What was the "wheel of fortune" in Elizabethan times?

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The "Wheel of Fortune" was a concept with roots in Roman mythology, representing the capricious nature of fate. The goddess Fortuna spun the wheel, determining the fates of people and underscoring the unpredictable shifts between prosperity and downfall. This notion was significant in the Elizabethan worldview and was prominently featured in Shakespearean works like "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet," "King Lear," "Othello," and "Macbeth." The concept highlighted the question of human action versus fate and the seeming randomness of fortune's distribution.

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The Wheel of Fortune was a medieval concept with its antecedents in Roman mythology. The Roman goddess Fortuna was characterized as having a Rota Fortunae (wheel of fortune) or a ship's rudder in one one hand and a cornucopia in the other. With these instruments she controlled the fates of people by the spin of the wheel. She spins the wheel randomly, and thus people who are at one time at the top of the wheel and living luxurious lives are, with the spin of the wheel, humbled and brought down. As the spinning of the wheel is capricious, those who are at one time in a favorable position have no choice but to accept the misfortune, pain, and death that awaits them as the wheel spins.

This idea of a destiny that is out of human control is an important element in the Elizabethan worldview and is clearly seen in many of Shakespeare’s works. For example, Hamlet famously rants against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo refers to himself as “fortune’s fool,” and in act 3, scene 5, Juliet says, “O Fortune, Fortune! All men call thee fickle.” Juliet then goes on to raise the question of human action versus fate by asking, “If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him that is renowned for faith?”

Further examples of the control of human destiny by the spinning of the wheel of fortune are found in many other Shakespearean works, including King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. In modern parlance, the question raised is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

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The Wheel of Fortune is more a medieval than a Renaissance concept. The contrast concerns the forces that lead to our moments of happiness or despair. In Classical and Renaissance concepts, we have a certain linear path, and our destiny is dictated by Fate and by our own choices or actions. A hamartia, or fatal flaw, will determine a tragic ending, for instance.

With a Wheel of Fortune, we sense that our lives are on a perpetual wheel, and sometimes we are moving toward the top and sometimes we are moving toward the bottom. In the iconic image, blind Fortune will spin her wheel and those who are happy will experience misfortune, and those suffering will be brought higher. We ourselves do not determine the movement of Fortune's wheel.

These competing theories are commonly at work in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. In As You Like It and King Lear, both Fortune and self-determination are mentioned. In general, Elizabethan writers were more inclined to think of individual forces or Fate rather than Fortune as the cause of our happy or tragic ends. It is how we accept or respond to the accidents of Fortune that determine our ends, as Hamlet suggests.

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The Elizabethan wheel of fortune is derived from the Medieval wheel of fortune, which in turn was derived from the Roman goddess Fortuna and her wheel.

The essential concept is that we are all on an ever-turning and often unpredictable wheel of fortune, which moves from good luck to bad luck to good luck to bad. Today, we may be at the top of the wheel, riding high, but tomorrow, the wheel could turn so that we are at the bottom, having lost everything. Fortune's wheel in the Middle and Elizabethan Ages was wedded to the Christian idea that the present world is temporary and unstable—not to be trusted in. Fortune's unreliable wheel revealed to people that they should keep their focus on heaven.

Shakespeare makes use of wheel of fortune imagery in more than one of his plays. For example, in King Lear, when the Duke of Kent, whom fortune once favored with power and prestige, ends up placed in the stocks, he says:

Fortune, good night, smile once more; turn thy wheel!

By this, he means his luck has bottomed out: he knows, however, that this can be a temporary state, so he cries out for better luck to come his way, envisioning it as a wheel turning.

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Order and harmony, in the Elizabethan era, existed on earth and in the heavens. According to the beliefs of the time, any earthly disruption would be evident through nature, and violent storms would often accompany any disturbance in the natural order. Everything had its place—and its relative importance—and the Chain of Being was not to be interfered with.

The wheel of fortune, which had its origin in the Middle Ages and continued in popularity during the Elizabethan era, was based on the belief that fate and fortune were believed to control life. The "wheel" could turn in your favor or reduce your status as misfortune struck. Consequences would largely be considered to be beyond a person's own control; hence the importance of not upsetting the Chain of Being unnecessarily.

A man was effectively placed on the wheel in terms of his status in life, noblemen filling the higher spaces and the poor at the bottom. The goddess of fortune could spin the wheel as she chose. Even Shakespeare speaks of "Fortune" in Hamlet and the wish to "take away all her power." It was a contradictory theory, obviously not favored from a Christian point of view, when, especially in Elizabethan times, the theory of doing good deeds assuring you a place in heaven would have been contrary to the idea of the wheel.

The Elizabethan era was also an "age of discovery," and more scientific methods and approaches were being introduced. Shakespeare favored the humanistic approach, believing that man has a hand in his own destiny and is not merely or literally "in the hands of the gods."

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