Thomas Dekker’s Old Fortunatus, first performed before Queen Elizabeth I on December 27, 1599, is an uneasy combination of morality play and light comedy, combining a serious, allegorical message with a series of highly inventive, fantastic events that propel the characters throughout the world known to the English of the Renaissance, from Turkey to Cyprus to England. Never entirely realistic or completely symbolic, it suffers from internal contradictions and a certain weakness of structure but offers the audience an intensely moral lesson. Moral instruction, aimed at the members of the English court, seems to have been the major intention of the play.
The plot is simple: Fortunatus is confronted by the goddess Fortune, who offers him a choice of strength, health, beauty, long life, riches, or wisdom. Unwisely, Fortunatus chooses wealth, and he is given a magical purse that always contains ten gold pieces. Later, through an equally unrealistic turn of events, he obtains the magical hat of the Turkish sultan, which allows him to transport himself from place to place merely by wishing.
Fortunatus dies, and his two sons, Andelocia, the worldly younger boy, and Ampedo, the virtuous older youth, must share the inheritance. Despite their differing ways of using Fortunatus’s gifts, they are no better in making use of their legacy than their father, and in the end they, too, come to bitter ends. The theme that this world is a sum of “vanity of vanities,” so familiar in Elizabethan literature, is central to Old Fortunatus.
The power and capriciousness of Fortune, as the ruling goddess of the world, was a familiar theme during the period. Fortune’s wheel, that instrument that causes some to rise and others to fall, and that keeps turning, was a popular image in Dekker’s time in poetry and the visual arts. Dekker emphasizes the irrational nature of Fortune and her ways: “This world is Fortune’s ball wherewith she sports.” The essence of Fortune is that she is fickle, completely devoid of moral sense, arbitrary in her judgments and without regard for the vices and virtues of individual human beings. Given Fortune’s arbitrary nature, it is no surprise Old Fortunatus is...
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