affects everyone in different ways. The texts Macbeth, Ozymandias, Fear of dying and Gattaca all explore the different reactions humans have to this realisation.
In life both Macbeth and Ozymandias held a lot of control and measured the quality of their life by their greatness. They were so consumed in their pursuit of power that the beauty and briefness of life was lost on them.
Yet in the back of their minds they were aware that they would die, and this caused them to – in Macbeth’s case – kill, and in Ozymandias’ – build in self preservation and a desperate attempt to be remembered. Despite this, both men died, and years later none of the wealth that they had amassed remained.. all that is left is the stories of their greedy, hungrily ambitious lives… that they wasted.
In a healthy way both Galpin and Vincent recognised that life is short. However, Galpin took the realisation too far and became caught up in fear, lamenting that she “can’t do a thing” to prevent the inevitable. This reaction to the inescapable nature of death is pointless, useless and degrades the quality of life.
Vincent on the other hand lives his life – in full awareness of its transience- with purpose and ambition. He does not dwell on his inevitable demise, but lives as though each day is his last, taking risks and achieving his goals.
The thing to be learned from studying these four texts and how each human has lived their lives in the knowledge of the inevitability of death is that: yes, life is transient, fleeting, however it is not how the “hour spent upon the stage” is remembered… but the quality of which it is lived.