Study Guide

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Fate and Fortune

Fate and Fortune

Introduction

Fate and Fortune

The enigmatic influence of fate, fortune, and the heavens on the lives of human beings forms a compelling theme in Shakespearean drama. Frequently coupled with Christian connotations, these concepts feature prominently in such diverse works as The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, King Lear, and many others. In some cases, Shakespeare borrowed his concepts of fate and fortune from the antique writings of Plutarch, Seneca, and Ptolemy, in which pre-Christian cosmological ideas decree the power of the stars to dictate the fates of mortals. Later interpretations of fortune also appear in Shakespeare's plays, including notions associated with medieval morality and Renaissance iconography. In the medieval view, belief in fortune, especially in the sense of pursuing worldly wealth, suggested the forfeiture of redemption in exchange for the capricious and fleeting rewards of material existence. In the Renaissance, this concept was often found in emblematic imagery, which typically depicted the pagan goddess Fortune allegorically as a harlot. Other iconic representations of Fortune showed her as a beguiling woman presiding over a spinning circle or wheel on which one's fortunes would rise and fall in conjunction with the unpredictable forces of chance, accident, and occasion. The concepts of fate and fortune have also been interpreted as one's inexorable destiny, quite simply as the end result of divine providence, or more problematically in the context of human free will. In Shakespearean drama, the mysterious forces of fate and fortune are given broad play. Whether in regard to comedy, tragedy, or history, scholars discern Shakespeare's characteristically paradoxical engagement with and dramatization of these powerful abstractions.

Critics suggest that Shakespeare's depiction of fortune in the comedies relies in large part on medieval and Renaissance perceptions of this obscure force. Fortune is generally a deceiver in the comic plays, set to test the virtue of those seeking favor or gain, and stands in contrast with the providential designs of God. Focusing his analysis on Twelfth Night, B. S. Field, Jr. (1973) considers the characters' reactions to the whims of fortune and fate. He argues that fortune—or more specifically an individual's ability to endure the calamities of fortune—informs a continuum of moral worth in the play. With her equanimity and stoicism in the face of harsh fortunes, Viola sets the standard. She makes no effort to change or deny that which she knows to be inevitable. To a lesser degree Olivia also remains resigned to her fate, particularly her unrequited love for Cesario. Sebastian, in contrast, at first curses his ill luck, but later yields to grace and accepts that faith in God will guide his fortunes favorably. Lastly, Malvolio pretends to be stoical in the face of fortune, assuming it will inevitably and deservedly work in his favor. He believes that good luck is precisely what he deserves and will get, but when fortune treats him unfavorably, he vows revenge. Perhaps more than any other Shakespearean comedy The Merchant of Venice relies on the vicissitudes of fortune to drive its plot. In the hazardous mercantile world of the play, the search for ever greater financial rewards invites increased risks and reversals far beyond the control of mortals. In his study of the drama, Raymond B. Waddington (1977) examines how a trio of inscrutable forces—fortune, justice, and Cupid—dictate the fates of the characters. In Waddington's view, the play suggests that one should deny the pursuit of fortune in favor of a Christian acceptance of providence. Thus, in the play's lottery scene, as caskets are chosen in order to win the hand of Portia, Shakespeare draws a line between those who believe in good fortune as the recompense of merit, and those who, like Bassanio, rely on faith in God to determine their reward. According to Waddington's scheme, generosity, mercy, and above all faith invite justice; similarly, sacrifice and trust in providence define true love—like that of Portia and Bassanio—while belief in the randomness of Cupid's blind arrows merely breeds base physical attraction. In a complementary assessment of The Merchant of Venice Stanley J. Kozikowski (1980) discusses the lottery for Portia as an allegorical interlude concerned with love and fortune. Kozikowski argues that Shakespeare first presents Portia as a conventional personification of Fortune, ambivalent toward those who desire her. She dupes and deceives the men who would wed her for false reasons, such as advancement, wealth, or pleasure. By making her suitors choose between a gold, silver, or lead casket she exposes Morocco's pride and Aragon's drive for wealth. However Bassanio, whose feelings for Portia are real, selflessly chooses love over fortune and succeeds in his suit through virtue.

The status of fate and fortune as determining factors in Shakespearean tragedy has drawn the attention of numerous scholars eager to understand the patterns of tragic causality in such works as Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Timon of Athens. Behind the bleak, near nihilistic worldview depicted in these dramas, critics have discerned a carefully crafted balance among destiny, chance, choice, and providential will. Surveying the interaction of fortune and occasion in Shakespearean tragedy, Frederick Kiefer (1983) focuses on three tragic Shakespearean figures: Richard II, Brutus (of Julius Caesar), and Hamlet. He notes that Richard II's medieval notions of fate make him the victim of inescapable fortune, while his antagonist, Henry Bolingbroke, forcefully determines his own future. Brutus, like Bolingbroke, relies on his sense of occasion and opportunity, but ultimately fails in his efforts to mold the world because he lacks the ability to effectively adapt to change. In a final example, Hamlet, who like Richard II holds a conventional view of fortune at the opening of the play, experiences a major shift in sensibility, allowing him to sublimate his personal feelings of victimization into a resolute faith in divine will. Analyzing one of Shakespeare's most effective tragic images, the wheel of fortune, Tibor Fabiny (1989) contends that the figurative turning of the wheel is a central organizing principle in such works as Richard III, King Lear, and Macbeth. Wendy Rogers Harper (1986) examines two film adaptations of Shakespeare's Macbeth—one a tragedy of character and the other a tragedy of fate. Harper contrasts Roman Polanski's naturalistic, psychological, and character-driven film with Orson Welles's surrealistic, nightmarish version that highlights Macbeth's inescapable fate as the pawn of supernatural forces. Also interested in Macbeth, James L. O'Rourke (1993) analyzes the conflict between divine omniscience and human free will in the play, and suggests that Shakespeare's drama ironically subverts both of these concepts. According to the critic, Macbeth undercuts both the ordered, Christian notion of fate as shaped by the hands of God and the existential understanding of the preeminence of individualized free will. Perhaps more than any other Shakespearean tragedy Romeo and Juliet is profoundly influenced by the notions of fortune and fate. Discussing these aspects of the drama, D. Douglas Waters (1992) asserts that Romeo and Juliet should be understood as a tragedy of fate rather than as a character-driven story and examines how the intersection of chance circumstances, seemingly irrational forces, and human contingency come together to produce a tragedy written in the stars. John F. Andrews (1996) offers an opposing view. Although he recognizes the influence of “Fortune, Fate, and the Stars” on Romeo and Juliet, he nevertheless contends that the deaths of these young lovers are the result of choice, causality, and divine will. Lewis Walker (1977) contends that the moral allegory of Fortune featured in the first scene of Timon of Athens highlights the central theme of the play: the undesirability of owing one's success to fickle Fortune. In the tale, Fortune breeds trouble and strife in society by offering rewards without consideration of merit. Fortune is divisive and promotes self-interest, the acquisition of material possessions, and competition at the expense of community and equality. By the end of the play Timon's good fortune, rather than sustaining its blessings, leads him to betrayal and isolates him as a misanthrope unable to trust his fellow man.

Shakespeare's representation of fortune and fate in the pre-Christian world of the Roman plays differs significantly from that of his comedies, romances, and other tragedies. Instead of exploring the religious or moral consequences of one's belief in fortune, the dramas Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar tend to forward a perception of fortune in part borrowed from his source, the Roman moralist Plutarch; however, unlike Plutarch's vision of a stable beneficent goddess who brings good luck to Rome, Shakespeare's is a blind and fickle goddess. Michael Lloyd (1962) surveys the imagery of fortune and chance in Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar as inspired by the writings of Plutarch. Observing Shakespeare's allusions to turbulent seas and games of chance as they suggest the unstable and fluctuating world of these plays, Lloyd nevertheless remarks on the plays' evocation of the Roman goddess Fortune as a beneficent entity. Lloyd also examines Mark Antony's unpredictable temperament and his tenacious reliance on chance for favor and victory as an indication of Rome's uncanny sustaining influence in the antique world. Marilyn L. Williamson (1968) views the goddess Fortune as the principal symbolic figure in Antony and Cleopatra and finds that the tragedy of the drama is one of mighty individuals unwillingly caught among forces far beyond their understanding or control. Charles A. Hallett (1976) also studies fortune in Antony and Cleopatra and links this capricious force with change and time as the determining factors of the drama. According to the critic, Shakespeare's Egypt and Rome exist in a state of flux because they do not have a Christian divinity to order and judge the universe; therefore, the fickle goddess Fortune is, paradoxically, one of the few stabilizing forces to be found in their pre-Christian universe. When Antony decides to tempt Fortune by splitting his loyalties between Rome and Egypt, Hallett asserts, his luck declines. Likewise, Pompey, Octavius, and Shakespeare's other Romans learn that their individual destinies rise and fall with time as if on a wheel that is unpredictably, but inevitably, turned by the goddess Fortune.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Frederick Kiefer (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Kiefer, Frederick. “Fortune and Occasion in Shakespeare: Richard II, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet.” In Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy, pp. 232-69. San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1983.

[In the following essay, Kiefer surveys the interaction of fortune and occasion in Shakespearean tragedy, focusing on three tragic Shakespearean figures: Richard II, Brutus (of Julius Caesar), and Hamlet.]

Playwrights seldom provide an elaborate description of Dame Fortune—certainly no counterpart in words to the vivid depictions of Continental emblematists. Nevertheless, their plays reflect the changing concept of Fortune in the Renaissance....

(The entire section is 12629 words.)

Tibor Fabiny (essay date November 1989)

SOURCE: Fabiny, Tibor. “‘Rota Fortunae’ and the Symbolism of Evil in Shakespearean Tragedy.” Journal of Literature and Theology 3, no. 3 (November 1989): 319-30.

[In the following essay, Fabiny analyzes the image of the wheel of fortune and contends that the figurative turning of the wheel is a central organizing principle in Shakespearean tragedy, particularly Richard III, King Lear, and Macbeth.]

The purpose of the present paper is to investigate the phenomenology of Shakespearean tragedy. It is the premise of the paper that this tragedy is both a universal vision of human existence1 and a structure or form inherited from the Middle Ages....

(The entire section is 4759 words.)