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 first blessed, then condemned by Fortune; his sons follow suit in their fashion. Only by embracing virtue (which, at the end of the play, is identified as Queen Elizabeth, the earthly personification of the quality) can human beings rise above the fickle, transitory nature of human life.
This sense of morality—and Dekker’s debt to traditional English morality plays such as Everyman—has a considerable impact on Old Fortunatus. The characters are almost stock figures, representing traditional virtues and vices, rather than complex individuals. Allegorical figures such as Fortune, who embody forces beyond human life, are most representative of this tendency; a number of critics have rightfully noted that Fortune begins as indifferent, even scornful of human beings, only to end the play by announcing her allegiance to Queen Elizabeth as the embodiment of virtue. Again, such a discrepancy was hardly likely to have caused problems during the period when the play was written and first produced.
The source of Dekker’s play almost certainly was an old German folktale known as “Old Fortunatus and His Magic Purse and Hat,” published in 1509. Dekker adapted the story to fit the conventions of the English stage by emphasizing the spectacular and visual elements of the work and by providing his characters, especially Fortune, with elaborate rhetorical set pieces. It is the sometimes awkward fit between the two elements that has caused some critics to comment on the divided nature of Dekker’s drama, which...
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is part fantastic comedy and part moralizing sermon.
It is highly unlikely that Dekker’s audience would have been troubled by such a division of purpose and approach. In the context of the dispute between the Puritan culture, which denigrated poetry and popular music, and Renaissance humanism, which endorsed the works of the human imagination, many of the Elizabethans believed that a major purpose of art, especially poetry and the theater, was to serve a didactic purpose. The basis of Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie (1595), the premier apology of poetic art as a worthwhile effort and an answer to Puritan attacks, was that poetry is better able than history or biography to provide a moral lesson to readers; Old Fortunatus is a drama that fits precisely into that worldview. The spectacle and romantic elements are to delight the audience, while important moral lessons are being imparted. The classical belief of rhetoric as an art that teaches, delights, and persuades is worked out in the play, and Dekker freely combines the fantastic and the moral to achieve his aim.
Such is the purpose of Old Fortunatus, and Dekker was eminently qualified to write such a drama. One of the most productive and popular of Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, he claimed an “entire hand” or “at least a major finger” in some 220 plays. He was among the best for tragedy, while the dramatist John Webster ranked Dekker along with William Shakespeare as an example of a playwright of the first order. Old Fortunatus, apparently Dekker’s first work for the stage, provides an excellent example of what the writers and audiences of Elizabethan London saw in his work: smoothly flowing verse, a strong sense of individual character, and a lively plot that, however fantastic in its individual moments, always provides a moral lesson to courtier and commoner alike.