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Lewis Walker (essay date winter 1977)

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SOURCE: Walker, Lewis. “Fortune and Friendship in Timon of Athens.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 18, no. 4 (winter 1977): 577-600.

[In the following essay, Walker 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.]

It is curious that critics, in dealing with the difficulties of Timon of Athens, have failed to consider thoroughly the allegory of Fortune in the opening scene. This extended performance by the Poet has obvious significance for Timon's career, and it is placed in such a prominent position that it invites detailed examination. Most commentators, however, have ignored it altogether, and one has dismissed it as “trite.”1 A few have remarked on its general relevance to the action of the play, Una Ellis-Fermor commenting that it provides “an ironic forewarning of Timon's fall,”2 and Geoffrey Bullough noting that it presents “a major theme of the play, and the explicit enunciation suggests that this is to be a moral piece, simpler than usual in Shakespeare, not so much the subtle portrait of a complex character as an exemplum of ethical truths.”3 But no one has attempted to apply the allegory in any detail to the play, seeking to understand the character of Timon in terms of the ideas of Fortune it evokes.4 Such an exercise is warranted not only by the allegory itself, but by the heavy emphasis on various forms of the word fortune throughout Timon.5

This article will study the ways in which Timon is influenced by certain concepts of Fortune familiar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It will be argued that many of the play's peculiarities result from Shakespeare's attempt to demonstrate the operations of the goddess through dramatic action, a procedure necessitating a mingling of allegorical and naturalistic elements which is disconcerting for the modern reader. In focusing on these matters, the following discussion will attempt to remove some of the obstacles to an understanding of Timon.

The details of the allegory of Fortune are significant not only for what they say about Timon, but for what they say about his associates. The Poet describes how Fortune, enthroned “upon a high and pleasant hill” (I.i.65), shows her favor to one “of Lord Timon's frame” (l. 71) by beckoning him to climb to her. But Timon is not alone:

                                                                                                    The base o' th' mount
Is rank'd with all deserts, all kind of natures
That labour on the bosom of this sphere
To propagate their states.

(ll. 66-69)

The allegory presents both the individual story of Timon and an anatomy of Athenian society. Emphasis is placed on the inclusiveness of the Poet's vision: all deserts, all kind of natures that seek to increase their “states,” or possessions6 (in other words, everyone). The relationship between Timon and his compatriots is tellingly defined: Timon is from the first described in terms that deny him the power to act. Even before launching into his allegory, the Poet ascribes Timon's following to something external to Timon:

Magic of bounty, all these spirits thy power
Hath conjur'd to attend!

(ll. 5-7)

Timon is granted no effective power himself. It is the apostrophized “magic of bounty” that has brought together his “friends.” This kind of magic in itself has sinister implications, since, as Muriel Bradbrook has commented, “Good spirits were not conjur'd into a circle.”7 As the Poet begins the allegory, he continues to depict Timon's drawing power as extrinsic to his character:

                                                            his [Timon's] large fortune,
Upon his good and gracious nature hanging,
Subdues and properties to his love and tendance
All sorts of hearts.

(ll. 56-59)

It is first of all the “large fortune,” not the “good and gracious nature,” which attracts his followers. They are held, moreover, by being subdued and propertied. Throughout the allegory, there are suggestions that Timon's prosperity is a form of domination or ownership of those who used to be his equals. And yet Timon himself is not primarily responsible for his friends' state of servitude. He is described as one whose “present grace” with Fortune “to present slaves and servants / Translates his rivals” (ll. 73-74). In this case, as in the two other instances cited to show Timon's influence over those who wait on him, the action of the verb is performed by some gift of Fortune. The emphasis is not on what Timon does or has done, but rather on what Fortune does to him and what she causes to be done by others in reaction to his prosperity.

The influence of Fortune on the society described in the allegory is clearly malignant. When all men seek the rewards of Fortune (as they do in the Poet's scenario), they are not friends or equals, but rivals (l. 74). If one is chosen to receive Fortune's favor, the others regard him as momentarily ahead in the competition. Timon is described as having been elevated not only above his peers but also above some who were formerly his betters:

All those who were his fellows but of late,
Some better than his value, on the moment
Follow his strides, his lobbies fill with tendance.

(ll. 80-82)

As soon as Timon's prosperity is generally recognized, all of the other competitors in the race for Fortune's favor alter their behavior to take advantage of this new circumstance. The extremes to which they go to pursue their self-interest are indicated by the imagery of the next few lines, in which they

Rain sacrificial whisperings in his ear,
Make sacred even his stirrup, and through him
Drink the free air.

(ll. 83-85)

In the Poet's words, their attendance on Timon raises him to the level of a god: they sacrifice to him, sanctify his every movement, and act as if he is responsible for their very existence. When Timon falls from Fortune's favor, they again consult their own interest:

When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependants
Which labour'd after him to the mountain's top
Even on their knees and hands, let him slip down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot.

(ll. 86-90)

This passage is the climax of the allegory, confirming the spirit of self-interest and the total lack of community in a society dominated by Fortune or by a desire for her gifts. In such a context, no true brotherhood is possible, since no equality can exist. Anyone who has more possessions than everyone else is a rival to be overtaken, and anyone who has fewer, especially one in need of aid, is ignored.

Timon is also subject to the control of Fortune, and the significance of the allegory is particularly important for him. It has been pointed out that, although there is a great deal of action around him, he does not act himself. The Poet's description, in its insistence on the enslaving effects of Timon's wealth on his followers, does not make Timon the enslaving force. Instead, Fortune and her gifts are the agents responsible for the trouble. Thus Timon is not seen participating in the unscrupulous competition that surrounds him, although it is implied that he has done so in the past. The point is not simply that Timon is morally better than his fellows; Shakespeare sets him off from the others because he wants to demonstrate certain truths about the operation of Fortune on an individual at the same time that he is demonstrating other truths about a society controlled by Fortune.

Timon's career, as presented in the allegory, shows that Fortune's favor is granted to a man without any consideration of his merit or effort to achieve it. Repeated references to time indicate that this favor is something that a man acquires unexpectedly and which is of short duration: Timon's grace with Fortune and his advantage over his friends are both described as present (l. 73), as if they had not existed for long and will not last much longer; the rapidity with which one rises above his fellows and the abrupt change this causes in their behavior are indicated by “of late” (l. 80) and “on the moment” (l. 81). The inevitability of Timon's fall, as well as its precipitousness, is emphasized by Fortune's fickleness. At first, she “wafts” him to her “with her ivory hand” (l. 72); then “in her shift and change of mood,” she “spurns down her late beloved” (ll. 86-87). She is clearly seen as a capricious female discarding a lover. And she always behaves in this way: it is not if Fortune in her shift and change of mood, but when. The allegory introduces Timon, then, as a study in what it means to be loved by Fortune and to trust in her favors. Obviously, to be in such a situation is ultimately undesirable; the rest of the play will reveal just how undesirable it is.

This discussion of Fortune has thus far confined itself to what the Poet actually says, but in order to understand the full force of the allegory, and the importance of Fortune throughout the play, we need to recover certain ideas and images that would have occurred automatically to Shakespeare's audience. The most important general notion of Fortune, inherited from classical antiquity, was that she is a goddess who controls whatever is irrational and fortuitous in human affairs.8 The Elizabethans were also familiar with the attempt to reconcile the actions of Fortune with Divine Providence made by Boethius in the sixth century and developed and refined by Christian writers for the next thousand years.9 Boethius concludes that things which seem to be caused by Fortune are in reality caused by Providence, even though men often cannot perceive this fact.10 But during the course of The Consolation of Philosophy, he gives a great deal of attention to Fortune in her pagan form, even if only to undercut her. Lady Philosophy explains to the imprisoned Boethius that in complaining about his desertion by Fortune, he is deluding himself. If he believes that his fall represents a change in Fortune's “manner of proceeding” toward him, he does not understand her true nature: “She hath kept that constancy in thy affairs which is proper to her, in being mutable.” Boethius should revise his expectations:

If thou likest her, frame thyself to her conditions, and make no complaint. If thou detestest her treachery, despise and cast her off, with her pernicious flattery. For that which caused thee so much sorrow should have brought thee to great tranquility. For she hath forsaken thee, of whom no man can be secure. Dost thou esteem that happiness precious which thou art to lose? And is the present fortune dear unto thee, of whose stay thou art not sure, and whose departure will breed thy grief? And if she can neither be kept at our will, and maketh them miserable whom she at last leaveth, what else is fickle fortune but a token of future calamity? For it is not sufficient to behold that which we have before our eyes; wisdom pondereth the event of things, and this mutability on both sides maketh the threats of fortune not to be feared, nor her flatterings to be desired.11

Following this, Philosophy impersonates Fortune and delivers a defense of her ways:

“For what cause, O man, chargest thou me with daily complaints? What injury have I done thee? What goods of thine have I taken from thee? Contend with me before any judge about the possession of riches and dignities; and if thou canst show that the propriety of any of these things belong to any mortal wight, I will forthwith willingly grant that those things which thou demandest were thine. When Nature produced thee out of thy mother's womb, I received thee naked and poor in all respects, cherished thee with my wealth, and (which maketh thee now to fall out with me) being forward to favour thee, I had most tender care for thy education, and adorned thee with the abundance and splendour of all things which are in my power. Now it pleaseth me to withdraw my hand, yield thanks, as one that hath had the use of that which was not his own. Thou hast no just cause to complain, as though thou hadst lost that which was fully thine own. Wherefore lamentest thou? I have offered thee no violence. Riches, honours, and the rest of that sort belong to me. They acknowledge me for their mistress, and themselves for my servants, they come with me, and when I go away they likewise depart.”12

It is immediately obvious that a knowledge of these commonplaces about Fortune (quoted here in a translation almost exactly contemporary with Timon) enriches one's response to the allegory and the play. The images of Fortune as fickle woman and as flatterer, found in the first passage, are of particular interest and will be considered first.

The quality of fickleness in Fortune led writers and artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to depict her as a harlot,13 and this image of her has a crucial role in several episodes of Timon. It has already been noticed how, in her “shift and change of mood,” she plays the wanton with Timon. In this role, she also seems to inform the puzzling incident involving the Page and the Fool in II.ii. The Fool, who is obviously a bawd serving the mistress of a brothel, has been bantering with Apemantus and others, when a Page belonging to the same establishment appears with letters for Timon and Alcibiades (ll. 81-88). Since there is never again any mention of the letters, what is in them, or indeed whether they are delivered, this passage has been thought to be a “loose end.”14 But if the traditional picture of Fortune as harlot is kept in mind, this scene can be read as an ingenious way of dramatizing the dependence of Timon and Alcibiades on her at a particular point in the play. Shakespeare is not concerned to show a logical progression from one point to another or to furnish motivation for the invitation to the brothel or for Timon's presumed interest in it. In fact, such specifics seem to be avoided on purpose, to give the scene a self-contained quality. The playwright has invented a bit of stage business that obliquely involves Timon with a whore. This is enough to suggest Timon's relationship with Fortune without on the one hand resorting to pure allegory and on the other having to justify the scene in entirely naturalistic terms.

Timon and Alcibiades are more directly involved with whores in IV.iii, a scene whose significance is made considerably clearer by the image of Fortune we have been discussing. In the iconography of the Renaissance, Fortune could be pictured specifically as a soldier's whore,15 and this is surely one of the main reasons why Phrynia and Timandra accompany Alcibiades on his visit to Timon in the woods. A stage direction makes plain that Alcibiades is to be seen here at his most martial, but it also specifies the presence of the two women: “Enter Alcibiades, with drum and fife, in warlike manner; and Phrynia and Timandra” (l. 48). Shakespeare seems to be making a statement about the fortunes of war: Alcibiades is a soldier on the offensive, and his present prosperity is compared with Timon's former prosperity:

I have heard in some sort of thy miseries.
Thou saw'st them when I had prosperity.
I see them now; then was a blessed time.
As thine is now, held with a brace of harlots.

(ll. 78-81)

Timon's point is that even though a man seems to be prosperous, he is in reality miserable if his prosperity is owed to Fortune. Timon then places his own “blessed time” in the same category with Alcibiades's current success: both are due to the strumpet Fortune, and both are therefore undesirable. In Alcibiades's case, the nature of Fortune's favor is confirmed by the presence of the “brace of harlots,” a symbolic representation of that favor particularly appropriate to soldiers.

If the above analysis is valid, then we can bring into sharper focus certain difficulties critics have had in trying to explain this scene. J. C. Maxwell has confessed to nagging doubts concerning the character of Alcibiades: “I should be reluctant to regard it [IV.iii] as intended to indicate that the claims of Alcibiades in the final scene to regenerate Athens are to be taken cynically.”16 Willard Farnham has tried to reconcile the contradictions in Alcibiades's character by describing him as a realist: “Alcibiades, the warrior-politician, is of much grosser grain than Timon and is much inferior to him in spiritual worth, but nevertheless he has ability to meet and overcome hostile forces in the world whereas Timon can only let himself be crushed by them.”17 Both of these comments seem to assume that Alcibiades has, or is intended to have, a coherent personality. The last scene, however, renders this assumption extremely dubious. When he first appears before the walls of Athens, Alcibiades accuses the city of the same type of excess he himself has indulged in:

Sound to this coward and lascivious town
Our terrible approach.                                        Sounds a parley.
                    The Senators appear upon the walls.
Till now you have gone on, and fill'd the time
With all licentious measure, making your wills
The scope of justice.


Farnham's explanation will hardly suffice for such blatant tergiversation. For a man who was last seen marching off with two whores on his very next appearance to accuse his enemy of being coward, lascivious, and licentious is to betray a colossal hypocrisy that strains belief—if, of course, one insists on continuity between the Alcibiades of IV.iii and the Alcibiades of the final scene. If, on the other hand, one recognizes that the character of Alcibiades is modified at the end of the play to make a new allegorical point, then it becomes gratuitous to resort to Farnham's portrait of a flawed but effective man of action, or to suffer from Maxwell's doubts about the nature of the regeneration. Each of Alcibiades's appearances makes a serious point, but the different points are incompatible as expressions of the same persona. This is true on both the allegorical and the naturalistic levels: there is simply no dramatic justification for such a radical change. In this case, it would seem that Shakespeare has sacrificed continuity of characterization to allegorical demonstration. In the play's last scene, the triumphant general serves as the voice that calls the Athenians to account for their licentiousness while enjoying Fortune's favor; after they have submitted to him, he acts as the agent of forgiveness and reconciliation. These are very different roles from the one he plays in the earlier scene with Timon. There, his own licentiousness is part of an exhibit featuring the effects of Fortune on different types of individuals; it has nothing to do with his later rebuke of Athens.

To complicate the picture of Fortune's control in IV.iii, Shakespeare goes back to an unspecified time in the past, before the portion of Timon's life presented in the first half of the play, and makes Timon a soldier. Alcibiades refers to this earlier time:

                                                                                                    I have heard and griev'd
How cursed Athens, mindless of thy worth,
Forgetting thy great deeds, when neighbour states,
But for thy sword and fortune, trod upon them—

(ll. 93-96)

In a note on this passage, Oliver remarks that Timon's military services to Athens are mentioned twice more (V.i.145-46 and 158-62), but are “not linked with anything else in the play.”18 If we have noticed Shakespeare's method of embedding oblique, semiallegorical statements in the play, then we do not expect the kind of naturalistic plotting that would relate his detail of Timon's life to other things. The playwright simply wants to show another way in which Timon's and Alcibiades's situations are similar with respect to Fortune, and therefore he invents some past military exploits for Timon which are clearly associated with “fortune,” or the wealth and prosperity lent to men by the fickle goddess. Once he has made this connection, Shakespeare is through with Timon's military career.

Fortune as harlot is important in yet another way for the encounter between Timon and Alcibiades. Just prior to Alcibiades's entrance, Timon has discovered gold while digging for roots and has called it the “common whore of mankind” (IV.iii.43). It seems likely that this phrase refers not only to the gold itself, but also to the goddess who provides all such worldly riches. Then Timon's gifts to Alcibiades and his two companions would be particularly appropriate: the soldier, whose two harlots signify that he is high in Fortune's favor, receives a concrete token of that favor, which is at the same time another metaphor for Fortune.

Immediately following the departure of Alcibiades and his companions, Apemantus visits Timon in the woods, and this provides Timon with the opportunity to blame the strumpet Fortune for his present circumstances. The misanthrope and the cynic exchange insults, arguing over which has the better right to be a critic of society. Timon's case against Apemantus is a formidable one:

Thou art a slave, whom Fortune's tender arm
With favour never clasp'd, but bred a dog.
Hadst thou like us from our first swath proceeded
The sweet degrees that this brief world affords
To such as may the passive drugs of it
Freely command, thou wouldst have plung'd thyself
In general riot, melted down thy youth
In different beds of lust, and never learn'd
The icy precepts of respect, but followed
The sugar'd game before thee. But myself—
Who had the world as my confectionary,
The mouths, the tongues, the eyes and hearts of men
At duty, more than I could frame employment:
That numberless upon me stuck, as leaves
Do on the oak, have with one winter's brush
Fell from their boughs and left me open, bare,
For every storm that blows—I, to bear this,
That never knew but better, is some burthen.
Thy nature did commence in sufferance, time
Hath made thee hard in't. Why shouldst thou hate men?
They never flatter'd thee. What hast thou given?


According to Timon, only the man who like himself has known Fortune's favors, and has been discarded by her, has any warrant for railing against others. Apemantus has never been anything but a poor wretch, and thus his bitterness is simply an unthinking response to his condition. Timon supposes that if Apemantus had been born with his (Timon's) advantages, he would have been just as unthinking as he is now: instead of railing, he would have drowned himself in luxury. As Alvin Kernan has noted, “Apemantus is not a true satirist, only a freak of nature, the malcontent who rails and curses for the same reason that a dog barks or a snake bites.”19 Timon, it is fair to say, has the better of the argument with the cynic, and establishes himself as the only true satirist in the play. In doing so, however, he reveals Fortune's hand in creating this role for him and thus its undesirability and futility. Very much the wanton, she has never “clasp'd” Apemantus with her “tender arm,” although it is clear she once embraced Timon. When Timon describes the course of “general riot” and lustfulness that Apemantus would have run if he had enjoyed Fortune's favor, the clear implication is that Timon ran such a course before his fall. The images of sweetness associated with such wanton activity (“sweet degrees” and “sugar'd game”) carry over into Timon's description of himself (“But myself—/ Who had the world as my confectionary”).20 The point is that the satirist, who is educated by Fortune, is quite naturally led into sexual intemperance, not because of any personal predilection, but because this form of vice is appropriate for one who is under the tuition of a whore. As in the case of Alcibiades's relationship with his “brace of harlots,” Timon's implied lasciviousness is included in the play largely to dramatize a metaphor about Fortune, not to prompt speculation as to the motives that led him to this sin.

The image of Fortune as a whore has been shown to be of great importance in determining what happens in the play. It underlies much of what Timon says and does, especially his justification for assuming the posture of satirist. It explains why Timon's tirades during the second half of the play place such heavy emphasis on sexual excesses: Timon imagines that all of Athenian society behaves in the manner of its controlling goddess. Thus we must modify Muriel Bradbrook's statement that “Unlike earlier or later Prodigals, Timon courts no mistress; the World and not the Flesh is his undoing.”21 Timon courts no human mistress, it is true; but he has an intimate relationship with the supreme wanton of them all, who ultimately undoes him.

The discussion of Fortune as strumpet began with a passage from Boethius that also makes reference to Fortune as flatterer. Certainly this image has much to do with the profuse outpouring of flattery throughout the play. In the first scene, the Poet mentions “the glass-fac'd flatterer” (I.i.59) as one of the types attending on Timon; and the allegory describes the most exquisite acts of flattery (for example, Timon's followers “Make sacred even his stirrup” [l. 84]). At Timon's first banquet, the Lords of Athens vie with each other in extravagant compliments to their host. Apemantus, of course, tells Timon that all this is flattery, but Timon refuses to heed him—which prompts him to remark: “O that men's ears should be / To counsel deaf, but not to flattery” (I.ii.250-51). The outrageousness of the flattery and Timon's obtuse reaction to it are incomprehensible if we have totally naturalistic expectations. Una Ellis-Fermor, in arguing that the play is unfinished, points to its failure to provide, as Shakespeare usually does, “unobtrusive answers” for questions like the following: “If he is of mature age, why is he such a fool? And why again, in that case, does he bear no signs of the experience he must have met, above all, the acute knowledge of man that palace intrigues would have given to a strong intelligence?”22 These questions assume that Timon ought to respond to his flatterers as a hard-nosed realist would. But there is an alternative assumption that makes sense of the situation as it is presented. That is, Shakespeare is dramatizing the ease with which men are seduced by Fortune's flattery. Timon, the representative of mankind, is shown uncritically accepting flattery because he has put his whole faith in Fortune. The men who flatter him are acting as Fortune's surrogates. Although they are certainly not allegorical figures, they are more excessive in their flattery than one would expect in naturalistically depicted characters.

In addition to the two images of Fortune which have been discussed, there are, in the Boethian passages quoted above, several general ideas concerning her operation which are important for an understanding of Timon. After the conclusion of the Poet's allegory, the first reference to Fortune is made by Timon himself. He promises to “build” the “fortune” of his servant Lucilius so that he will be an acceptable husband for the daughter of the Old Athenian (I.i.146). Lucilius thanks Timon with this effusion:

                                                                                                                                  never may
That state or fortune fall into my keeping
Which is not owed to you.

(ll. 152-54)

The point can be made that Timon's action here is generous, an instance of what the Elizabethans would have called Liberality.23 But certainly the audience of Timon, alerted by the allegory, would have understood it as ultimately futile. Because Timon does not own his fortune, he cannot give part of it to Lucilius; and Lucilius cannot “owe” his “state or fortune” to anyone because no one has the power to control the gifts of Fortune except the goddess herself. We are reminded of her sovereignty not only by the use of the word fortune to refer to her gifts, but by the word state (l. 153), which appears here as a doublet for fortune,24 and which has been used in a prominent place in the allegory to denominate what all the people are trying to achieve by climbing Fortune's hill (“propogate their states”). Timon's generosity in itself is not being condemned here; he certainly believes he is being generous, and it is wrong to accuse him of “buying love” and of “complacency.”25 The point of this episode is that any generosity, no matter how noble, which is based on the gifts of Fortune, can have no lasting effect. Timon is guilty of long-range blindness, what Boethius would call a lack of ability to ponder “the event of things.”

A similar kind of folly on Timon's part is obvious in his discussions with, and references to, his “friends.” To Timon, Fortune is inevitably involved in friendship, something he reveals when he welcomes his guests to dinner:

where there is true friendship, there needs none [ceremony]
Pray, sit; more welcome are ye to my fortunes
Than my fortunes to me.


The antimetabole, besides emphasizing fortunes by placing two instances of the word close together, indicates that Timon's relationship with his friends is not direct; Fortune acts as intermediary. No matter how Timon expresses his idea of friendship, Fortune always plays a major role as a sort of broker between friends. This is made painfully obvious at a later point in the banquet, when one of the visiting Lords voices the wish that Timon might once “use” the “hearts” of his friends, “whereby we might express some part of our zeals” (I.ii.83-84). Timon replies with an ecstatic vision of friendship which deserves to be quoted at length:

O no doubt, my good friends, but the gods them-
selves have provided that I shall have much help
from you: how had you been my friends else? Why
have you that charitable title from thousands,
did you not chiefly belong to my heart? …
O you gods, think I, what need we have any
friends, if we should ne'er have need of 'em?
They were the most needless creatures living
should we ne'er have use for 'em, and would
most resemble sweet instruments hung up in cases,
that keeps their sounds to themselves. Why, I
have often wish'd myself poorer that I might
come nearer to you. We are born to do bene-
fits; and what better or properer can we call
our own than the riches of our friends? O what
a precious comfort 'tis to have so many like
brothers commanding one another's fortunes.

(ll. 86-90, 92-103)

The final word of this enraptured account, which Timon intends to anchor the whole, actually releases it to the winds of fantasy. Not that Timon's ideal of friendship is unworthy: he gives moving expression to some of the noblest sentiments on the subject of which the Renaissance was aware, many of them deriving ultimately from Cicero's De Amicitia. This work, well known throughout the Middle Ages, had been translated for Tudor Englishmen by John Harington in 1550. It recognizes the role that need plays in inculcating friendship: “And I know not, whether it be a meete thyng, that freendes shoulde never neade anie thyng: for where should our good will have appeared, yf Scipio had never neaded, never favour, never counsail, never our assistaunce, neither in peace nor in warre.”26 Certainly Timon is right in believing that the need of one friend gives another the opportunity to show his love. But this presupposes “lykenesse of condicions,”27 something that Timon wishes for but that is manifestly impossible in this society controlled by Fortune. The conception of brothers sharing one another's fortunes is a noble one, but Cicero attaches an important condition to it: “These endes in freendeship therefore I thynke bee to bee used, that whan freendes maners be honest, all their goodes, counsaill, and good will, should be as common among them without excepcion.”28 The manners of Timon's “friends” are clearly not honest, and therefore Timon's vision can be recognized as an illusion.

Just how far wrong Timon is about his followers can be understood if we compare the banquet scene with a later one in which Timon's servants and Steward meet to lament his fall. The First Servant moans, “Are we undone, cast off, nothing remaining?” (IV.ii.2). The Steward replies, “Let me be recorded by the righteous gods, / I am as poor as you” (ll. 4-5). Here is need all around, and likeness of conditions. The Steward fulfills the duty of a true friend by sharing what he has: “Good fellows all, / The latest of my wealth I'll share amongst you” (ll. 23-24). We notice that, in contrast to Timon's illusion, this is in fact a band of brothers commanding one another's fortunes.

Up until his transformation into a misanthrope in act 3, Timon continues to believe that the gifts of Fortune are the key to friendship. As his guests leave the banquet, there is this exchange:

The best of happiness, honour, and fortunes,
Keep with you, Lord Timon!
Ready for his friends.


When he has been apprised by the Steward of the seriousness of his financial plight, he relies on what he believes is his power to command the fortunes of his friends:

                                                                                Canst thou the conscience lack
To think I shall lack friends? Secure thy heart.
If I would broach the vessels of my love,
And try the arguments of hearts by borrowing,
Men and men's fortunes could I frankly use
As I can bid thee speak.
                                                                                Assurance bless your thoughts.
And in some sort these wants of mine are crown'd,
That I account them blessings; for by these
Shall I try my friends. You shall perceive how you
Mistake my fortunes; I am wealthy in my friends.


Not only does Timon refer to “men's fortunes” as a commonly held savings account of prosperity; he goes so far as to equate friends with fortunes. When he states that he is “wealthy” in his friends, he is putting friends in the same category as the gifts of Fortune, which the Poet's allegory and Boethius should tell us is a grievous mistake. To try to possess friends as one tries to possess the gifts of Fortune is to acknowledge them subject to the same unpredictable behavior characteristic of everything in Fortune's realm. There is a relevant passage in Cicero, which criticizes those who seek Fortune instead of friends:

But what more foolishe thing can be, than to studie, thei may be hable with great heapes and plentie, to gette other thynges that be soughte for, as moneie, horses, servauntes, gaye cloathing, and costly plate, and yet not to seeke for freendes, being the best and goodlyest riches of this lyfe. For they knowe not for whom they get other thynges, when they are gotten, nor to whose use thei travaile. For every one of these be his, whiche will win them with stronge hande. But freendship once gotten, abydeth with everie man stedfast and surely.29

The point here is that there is a distinction between the gifts of Fortune—“horses, servauntes, gaye cloathing, and costly plate”—and friends. The former are transitory, the latter “stedfast.” Timon cannot be accused of failing to seek friends, but a corollary of Cicero's judgment applies to him: he seeks friends as if they were gifts of Fortune, thereby making it inevitable that they will not be “stedfast.”

Cicero is particularly interested in the effect Fortune has on the rich man's ability to judge his friends. In discussing the tyrant Tarquinius, whose friends deserted him after he fell from power, he notes: “And as this mannes maners, of whom we have spoken, could not pourchase any true frendes, so many mens riches, that be in high authoritie, do cleane shut out, as it were true freendship. For Fortune her selfe is not onely blynde, but maketh these also often tymes blynde, whom she most embraceth.”30 In addition to dramatizing the image of Fortune as flatterer of mankind, Timon's continuing inability to perceive the true nature of his flattering friends probably has something to do with this idea of Fortune's shutting out the truth from a rich man. Although Timon is nowhere described as blind, he behaves as if his perception of reality has been obstructed, and as we have noted, he is “To counsel deaf” (I.ii.251).

Another source of the kinds of commonplaces about the relationship between Fortune and friendship which Shakespeare presents in Timon is The Romance of the Rose. Jean de Meun, elaborating on material from the De Amicitia, puts the following words into the mouth of Reason:

“I want to tell you now of another love, which in its turn is contrary to the good love and is also to be strongly condemned: it is the simulated desire of loving in hearts sick with the disease of coveting gain. This love vacillates in the following way: as soon as it loses hope of the profit that it wants to get, it inevitably flickers and dies away, for the heart which does not love people for themselves can never be a loving one. Instead, it pretends and goes about flattering for the gain it hopes to have.”31

A few lines later, Reason remarks, “‘This is the love which comes from Fortune,’” and shortly thereafter, “‘Nearly all rich men are loved with this love that I have just described.’”32 All of this reads like a blueprint for the behavior of Timon's followers. In pursuit of Fortune's gifts, they offer Timon extravagant praise and, at the first sign of his ruin, desert him. As parties to a truly human transaction, they are somewhat exaggerated; but they make perfect sense as part of an effort to give dramatic life to a lesson on false friendship. Jean even has a passage that sheds light on the reasons given by some of Timon's friends for turning against him:

“for those friends whom good Fortune gives are so shocked by evil fortune that they all become enemies. Not one of them remains, not even a half one; instead, they run away from and renounce their friends as soon as they see they are poor. They no longer have anything to do with them, but everywhere they go around blaming, defaming, and proclaiming them wretched fools. Even those to whom they gave more, when they saw themselves in their high estate, go around testifying in gleeful voice that their loss arrived through their folly.”33

The Senator who appears at the beginning of act 2 is portrayed in this way. He expresses shock that Timon is “Still in motion / Of raging waste” (II.i.3-4) and describes Timon's prodigality in extreme terms:

If I want gold, steal but a beggar's dog
And give it Timon—why, the dog coins gold;
If I would sell my horse and buy twenty moe
Better than he—why, give my horse to Timon;
Ask nothing, give it him, it foals me straight
And able horses.

(ll. 5-10)

Then he sends his servant to collect what Timon owes him. Here is blatant hypocrisy: the Senator uses Timon's generosity to him as evidence that Timon is riotous and wasteful. In the same breath, he criticizes Timon's bounty as foolish and indicates his own willingness to accept that bounty. Later, in act 3, Lucullus is guilty of the same kind of inconsistency when presented with Timon's request for a loan:

Alas, good lord; a noble gentleman 'tis, if he
would not keep so good a house. Many a time
and often I ha' din'd with him, and told him
on 't, and come again to supper to him of pur-
pose to have him spend less; and yet he would
embrace no counsel, take no warning by my com-
ing. Every man has his fault, and honesty is
his. I ha' told him on 't, but I could ne'er
get him from 't.


Lucullus claims that his repeated visits to Timon's house for dinner have all been made to dissuade his host from entertaining so lavishly. Indeed, so strong is his desire to curb Timon's wastefulness that he has often returned to chide him again at supper on days when he has earlier had dinner with him. The more Lucullus protests against Timon's “honesty,” or liberality,34 the more he acknowledges his dependence on it. That Shakespeare has the Senator and Lucullus undercut their own criticism of Timon in such a manner is evidence that he is using these two characters to embody the truisms about “friends whom good Fortune gives” we have seen expressed in The Romance of the Rose.

Fortune's control of Timon's friends makes his eagerness to “try” them (II.ii.187) heavily ironic, based as it is on false expectations. His requests for various sums of money from different quarters, moreover, put his friends in the position of ostentatiously failing one of the specific tests by which, Cicero maintains, friendship can be tried. The most outrageous flaunting of the precept that one should delight in returning favors done by his friend35 is, of course, Ventidius's refusal to repay the five talents he owes Timon for redeeming him from prison. The audience has observed the original generosity of Timon in this case (I.i.97-112) and Ventidius's subsequent offer to return the five talents, “Doubled with thanks and service” (I.ii.7). If he is sincere in this offer, his later denial of Timon's request for repayment, reported in II.iii., seems inconsistent. H. J. Oliver has argued, however, that here need be no problem here, since “All Timon's alleged friends are prepared to give, when they know they will receive more in return.”36 This assumes that Ventidius's offer to repay is hypocritical, an attempt to milk Timon for further benefits. But Ventidius has an air of sincerity not found in the other “friends”: he explains that his father has died and left him rich (I.ii.3-4), thus enabling him to discharge his debt. His free acknowledgment of wealth leaves him with no excuses for denying Timon later, and Shakespeare skillfully avoids presenting his denial on stage. What is being argued here is that Ventidius's reversal lacks sufficient motivation in naturalistic terms, but that it makes perfect sense as a demonstration of how dependence on Fortune causes violation of the most binding obligations of friendship.

As act 2 ends, Timon once again reminds the audience of the relationship between his friends and Fortune. His parting words to the Steward are “Ne'er speak or think / That Timon's fortunes 'mong his friends can sink” (II.ii.234-35). This is the last time he speaks before he loses faith in his grand illusion. For the audience, the irony is particularly telling, since the allegory has made clear reference to Timon's slipping down (I.i.89),37 sliding backwards down Fortune's hill, and being allowed to do so by his friends, not one of whom accompanies “his declining foot” (I.i.90). The play never permits us to forget that Timon's fall and the failure of his attempts at friendship are closely connected with the operation of Fortune. In act 4, commenting on his master's fate, the Steward uses these terms:

My dearest lord, bless'd to be most accurs'd,
Rich only to be wretched—thy great fortunes
Are made thy chief afflictions. Alas, kind lord,
He's flung in rage from this ingrateful seat
Of monstrous friends.


A fundamental knowledge of Fortune allows one to resolve the paradoxes easily: to be favored by Fortune is never to be really blessed or rich; it is always, in the long run, to be accursed and wretched. Fortune's favor is especially treacherous in the matter of friendship. She inevitably betrays the man who puts his trust in her; and his friends, whose loyalty depends entirely on his prosperity, will just as surely desert him. A few lines before the Steward's speech, one of Timon's servants makes a similar comment about his master:

                                                                                                    As we do turn our backs
From our companion thrown into his grave,
So his familiars to his buried fortunes
Slink all away.


This continues the imagery of descent associated with Timon's loss of Fortune's gifts since the beginning. The idea that Timon's “familiars” steal away from him as if he were dead, irreversibly undone, may owe something to an iconographical feature often found in descriptions of Fortune's wheel: under the wheel there is a grave or coffin to catch those who are thrown off, to signify the finality of the loss of the goddess's favor.38

Having been induced by Fortune to have too much faith in men, Timon, as misanthrope, has too little; instead of indiscriminate love for all, he now feels indiscriminate hatred. And Shakespeare makes clear that this hatred is to be connected with the workings of Fortune. In the tirade that begins IV.iii, Timon projects a vision of society in which all relationships among men are perverted by the goddess's gifts. “Twinn'd brothers of one womb” (l. 3) should be as intimate as two men can be, but “touch them with several fortunes, / The greater scorns the lesser” (ll. 5-6). If a beggar is favored by Fortune, and a lord denied, then the beggar is elevated to the lord's place and the lord is cast down (ll. 9-11). In the face of such inversion of the proper order of things, Timon makes a resolution:

                                                                                                    Therefore be abhorr'd
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men!
His semblable, yea himself, Timon disdains.

(ll. 20-22)

His self-imposed isolation is thus a direct reaction to a society which, as he perceives it, is controlled by Fortune. He has become a sort of antifriend, something that is clearly wrong. From Cicero's point of view, such a posture is so unnatural that it is virtually impossible to maintain. Friendship, he insists, is universal; it

creapeth through al kind of lives, and wil suffer no part of a mans life that is ledde to want hir. So if there be any, of that sowernes and grimnes of nature, that he flieth and hateth the compaignie of felowship of men, of the whiche sort we have heard saie, one of the Tymons of Athenes was, but whiche of them I knowe not, yet he culd not abide, but must nedes seke after one, to whom he mighte vomitte up even the bitternesse of his gaule.39

Even though he strains to discover in Timon a need for friendship, Cicero obviously considers him an extreme example of perversity in his relationships with other men.

There is an added dimension to Timon's perversity when it is considered in a Christian context. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton has this to say about misanthropes (of whom he cites Timon as a prominent example): “they do even loathe themselves, and hate the company of men.” He continues, quoting the expostulation of Mercurialis to a melancholy patient, which, Burton says, “may be justly applied to every solitary and idle person in particular”:

“Nature may justly complain of thee, that whereas she gave thee a good wholesome temperature, a sound body, and good parts and profitable gifts, thou hast not only contemned and rejected, but hast corrupted them, polluted them, overthrown their temperature, and perverted those gifts with riot, idleness, solitariness, and many other ways; thou art a traitor to God and nature, an enemy to thyself and to the world … thou hast lost thyself wilfully, cast away thyself, thou thyself art the efficient cause of thine own misery, by not resisting such vain cogitations.”40

This is surely the kind of judgment Shakespeare means for us to apply to Timon: he has passed through a phase of riot into solitariness, and now hates all “feasts, societies, and throngs of men.” He disdains anything like himself (“his semblable”) and finally himself as well. It is clear that Timon is willfully alienating himself from everything that makes him human; in so doing, he is also demonstrating his ignorance of the divine origin of man's existence. Instead of acknowledging God's gifts to man through nature, and using those gifts in himself for general and personal good, Timon isolates himself from men, in effect perverting his natural gifts. The reason for his attitude, of course, is that in Timon's mind everything flows from Fortune, a goddess who permits no appeal to any metaphysical reality. The terms in which Timon describes his misanthropy thus indicate that he cannot escape from the pagan view of Fortune which he has embraced from the beginning. He does not have the capacity or the knowledge to see beyond the things of the world, the counters with which Fortune operates.

The ultimate development of Timon's misanthropy is metaphysical isolation: if one hates all men, even himself, there is no chance that he can understand the love of God for man, especially for himself. That Timon dies in such despair is strongly suggested by one of his last statements to the Steward and the Senators:

                                                                                                    My long sickness
Of health and living now begins to mend,
And nothing brings me all things.


As Miss Bradbrook has remarked,41 this passage seems to be an echo of the Epistle for the First Sunday in Lent (2 Cor. 6:1-10). The faithful are exhorted to show that they have not received the grace of God in vain. In behaving ourselves as “ministers of God,” St. Paul says, we should bear patiently all manner of hardships. The Epistle ends with a series of paradoxes describing the condition of those who are saved: “as dying, and beholde we lyve; as chastened and not killed; as sorowyng and yet alway mery; as poore and yet make many riche: as having nothyng, and yet possessyng all thynges.”42 As Timon's epitaph makes clear, he dies in bitter hatred, conspicuously lacking in grace. Therefore his use of the phrase “nothing brings me all things” means that the ultimate reality for him is nothing, that is, oblivion, nonentity. This obviously contradicts the Epistle's message, which is that for those who are in a state of grace, “nothing” (that is, lack of worldly prosperity) is the gateway to salvation. In giving Timon these words as he prepares for death, Shakespeare emphasizes once again that the misanthrope's world view is pagan, lacking the hope offered by Christianity. It should be noted, in the light of these remarks, that the argument over whether or not Timon commits suicide becomes largely irrelevant.43 Although it would not be inconsistent with Timon's philosophy for him to destroy himself, the important thing is that he dies in despair. Suicide, of course, is the most desperate act of all, but Timon, as we have seen, has already established his claim to despair without having to give that final evidence of it.

The best critique, finally, of Timon's career is provided by Hamlet's moving declaration of his affection for Horatio:

                                                                                                    Nay, do not think I flatter.
For what advancement may I hope from thee,
That no revenue hast but thy good spirits
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flattered?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear?
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish her election,
S'hath sealed thee for herself, for thou hast been
As one in suff'ring all that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commedled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she pleases. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.(44)

In the first part of this passage, Hamlet is emphasizing the sincerity of his own feeling. He is confident that his friendship is not flattery, since Horatio is “poor” (that is, Horatio does not enjoy Fortune's favor, the cause of flattery in friendship). Timon's friends, on the other hand, obviously attend on him for “advancement.” The last part of Hamlet's speech explains the great value of the friendship offered by Horatio. He is a temperate man, not ruled by his passions. He does not overreact to either Fortune's favor or her disfavor. One is reminded of the words of Philosophy to Boethius: “wisdom pondereth the event of things, and this mutability on both sides maketh the threats of fortune not to be feared, nor her flatterings to be desired.” Horatio possesses wisdom in this sense, and thus Hamlet can relate directly to him and wear him in his “heart's core.” As a friend, Timon fails on all these counts. He trusts too much in the benefits of Fortune and, in the second half of the play, falls into extreme despair when she deserts him. Ruled by his passions, he loves and hates as Fortune dictates. In his vision of “so many like brothers” (I.ii.86-105), he tries to maintain that his friends “belong to my heart” (l. 90). But as we have seen, Fortune obstructs the direct passage between Timon's heart and the hearts of his flatterers. There can be little doubt that in Timon of Athens Shakespeare is showing how Fortune affects relationships between human beings by presenting a thorough perversion of the ideal of true friendship.

It is clear, then, that any reading of Timon should place great emphasis on the play's allegorical tendencies. This is particularly true with respect to the role of Fortune, of which the audience is made unequivocally aware in the opening scene. As this discussion has shown, such as approach, although it does not resolve all of the problems with which the modern reader is confronted by Timon, nevertheless in certain crucial respects it makes possible a better understanding of the play on its own terms.


  1. Robert C. Elliott, The Power of Satire (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1960), p. 150.

  2. Una Ellis-Fermor, “Timon of Athens: An Unfinished Play,” Review of English Studies, 18 (1942), 271.

  3. Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), VI, 243.

  4. A. S. Collins, in arguing that Timon is Shakespeare's “true morality play” (“Timon of Athens: A Reconsideration,” Review of English Studies, 22 [1946], 98), stresses its abstract qualities and comes close to an allegorical interpretation. But Collins has very little to say about the role of Fortune in the play.

  5. In Timon, the word appears in three forms: fortune, fortune's, and fortunes. The total number of occurrences for all three is twenty-nine, more than in any other Shakespearean play except Antony and Cleopatra (forty-four occurrences). See Marvin Spevack, The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 438-40.

  6. H. J. Oliver, ed., Timon of Athens (London: Methuen, 1959), p. 8n. All references are to this edition.

  7. Muriel Bradbrook, The Tragic Pageant of Timon of Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1966), p. 7.

  8. Howard R. Patch, The Goddess Fortuna in Mediaeval Literature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1927), pp. 10-14.

  9. Ibid., pp. 17-18. Some idea of the continuing influence Boethius had on the English imagination may be gained by noting that he was translated by King Alfred, Chaucer, John Walton (early fifteenth century), George Colville (1556), and Elizabeth I.

  10. The Consolation of Philosophy, with the English translation of “I. T.” (1609) revised by H. F. Stewart, in Boethius (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 365-69.

  11. Ibid., pp. 175-77.

  12. Ibid., p. 179.

  13. Patch, pp. 49-57.

  14. Oliver (pp. xxvi-xxvii) adduces it as evidence that Shakespeare never finished Timon.

  15. F. P. Pickering, Literature and Art in the Middle Ages (Coral Gables, Fla.: Univ. of Miami Press, 1970), p. 221.

  16. J. C. Maxwell, ed., Timon of Athens: The New Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1957), p. xl.

  17. Willard Farnham, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1950), p. 74.

  18. Ibid., p. 95.

  19. Alvin Kernan, The Cankered Muse (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959), p. 203.

  20. These images of sugar and sweetness may suggest, in addition to sexual excess, the flattery of Timon by both friend and Fortune. See Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1935), pp. 195-99.

  21. Bradbrook, p. 4.

  22. Ellis-Fermor, p. 281.

  23. Bradbrook, p. 6.

  24. Oliver, p. 13n.

  25. Elliott, p. 149.

  26. The Booke of Freendeship of Marcus Tullie Cicero, in Ruth Hughey, John Harington of Stepney: Tudor Gentleman: His Life and Works (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1971), p. 162.

  27. Ibid., p. 161.

  28. Ibid., p. 165.

  29. Ibid., p. 163.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, The Romance of the Rose, trans. Charles Dahlberg (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 101-02. In his notes (p. 376), Dahlberg describes the indebtedness of this passage to the De Amicitia.

  32. Ibid., p. 102.

  33. Ibid., pp. 103-04.

  34. Oliver, p. 54n.

  35. Hughey, p. 161.

  36. Oliver, p. xliii.

  37. Along with most editors of Timon, I accept Rowe's emendation “slip” for the Folio's “sit” in the phrase “let him slip down” (l. 89). There are several reasons for this. The next line makes reference to Timon's “declining foot,” which seems to require a verb like “slip,” indicating backward motion, rather than the abrupt stop signaled by “sit.” “Slip” is more consistent than “sit” with the imagery of sinking and descent found throughout the play. Finally, in many accounts of Fortune, both the hill on which she lives and her wheel were described as slippery of footing for those who try to climb them (Patch, pp. 132-36). Oliver, however, retains the Folio reading of “sit.” See his note, pp. 9-10.

  38. Patch, p. 162.

  39. Hughey, p. 174.

  40. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Introduction by Holbrook Jackson (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1932), I, 249.

  41. Bradbrook, p. 24.

  42. The First and Second Prayer Books of Edward VI, Introduction by Douglas Harrison (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1968), p. 71.

  43. Miss Bradbrook, arguing that Timon has completed a natural cycle and has “outstretch'd his span” (V.iii.3), sees his death as “natural and not a suicide” (p. 25). Richard D. Fly, on the other hand, insists on Timon's suicide because it is “the ontological analogue to his former repudiation of society” (“The Ending of Timon of Athens: A Reconsideration,” Criticism, 15 [1973], 251).

  44. Hamlet, ed. Willard Farnham (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1957), III.ii.53-71.

B. S. Field, Jr. (essay date fall 1973)

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SOURCE: Field, B. S., Jr. “Fate, Fortune, and Twelfth Night.Michigan Academician 6, no. 2 (fall 1973): 193-99.

[In the following essay, Field considers the reactions of characters in Twelfth Night to the whims of fortune and fate.]

Most critics of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night agree that the central characters of the play are Viola and Malvolio, that one represents behavior to be emulated and the latter shows us behavior to be shunned. C. L. Barber, among the most representative and influential of modern critics of this play, in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy1 observes that Viola, because of her mastery of courtesy in the play, is the central character who serves as a standard of right behavior by which others in the play may be judged. The fact has been pointed out so often by subsequent critics that it seems to be self-evident. Still, it would be useful if Shakespeare had offered us a means to check that conclusion, beyond the circular logic of proving that, since Viola is the standard by which others are to be judged, she must therefore display the firmest mastery of courtesy. As it happens, Shakespeare does give us such a test that independently reveals a character's capacity or incapacity in the graces of courtly behavior.

Nearly every character in Twelfth Night is offered a chance to react to a situation beyond his control. Such a situation was often attributed in the Renaissance to the control of Fate or Time or Fortune. And a person's capacity to withstand Fortune, to accept its buffets and rewards with equal thanks, was taken as a measure of a person's right attitude, of his personal grace, not only in Hamlet, but in the Renaissance generally. It can be applied in Twelfth Night too.2

Viola in I, ii, after discussing the possibility of her brother's survival, and hearing from the captain and the sailors that, while “perchance, he is not drowned,” it was only “perchance” that she herself was saved, turns to other matters. She does not pursue the question again until she suddenly hears Antonio name her brother in III, iv. The point to be noticed is her stoic withdrawal in the former scene from consideration of a matter about which she can, in any case, do nothing. At the end of I, ii, when she has finally determined to enlist as a servant to the duke, she leaves the stage saying, “What else may hap to time I will commit” (I, ii, 60).3 She turns to Time again after Malvolio has brought her the ring that Olivia sent after her.

                                                  As I am a man,
My state is desperate for my master's love;
As I am a woman—now alas the day!—
O time! thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me to untie!

II, ii, 37-42

In both cases, Viola makes no attempt to alter that which is inalterable. Furthermore, she takes as final her own decision to commit the resolution of affairs beyond her control to forces beyond her control. That decision is the signal to cut off discussion of the topic.

By this standard Olivia shows herself only partly as stoical as Viola. Olivia, finding herself driven by forces that she cannot control, admits that she is falling in love with Orsino's messenger, and closes the scene of her first interview with Viola by saying,

I do not know what, and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.
Fate, show thy force: ourselves we do not owe;
What is decreed must be, and be this so.

I, v, 327-330

She abandons herself to Fate. Or so she says. Such an attitude, if we take Viola as the model for deportment in such a situation, is a “right” attitude. But the forces that Olivia finds beyond her own control are merely her own affections. And she does not leave matters alone; she spends the rest of the play trying to manage her own fate and win the return of her affections from that saucy boy. In III, i, when Viola has told her that all her confession of love can earn is Viola's pity, she gives an apparently stoic answer.

Why, then, methinks 'tis time to smile again.
O world, how apt the poor are to be proud!
If one should be a prey, how much the better
To fall before the lion than the wolf! Clock strikes.
The clock upbraids me with the waste of time.
Be not afraid good youth, I will not have you. …

III, i, 137-142

But after she has seemingly resigned herself to her fate, she begs, some score of lines later, for affection:

Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidenhood, honour, truth and every thing,
I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.

III, i, 161-164

And she keeps at it in act IV until she has snared the boy for whom Fate presented Viola as a proxy, Sebastian. Thus we can see by her attitude toward the inevitable that Olivia lacks a little of that essential grace for which Viola is the model. And at the same time we can also see how that lack of grace has been reflected by her indecorous abandonment of herself to whatever “hard construction” the saucy boy might put on her behavior.

Sebastian, however, shows an attitude toward Fate a little more like Viola's. When we first see him in II, i, he is speaking of his fate as malignant, and warning Antonio to stay clear of him on account of that malignancy. That is, he accepts what seems to him to be the inevitable fact that he is not lucky. Later on he has some good luck which is equally inexplicable, and he accepts it with an attitude that parallels Viola's acceptance of her luck. In act IV he finds himself suddenly involved in what must seem to him a completely motiveless squabble with Sir Andrew and Sir Toby. And then he is as suddenly disentangled from it by the appearance of a beautiful girl whom he has never seen before. She commands his opponents be gone, and then begs him to accept her hospitality. He is a little surprised by all this.

What relish is this? how runs the stream?
Or am I mad, or else this is a dream:
Let fancy still my sense in Lethe sleep;
If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!

IV, i, 64-67

Surprised and confused as he is, he accepts it, even if it is only a dream. When Sebastian enters again after the interval of a scene, he is still amazed, still asking if he is mad, or in a dream, or if everyone else is mad. At one point in a long speech which shifts back and forth among those several conclusions, he suggests

That this may be some error, but no madness,
Yet doth this accident and flood of fortune
So far exceed all instance, all discourse,
That I am ready to distrust mine eyes. …

IV, iii, 10-13

The expressions of contrast that pepper the speech containing those lines, “And though … yet 'tis not … Where's Antonio then? … Yet … For though … yet … or else … yet, if …” display the fact that Sebastian does not make up his mind about this experience. At no point in the speech does he bring up the question of whether or not he deserves this treatment. It seems never to occur to him. And that, too, is a “right” attitude toward the gifts and blows of Fortune, never even to consider the question of what one deserves or what serves one right.

The standard Renaissance Christian stoic response to complaints about the blows of Fortune was simply that one gets what one deserves or what serves one right after death; that in this life, the blows and gifts of Fortune merely test a man, give him a chance to show what he will deserve in the next life. Twelfth Night is a comedy. Such mournfully serious questions as one's just deserts at the last trump do not arise. A comedy limits itself to comment on social behavior in this life. And in this life, Viola and Sebastian have the grace to take both Fortune's blows and gifts with the right kind of balance of equanimity and enjoyment. Sebastian exits from the scene pledging himself to Olivia, “and, having sworn truth, ever will be true,” even though he has told us earlier in the scene that it may all be a trick “there's something in it that is deceivable.” When Sebastian's Fates open their hands, Sebastian lets his blood and spirit embrace them.

Orsino's attitude toward the inevitable seems in the first scene of the play rather like Viola's. When told that Olivia had determined to mourn her brother for seven years in solitude, he chooses to find in the news some encouragement:

O, she that hath a heart of that fine frame
To pay this debt of love but to a brother,
How will she love, when the rich golden shaft
Hath kill'd the flock of all affections else
That live in her … !

I, i, 28-32

And he finishes the scene claiming that he is ready to spend the next seven years wallowing in bowers of flowers. One can notice, however, that he assumes from the beginning that Olivia will eventually love him, because, one suspects, he thinks he deserves it. In any case, he is no more constant to his pledge to wait seven years than Olivia is to hers. By the fourth scene of the play, he is urging Viola to press his suit with Olivia. He suggests that Viola even violate decorum: “Be clamorous and leap all civil bounds” (I, iv, 21), arguing in the next breath that it will be decorous to do so: “It shall become thee well to act my woes” (I, iv, 26). Orsino continues to the end of the scene to try to rearrange his fate. The scene finishes with a nice contrast to Orsino's attitude toward the inevitable, as Viola exits with words clearly suggesting that she can think of nothing to do about her own fate, swearing even to act against her own best interests:

                                        I'll do my best
To woo your lady: (Aside) yet, a barful strife!
Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife.

I, iv, 40-42

Other characters in the play, those in the “low comedy” plot, have, with one exception, considerably less chance to react to the inevitable, but none of them show much in the way of a “right” attitude when they do. Sir Toby's reaction to the period of seven years' mourning proclaimed by Olivia is a little like Orsino's second reaction.

What a plague means my niece, to take the death of her brother thus? I am sure care's an enemy to life.

I, iii, 1-3

Sir Andrew, too, is a bit dashed by the idea of waiting seven years, but unlike Orsino, his reaction is to give up immediately on a suit that he had not so far even mentioned to its supposed object, Olivia. He tells Sir Toby that he will go home.

I'll home tomorrow, Sir Toby: your niece will not be seen; or if she be, it's four to one she'll none of me; the count himself here hard by woos her.

I, iii, 111-114

But Sir Toby talks him into staying a month longer, until act III, when he is disheartened again, and swears he will not stay a jot longer. Sir Toby and Fabian talk him out of it again, and into writing that ludicrous challenge. Sir Andrew has so little grace that he cannot tell whether anything is inevitable or everything is. Maria shows a more “correct” attitude, but only in the most indirect ways. She has a plan to marry Sir Toby, according to Feste, but she is wise enough to want to avoid any talk about it. She reminds both Feste and Sir Toby himself of decorum, tells them to confine themselves to the modest limits of order. Her objection to Malvolio is on the same grounds, that he affects “state” inappropriate to the degree of grace he has to carry that affectation off.

Feste has almost nothing to say about the inevitable. That is curious. Feste is so far down on the social scale that for him the difference between the inevitable and the evitable may be indistinguishable. Or for him his wit makes all things possible. Or impossible. The difference becomes trivial. He turns in his invocation of superior powers not to Fate, Fortune or Jove, but to Wit.

Wit, an't be thy will, put me into good fooling! Those wits that think they have thee, do very oft prove fools: and I, that am sure I lack thee, may pass for a wise man.

I, iii, 36-39

And all his jokes are distortions of logical syllogism, full of nonsense words and references to nonexistent authorities, by which he “proves” anything that his wit can invent.

The one exception among the members of the cast of the “low comedy” plot of Twelfth Night, the one who is given great opportunities to express his attitude on the inevitable, is Malvolio. Every time he does so, he tries to ape the attitudes of his betters, to be stoical about it; and every time he does so, he misses the main point of such stoical expressions, for every time he does so, he presumes upon those forces; he assumes that Time, Fate, Fortune, Jove, luck are all on his side. When he receives what seems a gift from fortune, he immediately assumes that he deserves it. Were he not merely an affected ass, one could say that his pride is an example of hybris. Olivia's descriptive phrase is the more appropriate to his case: he is “sick of self-love.”

Malvolio says in his first scene in the play that Time will improve Feste's wit because it will decay Feste, and that “infirmity … doth ever make the better fool” (I, v, 82-83), as if Malvolio thought that Time, whatever it might do to the clown, would do nothing to Malvolio himself. His lack of grace can be further gauged in that scene where Toby's gang lies in wait to watch him discover that letter. As Malvolio enters he is saying, “'Tis but fortune; all is fortune” (II, v, 27), evidently ruminating on what has placed him in life as a mere steward. Unlike Viola or Olivia, who possess some of that essential grace, he misses the point of leaving to fate or time those things that only fate and time can alter. Instead, for Malvolio, the idea that “fortune” is the cause of his station in life is not a signal to stop thinking about it, but a signal to start. The references to fortune are underlined by the letter, signed “the Fortunate-Unhappy,” which tells him “thy Fates open their hands.” Malvolio closes his disquisition on this discovery by saying, “Jove, I thank thee,” returning again to the idea with which he entered the scene, that “all is fortune.”

The concept of fortune again reappears when Malvolio reappears, cross-gartered, in yellow stockings, and smiling in III, iv. Olivia exits to see that young gentleman of the Count Orsino, and Malvolio chortles in triumph, sure that he knows what is going on. “I have limed her; but it is Jove's doing, and Jove make me thankful!” (III, iv, 81-82). As a would-be gentleman should, he tries to give credit for his fortune to powers beyond his own. But he is, unlike Sebastian in the following scene, sure of himself.

Why, everything adheres together, that no dram of a scruple, no scruple of a scruple, no obstacle, no incredulous or unsafe circumstance—What can be said? Nothing that can be can come between me and the full prospect of my hopes. Well, Jove, not I, is the doer of this, and he is to be thanked.

III, iv, 86-92

Malvolio gives to Fortune, to Jove, the credit when he is sure that Fortune is bringing gifts, not blows. But when at last he realizes that he has been made, not Count Malvolio, but a most notorious geck and gull, when Feste points out to him that it was “the whirligig of Time” (V, i, 385) which has brought in its revenges, Malvolio cannot react with the stoic indifference of the person he would like to be. Malvolio can only exit in baffled rage, swearing a revenge.

Because nearly every character in Twelfth Night is offered a chance to react to the machinations of Fortune, and because their reactions may be precisely graded, a grading that coincides exactly with their capacities and incapacities in the graces of courtly behavior, we can be forgiven the speculation that we were intended to notice the parallel. Shakespeare seems to have inserted these choices to show off a stoic capacity to handle, with balance, Fortune's buffets and rewards especially to provide his audience with a key to which characters are to be shunned, which to be emulated.


  1. Cleveland, 1963.

  2. Julian Markels, “Shakespeare's Confluence of Tragedy and Comedy: Twelfth Night and King Lear,Shakespeare Quarterly, 15 (1964), 75-88, was the first to point out to me the degree to which Fate or Fortune is a figure in the dialogue of Twelfth Night.

  3. All quotations from Twelfth Night are from Hardin Craig, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951).


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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.

Frederick Kiefer (essay date 1983)

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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. And in the work of one playwright in particular, Shakespeare, we can actually observe the transition away from the traditional view of Fortune.1 In three tragedies written during the closing years of the sixteenth century, Shakespeare manifests a growing interest in Occasion.

The plays are Richard II (c. 1595), Julius Caesar (c. 1599), and Hamlet (c. 1600). In the earliest of these the protagonist expresses an attitude toward Fortune that seems characteristically medieval. King Richard sees himself as Fortune's victim, inescapably vulnerable to her whim. By contrast, his antagonist represents an emerging new order. As confident as he is skilled, Henry Bolingbroke determines to shape his own future. Moving with events rather than against them, he cooperates with the time to advance his purposes and to vanquish Richard. The psychology of a man who would pursue Occasion is explored yet more deeply in Julius Caesar. Brutus, like Bolingbroke, has a highly developed sense of opportunity, which he expresses in his speech on the tide in the affairs of men. Unlike Bolingbroke, however, Brutus lacks the skill to realize his aspirations: instead of capitalizing upon the world's mutability, he destroys himself. More adept is Hamlet, perhaps because he possesses a greater capacity for adaptability than Brutus. Initially, Hamlet's view of Fortune is conventional, hardly distinct from Richard's; and he blunders in his efforts to fulfill the Ghost's command. After a series of remarkable personal experiences, however, Hamlet adopts a new outlook. He begins to attune himself to the time and, locating opportunity under the aegis of providence, at last pursues his goal successfully.


Shakespeare's treatment of Fortune in Richard II, it is generally agreed, both draws inspiration from and transcends de casibus tragedy. The play has been called “an almost perfect example of de casibus tragedy in its formal structure and in its technical mastery.”2 The pattern of rise and fall evokes the traditional progression dictated by Fortune in the de casibus stories of Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Lydgate. Richard, of course, undergoes a spectacular transition from prosperity to adversity, ascribing it, at least in part, to a perverse Fortune. For his part, Bolingbroke, according to Irving Ribner, is “made to appear as a minion of fortune who rises to fill a position which Richard vacates.”3 At the same time, readers of Richard II see evidence of a turning away from convention on Shakespeare's part. Arguing that the king attains considerable insight into his own culpability, they claim that Richard's characterization transcends that typical of de casibus tragedy. Peter G. Phialas, for example, suggests that “from a de casibus concept of his fall Richard advances to full awareness and acceptance of his own moral involvement.”4 And, according to S. C. Sen Gupta, “by making Richard personally responsible for his disasters, Shakespeare seems to stress his independence of the medieval idea of tragedy and show in the true Renaissance spirit that man is the architect of his fate and not a victim of the blind goddess Fortune.”5

Richard II undoubtedly represents a step toward what today is called tragedy of character. Nevertheless, Richard's characterization remains profoundly shaped by de casibus tradition, for throughout the play Richard harbors the conviction that he has been victimized by circumstance, undone by Fortune. Characterization in Richard II may transcend the pattern common to metrical tragedy, but it is Bolingbroke, not Richard, who diverges sharply from that precedent. Indeed, much of what readers say about Richard's perception of the connection between one's deeds and one's fate applies more properly to Bolingbroke, who sees himself as master, not servant, of circumstance. Confident of what he can achieve through his own efforts, Bolingbroke never directly acknowledges Dame Fortune. Shakespeare's characterization of these two antagonists, then, represents the juxtaposition of the traditional and the innovative: he preserves de casibus convention in the portrayal of Richard while rejecting it for something newer in the depiction of Bolingbroke.6

The attainment of self-knowledge is, in the view of most readers, the most profound change that Richard undergoes. Richard's request for a mirror in IV.i is seen as “a move towards self-knowledge, and even repentance.”7 One critic speaks of Richard's “increasingly bitter self-awareness,”8 while another finds a gradual but clear development in Richard's understanding of himself: “At first Richard sees himself exclusively in the light of a victim of fortune's wheel; only very slowly does he accept the moral of the specula principis that kings must be virtuous or they may be punished, even deposed, by the vengeance of God.”9

Actually, it is Richard's histrionic flair that creates the impression of a deeper self-knowledge than he really attains. Upon close reading his speeches reveal, at most, a seriously deficient understanding and an unwillingness to assume responsibility for his plight. The king may occasionally express regret over his words or deeds. Upon his return from Ireland, for instance, he laments that “this tongue of mine” ever banished Bolingbroke (III.iii.133). This remark represents, however, concern over a tactical error rather than a profound acknowledgment of wrongdoing. And even on those occasions when Richard castigates himself more vigorously, he seems unable to do so without sharing the blame liberally with his enemies. Thus while he concedes that he is a traitor to himself, he also in the same breath complains bitterly of the traitors who surround him (IV.i.244-48). And he cannot speak of his “weav'd-up follies” (IV.i.229) without in the same speech comparing himself to Christ and his enemies to Pilate. Here, as elsewhere, Richard displays an indulgent self-pity scarcely synonymous with true self-knowledge, much less contrition.

If Richard's attitude toward personal responsibility is ambivalent, so too is his attitude toward the divine power that exacts retribution for wrongdoing. The king may express confidence in providential justice when he tells Aumerle that “The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord” and that “heaven still guards the right” (III.ii.56-57, 62), but he seems not to recognize that the divine dispensation subjects him also to its strictures. Carlisle tells him that “The means that heavens yield must be embrac'd, / And not neglected” (29-30). Yet this reproof works little change in Richard, who, oblivious to the responsibilities he should fulfill, succumbs to torpor and despair. Despite his penchant for likening himself to Christ, Richard offers little evidence that the providence with which he threatens others has personal meaning for himself.

Significantly, when Richard is overtaken by adversity, he looks for explanation not to providence but to a capricious power that seems to frustrate his own purposes and to favor those of his opponents. In these words, for example, Richard in the deposition scene invites Bolingbroke to grasp the crown:

                                                            Here, cousin, seize the crown;
Here, cousin,
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water:
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.


There is little here to suggest that Richard's understanding of either himself or his world is very profound. The lines evince no sense of accountability. Based on the medieval figure of Fortune's buckets,10 they in effect transfer responsibility for what is happening away from Richard and to an external force.

In this case, then, far from abandoning the de casibus mode, Shakespeare draws his inspiration from it. For Richard's speech almost certainly is in the tradition of metrical tragedy, where the notion that one man's rising dictates another's fall is ascribed to Fortune. The idea survives in the foremost de casibus work of Shakespeare's era, the Mirror for Magistrates, where a complainant observes, “Fortune can not raise, / Any one aloft without sum others wracke.”11

Richard's references to Fortune may be appropriate in the sense that chance seems to work against him; his return from Ireland, for instance, is delayed by adverse weather, and his discouraged army disperses prematurely. Moreover, the caprice of the London crowds may, as J. M. R. Margeson suggests, be interpreted as signifying the fickleness of Fortune.12 Nevertheless, when Margeson writes that “the law of change in earthly kingdoms governed by indifferent fortune seems almost as probable an interpretation of these events as any providential order,”13 he fails to note Richard's inconsistency: the king threatens his enemies with the justice of God, yet blames capricious Fortune for his own reverses.

In so doing Richard is not necessarily being insincere. He may honestly believe himself to be a victim of circumstance. Despite the admonitions of royal counselors and despite even his own self-recrimination, Richard seems to remain baffled by the relationship between cause and effect. Certainly his language reveals no particular comprehension of the underlying principles at work in his deposition. The image of the buckets, for example, tends to blur, if it does not altogether obscure, the reason for the political upheaval. Fortune may be the only notion that allows a bewildered Richard to explain to himself how he could fall so far so fast.

Most readers contend that Richard moves beyond bewilderment, that eventually he sees beyond the caprice of Fortune and comes to accept responsibility for his plight. Irving Ribner, for example, finds evidence of maturation when Richard tells his wife, “I am sworn brother, sweet, / To grim Necessity, and he and I / Will keep a league till death” (V.i.20-22). Ribner comments: “Richard's awareness of his brotherhood to ‘grim necessity’ may be regarded as the culminating evidence of a growth in self-knowledge which had begun with his first awareness of Bolingbroke's inevitable triumph.”14 Yet Richard himself does not specify the source of that necessity as being within; in fact, he repeatedly locates causality outside of the individual.15 The fact that Richard has come to think of the world as governed by inflexible laws does not necessarily mean that he perceives his own role in creating his destiny. His remark about necessity suggests, rather, an abject surrender to circumstance.

Nor does Richard discard the image of himself as victim. Indeed, only moments before his death he continues to speak of Fortune, and he intimates that his relationship remains one of thralldom: “Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves / That they are not the first of fortune's slaves, / Nor shall not be the last—” (V.v.23-25). Here, virtually at the end of his life, he still employs the terminology of the de casibus narrative. And even Richard's eloquent admission in this last speech, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me,” recalls the tragedies of Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Lydgate, for implicit in the lines that follow the admission is the image of the wheel of Fortune:

For now hath time made me his numb'ring clock:
My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now, sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell. So sighs, and tears, and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours; but my time
Runs posting on in Bullingbrook's proud joy,
While I stand fooling here, his Jack of the clock.


The shape of the clock's face corresponds to that of Fortune's wheel. The steady progress of “minutes, times, and hours” suggests the ceaseless revolution of the wheel. And the motion of Richard, or rather his finger, around the circumference as a “dial point” evokes the conventional representation of a man bound to Fortune's wheel. The image, then, undercuts Richard's acknowledgment of his prodigality. To the very end he portrays himself as acted upon by hostile forces. Thus, to the extent that the tragedy is seen through Richard's eyes, it is a “Boccacesque tragedy of Fortune.”16

Richard, of course, bears responsibility for his demise: the speeches of Gaunt (II.i.31-68, 93-115), Carlisle (III.ii.27-32, 178-85), and York (II.i.186-208, II.ii.77-85) demonstrate the connection between his deeds and his downfall. Collectively, they suggest that Richard is insensitive to both people and custom, that he is ineffectual in dealing with political crises, that his thralldom to circumstance stems largely from his own deficiencies.17 Richard, however, does not share the view of Gaunt or Carlisle or York—or of the reader or audience.

And it remains unclear whether Richard even seeks to look within himself very deeply. Although his request for a mirror in the deposition scene may constitute an outward sign of such a desire, the smashing of that mirror, as Wilbur Sanders observes, signifies a “renunciation of self-knowledge.”18 Perhaps self-recognition is too difficult for one who has customarily looked outward to discover the source of his predicaments. Perhaps his histrionics, his violent moods, prevent him from ever gaining the quiet stability and perspective from which he might sensibly assess his plight. Or perhaps his rigidity of character simply will not allow Richard to look forthrightly at himself. Whatever the nature of the impediment, Richard fails to achieve any greater understanding of himself or of causality than the ghostly figures of the Mirror for Magistrates had in life.

Although critical opinion has tended to minimize Richard's link with metrical tragedy, a long critical tradition has identified Richard's antagonist with Fortune. J. Dover Wilson, who argues that the wheel of Fortune “determines the play's shape and structure,” describes Bolingbroke as “borne upward by a power [Fortune] beyond his volition.”19 E. M. W. Tillyard writes that the usurper “having once set events in motion is the servant of fortune.”20 And Raymond Chapman claims that at the beginning of the play Bolingbroke is so situated that “The next turn of the Wheel must draw him up and cast Richard down.”21 Source material is sometimes cited to buttress this argument. Dover Wilson, for instance, quotes one of Shakespeare's sources, Daniel's Civil Wars, which links Bolingbroke's return from exile and subsequent activity with Fortune:

Then fortune thou art guilty of his deed
That didst his state above his hopes erect,
And thou must beare some blame of his great sin
That left'st him worse then when he did begin.(22)

M. M. Reese believes that Shakespeare “allows” Daniel's view to be a possible interpretation of the play, and perhaps the dramatist does.23 This interpretation, however, does not sufficiently take into account Bolingbroke's dynamism and his conception of himself as one who largely determines his own destiny.

Never in the play does Bolingbroke see himself as a passive agent of Fortune. Nor does he directly acknowledge the existence of the Fortune whom Richard and his queen contemplate.24 When Bolingbroke uses the term, it is “fortune,” his personal lot, to which he refers, not the goddess Fortune.25 Consider, for example, his conversation with his followers upon his return from exile. When Henry Percy meets Bolingbroke, he pledges his “service … Which elder days shall ripen and confirm / To more approved service and desert” (II.iii.41-44). To this Bolingbroke replies in kind:

I thank thee, gentle Percy, and be sure
I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul rememb'ring my good friends,
And as my fortune ripens with thy love,
It shall be still thy true love's recompense.


And in conversation with Ross and Willoughby, Bolingbroke again employs the image. Responding to Ross' comment, “Your presence makes us rich,” Bolingbroke says:

Evermore thank's the exchequer of the poor,
Which, till my infant fortune comes to years,
Stands for my bounty.


The expressions, “fortune ripens” and “infant fortune,” are no less revelatory of Bolingbroke's self-image than Richard's references to the buckets and clock. Bolingbroke's words indicate that he sees his situation, at any moment, not as unalterably fixed, but rather as temporary and capable of amelioration. The epithets “infant” and “ripening” also suggest growth from within rather than constraint from without. Indeed, a “ripening” fortune is one that holds within itself the promise of improvement and fulfillment. This language, then, reflects Bolingbroke's sense of his own capacity for change and development, his sense of responsibility for the shape that his career takes.

Bolingbroke, of course, has to contend with external forces, just as Richard must. Unlike Richard, however, he perceives those forces as natural rather than mechanical, and this attitude allows for a more amicable and productive relationship with them. They are to be accommodated, not merely endured. Cooperation is Bolingbroke's watchword, for he perceives that he can capitalize on those forces and employ them to advance his own purposes.

Nowhere is this sense of cooperation more apparent than in his relationship to time. The Gardener comments upon this collaboration when he compares his own tending of the plants according to the “time of year” (III.iv.57) with Bolingbroke's tending of the kingdom. In his actions, of course, Bolingbroke demonstrates himself to be a master of timing. For example, he delays his return from exile until Richard has left for Ireland. And, later, having managed to secure York's promise of neutrality, Bolingbroke immediately persuades the duke to accompany him to Bristow Castle where he will seek to dislodge Bushy, Bagot, and Green (II.iii.162-67). Even Bolingbroke's opponents acknowledge his sensitivity to the exigencies of the moment. Berkeley, sent to learn of his intentions upon his return, declares that he has come “to know what pricks you on / To take advantage of the absent time, / And fright our native peace with self-borne arms” (II.iii.78-80). The query suggests Bolingbroke's aggressive seizing of opportunity, his confidence that dependence upon circumstance need not mean passivity.26

Admittedly, Bolingbroke sometimes appears resigned to events. When York tells him that “the heavens are over our heads,” Bolingbroke replies, “I know it, uncle, and oppose not myself / Against their will” (III.iii.18-19). But this seems merely a pose, calculated to assuage the qualms of those uneasy about the prospect of usurpation. There is no evidence that the heavens are any more real to Bolingbroke than they are to Richard.27 And Bolingbroke, for all his outward obeisance, is certainly not slow to capitalize on his opponent's errors.

In view of Bolingbroke's aggressiveness and resolute spirit, it seems inappropriate to regard him as a passive figure, “whom the Wheel of Fortune … carries aloft as it carries Richard down.”28 In fact, the image of Fortune's wheel, which never explicitly appears in the play, should, it seems to me, be discarded in describing Bolingbroke and his relationship to Richard.29 What is required is a different formulation, one that indicates Shakespeare's indebtedness to de casibus tradition in the characterization of Richard (and Richard's Fortune) and, at the same time, his departure from that tradition in the characterization of Bolingbroke. The Fortuna-Virtus topos provides the basis for just such a formulation. Imagine the rivals in Richard II as each identified with one side of the antinomy. Together, they form a composite of the old and the new: Fortuna as conceived in such a “medieval” work as the Mirror for Magistrates, Virtus as conceived in such a distinctively Renaissance work as The Prince.

Throughout the play Richard is, by his own words, associated with Fortune. And his remarks seem not an expression of conventional sentiment for the sake of convention; rather, they seem to grow naturally out of his character. Richard's is, in fact, the sort of personality that by its very nature gives life to Fortune. His obtuseness leads him to ascribe events to Fortune that a more discerning and conscientious individual might himself claim responsibility for. Moreover, Richard's association with Fortune is subtly underscored in another way as well: his mercurial temperament resembles that of the moody goddess he describes. His rapid oscillation between confidence and despair in III.iii rivals any caprice of Dame Fortune; his behavior upon his return from Ireland may, like Fortune's, best be described in terms of antitheses.

Shakespeare makes the relationship between character and Fortune even more explicit when in the deposition scene Richard calls for the mirror. The use of this hand prop evokes the very image of Fortune, for as Samuel C. Chew explains, “when the King dashes the mirror to the ground and comments upon the brittleness of glory, we remember the figures of Fortuna Vitrea and those representations of the goddess where … she holds in her hand a brittle globe of glass.”30 The very physical presentation of Richard on stage no less than his temperament recalls the image of Fortune, who wields such awesome power in the realm of de casibus tragedy.

On the other hand, Bolingbroke's association with Fortune is minimal. He is so determined and energetic that, one imagines, Fortune (at least of the traditional kind) can scarcely exist for him. And while Richard seems to have stepped from the pages of de casibus tragedy, Bolingbroke draws his values and outlook from another source altogether. Irving Ribner suggests the likely inspiration when he writes, “The political activity of Bolingbroke in Shakespeare's Richard II closely adheres to Machiavelli's political philosophy as contained in The Prince.31 In the twenty-fifth chapter of that work, Machiavelli argues that man need not remain at the mercy of Fortune, that he can by his skill and daring prevail, at least at times, over circumstance. What Machiavelli urges is the practice of those traits that make for success. And these he sums up in the word virtù. … [T]his is not virtue in any moral sense, for Machiavelli, guided by his reading of Roman authors and by his own experience, recasts the medieval Fortuna-Virtus antinomy by defining Virtus in a thoroughly secular light.

Like the model of success for Machiavelli, Shakespeare's Bolingbroke never surrenders to circumstance; he finds in adversity not catastrophe but challenge. In contrast to Richard's penchant for contemning the world when adversity strikes, Bolingbroke retains a stubborn determination to persevere. Clever and resilient, he is an embodiment of energy and purpose. His is a spirit of indomitable strength and resolution; he incarnates Machiavelli's virtù.

The application of the Fortuna-Virtus topos to Richard II is suggested through the stage imagery. For when the king and the usurper jointly hold the crown at IV.i.181-83, they evoke the figures of Fortuna and Virtus, who jointly hold a crown above a monarch's head in Guillaume de la Perrière's La Morosophie (Paris, 1553). Shakespeare may not seek to make the emblematist's point—that a king, ideally, needs to combine happy circumstance with his own integrity; Shakespeare, like Machiavelli, interprets Virtus in a secular sense. But Richard's identification with Fortune and Bolingbroke's with virtù suggest that Shakespeare may well have intended to realize the topos in emblematic terms.

The composite formulation suggested above (old-fashioned Fortune and new-fangled virtù) provides a more useful means of characterizing the profound shift in power that takes place during Richard II than does the wheel of Fortune. For when the crown passes from Richard to Bolingbroke, it passes from a man intimidated by Fortune and doubtful of his capacity to prevail over hostile circumstance, to a man confident of his virtù, secure in his belief that he can achieve whatever he sets his will to. The crown, then, passes not merely from one individual to another but also from a figure who embodies one set of assumptions and attitudes to a figure who embodies quite different values; Richard and Bolingbroke are each representative of a distinctive world view. Richard's is a world that views ambition with horror, that prizes acquiescence over aggressiveness, that takes pride and comfort in the observance of ritual. His fall marks the demise of a habit of mind and a political climate as well as that of a man. As Robert Ornstein observes of Richard, “When he falls, a way of life and a world seem to fall with him.”32 The world coming into being is one that prizes adroitness, audacity, and pragmatism, above all. The triumph of Bolingbroke, champion of these attributes, signals the sharp displacement of traditional values.

In triumphing, Bolingbroke remains enigmatic, never overtly alluding to the skill with which he seizes the right opportunity at the right time. Not until 1 Henry IV is there any explicit evocation of Occasion in connection with Bolingbroke. And there it is not Henry but a disgruntled former confederate who makes the point. Recalling events in the latter part of Richard's reign, Worcester reminds Henry, “from this swarm of fair advantages / You took Occasion to be quickly wooed / To gripe the general sway into your hand” (V.i.55-57).


Were Bolingbroke a more voluble character, we might know more about his concept of opportunity. But he is as taciturn as the king is loquacious. And we learn almost nothing of his private thoughts. Not until Shakespeare's next tragedy do we meet a figure whose speeches and soliloquies permit a fuller consideration of Occasion. The character is Marcus Brutus, who while very different from Bolingbroke in temperament, faces a similar task—the removal of a head of state and the substitution of a new regime. Though Brutus is only partially successful, his character permits an especially detailed treatment of the quest for opportunity.

In one of the earliest studies seeking to relate Renaissance literature to iconography, Henry Green suggested that Brutus' image of “a tide in the affairs of men” resembles the emblem of Occasion,33 and in this century the correspondence has been widely noticed. Occasion, however, has significance not only for the imagery of Brutus' speech but also, more generally, for his character. That is, the concept of Occasion underlies a cluster of Brutus' traits, including his penchant for predicting the future, timing his actions with precision, and staking chances of success upon a single daring move. All of these stem from Brutus' profound sense of opportunity, which informs his psyche throughout the play, from his early meditation on Caesar's “tyranny” to his last orders on the plains of Philippi.

Brutus' “tide” speech is essentially a plea for action, designed to convince a dubious Cassius that the struggle with the enemy has reached a critical point, that the time for battle is now:

Our legions are brimful, our cause is ripe:
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.


The speaker's sense of urgency is expressed in part through the language of height and declination. And for some readers this imagery, together with the reference to “fortune” (meaning simply “success”), suggests Fortune and her wheel. But the playwright eschews the image of a mechanical wheel which raises a man to the top only to begin a steady and inexorable downfall. Instead, he constructs the passage upon the nautical image of a ship riding the waves and seizing the tide. And this belongs, more properly, to Occasion.34

There is much in Brutus' speech that recalls pictorial representations of Occasion—more even than Henry Green recognized. As we have already seen, the “sea” almost always appears in emblems of Occasion, and sometimes Occasion actually stands above the waves. In addition, Brutus' assertion that they are “afloat” recalls the vessels that sail on the sea of Occasion, driven by the force of wind and tide. Brutus' references to “fortune” and “ventures,” moreover, express the element of contingency associated with Occasion and made manifest by one of her accouterments, the wheel lying flat beneath her feet. Brutus' speech, then, incorporates several features associated with Occasion.35

The assumptions on which Occasion is predicated (that powerful forces are at work in the world but that man may, if skillful, harness them) inform Brutus' very character. His experience of prophecies, portents, and visions undoubtedly contributes to his belief that man's powers are circumscribed, and he expresses this notion after the assassination when he says, “Fates, we will know your pleasures. / That we shall die, we know, 'tis but the time, / And drawing days out, that men stand upon” (III.i.98-100). Later, after his vision of the Ghost, he speaks of “the providence of some high powers / That govern us below” (V.i.106-7). This conviction does not, however, deter Brutus from acting decisively. A resolute figure, he displays a fixedness of purpose befitting one who believes he is the master of events, not their servant. His confidence is nourished by his association with Cassius, a forceful embodiment of man's autonomy. For his part, Cassius is an Epicurean, who believes that even if the gods exist, they take no interest in humankind. Thus man is, or should be, free to assert himself as he wishes. Brutus may not display the pugnacious arrogance before men and gods that characterizes his friend. But by his tacit acceptance of Cassius' arguments, his participation in the conspiracy, and his active role in the assassination itself, Brutus affirms his capacity to shape his own future and thus history as well.

The balance between fatalism and self-determination that characterizes Brutus is perhaps most apparent in his attitude toward time, which he sees as both imposing constraints and offering opportunities. Typically, time (of the month and the day) is much on his mind the night before Caesar's death. Reflecting on the warning that he had heard along with others that day (“Beware the ides of March”), Brutus asks his servant, “Is not to-morrow, boy, the ides of March?” (II.i.40), and he directs Lucius, “Look in the calendar, and bring me word” (42). Later, as the details of Caesar's murder are plotted with the other conspirators, Brutus remains mindful of the hour. When he hears a clock strike, he interjects, “Peace, count the clock” (192). This anxiety is prompted in part by his fear that Caesar may not leave home the next day. And although Decius assures them, “I will bring him to the Capitol” (211), the nervous Brutus seeks to fix the exact hour. When Cassius says, “We will all of us be there to fetch him,” Brutus responds, “By the eight hour; is that the uttermost?” (213). In the morning Brutus is obviously mindful of the hour, for when Caesar at his home inquires the time, Brutus quickly replies, “Caesar, 'tis strucken eight” (II.ii.114).

Collectively, these references to time betray Brutus' reservations about man's ability to control his own destiny. For him, successful endeavor is not guaranteed by immediate, straightforward action. Man's capacity is limited by circumstance; some times are more propitious than others. In the words of Cassius, “Men at some time are masters of their fates” (I.ii.139). By embracing this view, Brutus manifests his sense of opportunity, the very essence of which is astute timing.36

For all his sensitivity to the exigencies of circumstance, however, Brutus has great difficulty capitalizing on his opportunities. In fact, whenever he faces a decision that requires a deft handling of the time, he makes a calamitous error. For example, the decision to allow Antony to deliver an oration—and over Caesar's body—proves to be lamentably inopportune. At this point the fortunes of the assassins are at a crucial stage, for they need to appease the multitude and thus to consolidate their political gains. To permit Antony, a well-known friend of Caesar's, to address the populace at such a volatile moment is to court disaster. Similarly, the decision made near Sardis to commit the troops proves to be a fateful error. It plays into the hands of an enemy awaiting an opening to strike; Octavius greets the sight of the conspirators' forces with the words, “Now, Antony, our hopes are answered” (V.i.1). And Brutus' actions at Philippi are singularly ill-timed. Taking advantage of initial success, Brutus, heedless of the disaster overtaking Cassius' forces, precipitously charges the enemy. As Titinius explains to Cassius after the battle:

O Cassius, Brutus gave the word too early,
Who, having some advantage on Octavius,
Took it too eagerly. His soldiers fell to spoil,
Whilst we by Antony are all enclos'd.


Since Plutarch attributes the error chiefly to the impatience of the soldiers,37 it is clear that Shakespeare has accentuated Brutus' failure in timing. This departure from the source is, however, entirely consistent with the playwright's conception of the character. In Julius Caesar Brutus' habits of thinking and acting are such that they dictate errors in timing.

The way in which Brutus arrives at his resolution for action reveals why he so often errs. Consider the first critical decision that Brutus makes in the play:

                                                                                'tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may;
Then lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities;
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg,
Which, hatch'd, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.


Here Brutus indulges his predilection for anticipating the behavior of others and tailoring his own deeds to that expectation. In this instance he decides that Caesar is a tyrant in embryo whose maturation must be thwarted. It is his confidence that he knows what the future holds for Caesar and for Rome that leads him to attach such importance to the present and to believe that, if the Republic is to be preserved, his decisive action now is necessary.

The soundness of Brutus' proposed action, however, depends upon the accuracy of his prediction. And that is highly questionable, for Brutus' premise seems dubious. Indeed, he himself admits that “the quarrel / Will bear no color for the thing he is.” But Brutus somehow manages to evade the implications of this admission. Suppressing his personal feeling for Caesar, Brutus resorts to an austere cerebration that takes on a life of its own.38 His rationalism is apparent in the progression of his thought from general truth to specific instance to deduction; in the use of such words as “since” and “therefore,” indicating logical relationships; and in his framing of the simile, a consciously thought-out correlation, likening Caesar to a serpent. By relying so confidently on rational processes and by denying the promptings of his own instincts, Brutus dooms himself to misconstrue the futures of others and to construct a seriously flawed design for his own future conduct.39

Reason, as exercised by Brutus, is an imperfect guide to prediction and to the formulation of action in a capricious, tumultuous, even mysterious world. And its inadequacy is underscored by the other decisions that punctuate his career, none of which is more important than that to commit the troops at Philippi. The decision has its origins in Brutus' anxiety over the allegiance of the populace. Only grudgingly have they aided the forces of Brutus and Cassius. And this reluctance signifies to Brutus a sympathy with the enemy. In the future, Brutus tells his comrade, this will render their military position precarious:

The enemy, marching along by them,
By them shall make a fuller number up,
Come on refresh'd, new-added, and encourag'd;
From which advantage shall we cut him off
If at Philippi we do face him there,
These people at our back.


When Cassius interrupts to voice his own opinion, Brutus silences him with the speech on “a tide in the affairs of men.”

Here, as in the earlier meditation on Caesar, Brutus bases a momentous course of action on a personal prediction; in this instance he gauges the likely behavior of the populace. And here, too, he fails to question closely the premise that underlies that prediction. The people near Sardis may or may not favor the forces of Antony. What Brutus interprets as their hostility may simply be their resentment against the intrusion of any military forces in their land. It is not clear that Brutus and Cassius need do anything at present to secure their safety; Cassius seeks not a battle, but a campaign of attrition. By forcing the issue and seeking a confrontation, Brutus may be attempting to seize an opportunity that does not truly exist.

If that opportunity is genuine, it is certainly mishandled. In the field Brutus proves an erratic general. His orders are given, as we have seen, “too early.” Indefatigable, he decides on a second contest with the enemy. He tells his men: “'Tis three a' clock, and, Romans, yet ere night / We shall try fortune in a second fight” (V.iii.109-10). Like the first encounter, this one also ends short of success, and no less inevitably. When Brutus should respond to the rhythm inherent in events, his rationality leads him to look to the regular, precise measurements of clock time. Norman Rabkin, commenting on Brutus' speech on “a tide in the affairs of men,” succinctly points to the nature of his problem: “His wisdom here is undercut only by his failure to realize that the flood cannot be gauged by the reasoning mind.”40

Brutus' plight demonstrates that the individual who conceives of time as containing specially propitious moments for action faces a burdensome difficulty, for his world view requires him to select a certain moment for action and to concentrate all his energies then. But which moment? How is it to be recognized? And, once recognized, how precisely should it be handled? It was just such questions—and the possibility of failure—that led thinkers traditionally to link Occasion with another personification, Regret or Penitence. In antiquity Ausonius linked the two in his poem, “In Simulacrum Occasionis et Paenitentiae.”41 (In the Renaissance Machiavelli translated the poem into Italian; his version is entitled “Dell' Occasione.”) Renaissance emblematists vividly expressed the same idea. For example, in Gilles Corrozet's Hecatomgraphie (Paris, 1543), Penitence sits in the stern of Occasion's vessel. And in Jean Jacques Boissard's Emblemes latins (Metz, 1588), Penitence, holding a whip in her hands, walks immediately behind Occasion. These representations are meant to suggest that for some aspirants the self-reproach and the public opprobrium of missed or bungled opportunities could be severe indeed. And such is the case of Marcus Brutus who, unwilling to face the disgrace of capture, follows Cassius' example and takes his own life.42

Brutus' death constitutes, in effect, an eloquent commentary on his quest for opportunity and, in particular, on his speech on “a tide in the affairs of men.” That speech aptly expresses the possibilities open to the individual who moves swiftly and decisively, the fleeting quality of the opportune moment, and the inevitable disaster that awaits the action taken at an inauspicious time. Perhaps no passage in Elizabethan drama captures so well the meaning of Occasion. Yet those lines, in their context, must surely be ironic, for Brutus is precisely that figure in Julius Caesar who consistently misjudges the “right” moment. His tragedy is that of a man convinced of the existence of opportune moments, yet lacking the qualities of personality and mind needed to assess and exploit them effectively.

To deepen the irony, Shakespeare surrounds Brutus with friends and enemies who possess a far surer sense of opportunity than he. Thus the pragmatic Cassius realizes his compatriot's error in allowing Antony to survive the assassination and to deliver the funeral oration. And it is Cassius who would dissuade Brutus from waging war at Philippi. Appropriately, Cassius expresses his anxiety before battle in a nautical metaphor that seems to evoke Occasion: “Why now blow wind, swell billow, and swim bark! / The storm is up, and all is on the hazard” (V.i.67-68). Similarly, Mark Antony has a keener sense of opportunity than Brutus, which allows him to capitalize on circumstance following Caesar's murder and turn the people against the assassins. Over Caesar's body he speaks of “the tide of times” (III.i.257), and after the oration he calls to mind a distinctively Renaissance Fortune when, flushed with success, he tells a servant, “Fortune is merry, / And in this mood will give us any thing” (III.ii.266-67).


Calling him “the sensitive philosopher misgivingly impelled to action,” Harley Granville-Barker remarks on Brutus' similarity to Hamlet: “The likeness is distinct.”43 Like Brutus, Hamlet is an intellectual, a man whose cerebration is perhaps the most salient feature of his character. Like Brutus, moreover, Hamlet is called to action of a particularly violent kind, the killing of a head of state; and such a deed runs counter to his cautious nature. To be sure, Hamlet can be impulsive. But his celebrated delay in exacting revenge is the product of a mind that weighs things with great care and of a temperament that tends naturally toward meditation. When, for example, Hamlet finds Claudius at prayer, he ponders the situation, considers the possible consequences of killing the king at this moment, and finally deems the circumstances unsuitable to the deed. Hamlet's soliloquy at III.iii.73-96 is as revealing of his character as is Brutus' reflection on Caesar-as-serpent the night before the assassination.

For Hamlet, as for Brutus, some times are more propitious than others. These moments of opportunity are, however, difficult to locate. And in his pursuit of them Hamlet, like Brutus, lurches and stumbles. Hostile Fortune, rather than responsive Occasion, dominates Hamlet's mental world. During the play, however, Hamlet profoundly alters his world view, replacing Fortune with something more benign. With his acceptance of divine providence, he perceives opportunity where formerly he saw only opposition.

The transition is thrown into bold relief by the specifically visual way in which Hamlet conceives of his world.44 This trait manifests itself in a variety of ways: in his reference to miniature painting; his use of actual portraits in the bedroom scene (“Look here upon this picture, and on this”); and his habit of speech (“By the image of my cause, I see / The portraiture of his”). Even more important, this trait expresses itself in Hamlet's vivid description of those forces which he perceives as dominating his world, forces which he personifies and describes in an almost painterly fashion.45 Among these none is more important than Fortune.

The first important description of Fortune occurs in the context of the players' visit to Elsinore. A playgoer himself, Hamlet welcomes them warmly and asks a player to recite a speech about the killing of Priam, a speech which the prince had heard on some earlier occasion. After Hamlet declaims the lines that he remembers, the player obligingly continues.46 From its beginning the narrative is richly descriptive—and gruesome. The Greek warrior is a ghastly figure: his arms are “Black as his purpose” (II.ii.453); he is “total gules, horridly trick'd / With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons” (457-58). This appearance mirrors the horror of the deed he is about to commit: the slaying of an aged king, a figure presented sympathetically. As the Player speaks, Hamlet's purpose in requesting the recital becomes clear: he seems to feel a kinship with the bloody warrior. Life parallels art, for just as Pyrrhus is engaged in avenging his father, Achilles, so too Hamlet is embarked on avenging his father. The correspondence between Pyrrhus and Hamlet is hardly exact; we witness no soul-searching on the part of the Greek. But there is this similarity: both revengers pause before claiming their victims. Although the hesitation of Pyrrhus may have nothing of Hamlet's complexity, it is nonetheless pronounced:

                                                                                                    lo his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverent Priam, seem'd i' th' air to stick.
So as a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood
And, like a neutral to his will and matter,
Did nothing.


Only after this does “A roused vengeance” set Pyrrhus in motion; finally, the sword falls.

The parallel between Pyrrhus and Hamlet goes even further, for the deeds of both revengers are identified with the will of Fortune. Notice that the Player's speech proceeds to castigate not Pyrrhus but the power ultimately responsible for the killing of Priam:

Out, out, thou strumpet Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod take away her power!
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven
As low as to the fiends!


Pyrrhus, the speech suggests, is Fortune's agent, executing her decrees. Like him, Hamlet too feels impelled by Fortune, and so he shares vicariously in the vitriolic denunciation directed at Fortune by the Player: “Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steep'd, / 'Gainst Fortune's state would treason have pronounc'd” (510-11). In Hamlet's mind, as in the Player's speech, revenge is associated with a malign Fortune.

In the next scene Hamlet's tone is subdued. His passion has spent itself, but he is still thinking about his response to Fortune:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them.


Although these most famous of Shakespearean lines concern Dame Fortune, few listeners or readers are truly conscious of the personification; editors seldom capitalize Fortune's name here. Yet the attributes that Hamlet assigns to Fortune are traditional parts of her iconography. From at least the time of Dante, Fortune was associated with arrows, and sixteenth-century emblem books depict Fortune brandishing those arrows.47 Moreover, the “sea of troubles” also belongs to depictions of Fortune. As we have seen, Fortune in the Renaissance is often pictured standing just above the waves or riding in a vessel.

Unless we recognize Hamlet's personification of Fortune, we are likely to construe his thinking as more abstract than it actually is. Critics commonly cite the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy as evidence of Hamlet's philosophic bent. One even concludes that “Hamlet is a metaphysician.”48 Admittedly, Hamlet is given to cerebration; he accuses himself of thinking too precisely on the event. Yet when he speaks of Fortune here, he is not speaking vaguely of some generalized condition; rather, he has in mind a specific antagonist, one armed with slings and arrows. So direct and intense is his response to his situation that it issues in this particular image of Fortune. Despite his intellectuality, then, there is an immediacy and vividness about the way Hamlet conceives his world. One can almost imagine him as Seneca and Machiavelli envision man: in hand-to-hand combat with Fortune.

What Wolfgang Clemen has said of Hamlet's image-making applies as well to his thinking about Fortune: “When he begins to speak, the images fairly stream to him without the slightest effort—not as similes or conscious paraphrases, but as immediate and spontaneous visions.”49 Hamlet's way of envisioning Fortune, then, differs from, say, Fluellen's. In Henry V Fluellen ticks off Fortune's features as though he were taking an iconographic inventory ( He tells us that Fortune “is painted blind,” that she is “painted also with a wheel,” that her foot “is fixed upon a spherical stone which rolls, and rolls, and rolls.” By contrast, there is nothing laborious about Hamlet's description of Fortune. She springs quickly to his mind's eye. She is a familiar part of the cosmic furniture, as much a part of his world as the sun and moon.

Hamlet's way of envisioning Fortune is distinctive in another way as well: rather than enumerating several of her accouterments in the manner of Fluellen, he suggests her power by naming only one. Marvin Spevack's observation about Hamlet's method of constructing images is apposite: “Hamlet is like a caricaturist who dwells on some ruling trait or feature … and makes the part stand for the whole.”50 It is this characteristic which manifests itself in his speech to Horatio:

                                                                                                                        thou hast been
As one in suff'ring all that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well co-meddled,
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please.


The only visual counterpart to this passage that I have discovered shows Fortune not only with a pipe, which she plays while a man dances to the tune, but also with other familiar accouterments—blindfold, globe, and sail. The representation appears as an emblem in Guillaume de la Perrière's La Morosophie. If Shakespeare knew this emblem or some other like it, he has chosen to simplify it drastically so as to focus on only one of Fortune's features.

Artistic constructions of one kind or another—portraits, theatrical speeches, even an entire play—form an integral part of Hamlet's expression. They function as a screen onto which he projects his emotions of anger or depression or admiration. Maurice Charney remarks that Hamlet “thinks of experience as a work of art that can only be mastered by aesthetic means.”51 Hamlet habitually locates himself within the confines of an already created artistic world. Art enables him to recapture his past, define his situation, and express his most intense feelings.

Such an application of art is apparent in the play-within-the-play, where Hamlet's personal feelings find a parallel. When the Player King declares, “What to ourselves in passion we propose, / The passion ending, doth the purpose lose” (III.ii.194-95), Hamlet must be reminded of the difficulty he has in marshalling and sustaining emotional resolution. He keenly appreciates the problem of directing one's action in a perilously uncertain world; he knows how riddled with contingency is the human condition. The Player King's line, “Grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident” (199), must strike a responsive chord in Hamlet whose entire life has been irrevocably changed by the discovery of his father's murder. So too this recognition of man's bondage to circumstance must strike Hamlet as particularly apt to his own situation:

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown,
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.


In so many of these lines we seem to hear Hamlet's own sentiments. Indeed, it is entirely possible that these are meant to be Hamlet's own words, the “speech of some dozen lines, or sixteen lines” (II.ii.541-42) which he asked the Player to insert in The Murder of Gonzago.

If Hamlet detects accident in his own life, he sees it also in the lives of others, especially those of his parents, whose relationship is reflected in that of the Player King and Queen. Contemplating the gulf between present resolve and future action, the Player King says:

This world is not for aye, nor 'tis not strange
That even our loves should with our fortunes change:
For 'tis a question left us yet to prove,
Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love.


The speaker knows that although the queen may vow eternal fidelity, human behavior is unpredictable. And he expresses his sense of contingency by personifying Fortune.52 Like the references to Fortune by Hamlet, this one has a pictorial counterpart, for in Jean Cousin's Liber Fortunae Dame Fortune quite literally leads Cupid (or Love) by the hand.53

The series of references to Fortune in the play convey, collectively, Hamlet's sense of victimization. To him circumstance seems always to favor predatory figures. It is the innocent—Hamlet's father, Priam, the Player King—who fall prey to their adversaries.54 It is inevitable, then, that Hamlet should feel demoralized and that, consequently, he should find it difficult to act decisively. With the success of the play-within-the-play, however, Hamlet gains a new sense of belligerency, one that leads him to rebuff Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play'd on than a pipe?” (III.ii.370-71). Compared with his comments on Fortune's pipe earlier in the scene, this remark bespeaks new resolve to resist intimidation from without. And Hamlet's killing of Polonius manifests, in an even more vivid way, his determination to act. When he sees the body, Hamlet says, “I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune” (III.iv.32). These words underscore his changed disposition. For the first time, he speaks of “fortune” rather than Fortune. That is, he speaks of a person's individual lot rather than the goddess.

Nevertheless, this new aggressiveness does not immediately issue in the fulfillment of the Ghost's command, for Hamlet proves singularly inept. The killing of Polonius fails to advance his purpose; it only jeopardizes Hamlet's already precarious position at Claudius' court. He seems dimly to recognize his inability to find or to seize opportunity when, just before leaving Denmark, he sees the doughty Fortinbras and says:

How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge!


That Hamlet should admire a soldier who has been termed an “opportunist” is not surprising, for despite his preoccupation with the time, Hamlet lacks any sense of timeliness. He resorts to quick, jerky, ineffectual action. He has no sense of the rhythm of events, no sense of what is opportune. Instead of cooperating with the time, he thinks of himself as correcting the time: “The time is out of joint—O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (I.v.188-89).

Hamlet's antagonism toward and fear of time parallels and perhaps derives from his attitude toward Fortune. These two are closely allied in the Renaissance and, as we have seen, are sometimes conflated iconographically. To Hamlet both are implacable foes. In the same speech in which he talks of the slings and arrows of Fortune, he also complains of “the whips and scorns of time” (III.i.69). And a whip, Samuel C. Chew has shown, was actually carried by Father Time in the Renaissance.55 When, later on, Hamlet's attitude toward Fortune alters, he also modifies his attitude toward time.

The change takes place on Hamlet's voyage to England, one of the most mysterious journeys in Shakespeare. Since it occurs offstage, we are denied first-hand knowledge. We perceive its effects as soon as we see the returned Hamlet, but the nature of the change we learn only gradually through Hamlet's words to Horatio.

Hamlet recounts to his friend his experience of several events involving chance: the discovery of the royal commission intended to work his death; the substitution of one letter for another; and the capture by pirates. The series of coincidences is striking: that he should have chanced to discover the contents of Claudius' letter; that he should have had his father's signet with him; that he alone should have been captured at sea. We might expect Hamlet to perceive the hand of Fortune in all of this. After all, as recently as his last speech before leaving Denmark, he was still talking about Fortune, expressing his admiration of Fortinbras for “Exposing what is mortal and unsure / To all that fortune, death, and danger dare” (IV.iv.51-52). Moreover, Hamlet's journey takes place upon the sea, associated with the operation of chance. Indeed, Hamlet has himself invoked the symbolism when he spoke of the “sea of troubles.” But Hamlet defies our expectation. Instead of ascribing events to Fortune, he says to Horatio:

And prais'd be rashness for it—let us know
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will—


And in answering Horatio's inquiry about the signet, Hamlet again cites divine agency: “Why, even in that was heaven ordinant” (48). Clearly, Hamlet places an entirely different interpretation on contingency than he did previously. Why?

Hitherto Hamlet has considered himself the victim of “slender accident.” He has been tormented by Fortune—her slings and arrows, her pipe, her wheel. From his earliest reference (to Fortune's star), every mention of Fortune has been negative, and understandably so. But now, on the voyage, chance begins to work in his favor. He finds himself guided rather than manipulated; the power responsible he deems benign. Contingency emerges as part of an overarching pattern. John Holloway writes, “Over and over in Hamlet, chance turns into a larger design, randomness becomes retribution.”56 Believing God to be the author of that design, Hamlet supplants Fortune with providence in his cosmology. Never again will he mention Fortune.

Concomitantly, Hamlet gains a wholly new attitude toward time. No longer does he complain of Time's whips and scorns. Nor does he shrink from action. There is now no flailing about in search of the right moment. He has a sense of opportunity which he had not previously possessed. It is appropriate that this should be owing to his experience on the voyage, for in the Renaissance Occasion was usually depicted on the sea, sometimes riding in a vessel. Earlier in the play Laertes implicitly links Occasion with the sea when, about to embark, he says to Ophelia, “A double blessing is a double grace, / Occasion smiles upon a second leave” (I.iii.53-54).57 And Hamlet, on his voyage, seizes an opportunity that presents itself quite literally on the sea. It is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that Hamlet re-enacts the shift from Fortune to Occasion that was taking place in so much Renaissance thought and iconography. That is, he moves from a world dominated by an antagonistic Fortune, to one inhabited by a more responsive Occasion.

When Hamlet returns to Denmark, his demeanor has utterly changed. Despite the brief altercation with Laertes at Ophelia's funeral, Hamlet seems invested with quiet confidence, even in the face of peril. When the duel with Laertes is proposed, Horatio urges caution. But Hamlet refuses to delay:

Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.


To some, this marks the nadir of Hamlet's life. H. B. Charlton, for instance, interprets Hamlet's utterance as “merely the courage of despair.”58 In my judgment, however, Hamlet expresses neither despair nor indifference. His attitude, after all, is based upon faith in providence, a benevolent force which invites man's cooperation. Providence allows him to fulfill his potential by aligning himself with a larger design. Acknowledgment of providence thus inspires a mood of calm, rather than despondency. Hamlet no longer needs or wants to play the malcontent. His demeanor takes on the subdued aspect of one who believes himself acting in accord with some greater power.

Hamlet's readiness should not be confused with passivity.59 Readiness involves an alertness to the rhythm of events. It implies a willingness to respond actively to circumstance. It presupposes an ability and a disposition to cooperate with the time, for readiness signifies “both prompt compliance and a state of preparation.”60 Believing himself an instrument of God's will, Hamlet can act with equanimity and at the right moment. He will not now plot revenge as he had earlier done. Yet “it will come”—as the unpremeditated response to Claudius' device of the poisoned sword.

By the end of the play, when Hamlet has come to accept the role of providence in his life, not only has Fortune been expunged from Hamlet's world view but also from the play itself. This is owing to the fact that, earlier, the representation of Fortune was so completely an expression of Hamlet's personal vision. Apart from the Player and the Player King, who describe Fortune “in character” so to speak and implicitly at Hamlet's direction, only the prince speaks of Fortune repeatedly. Since Hamlet is the chief source of Fortune's representation and since it is through him that we so largely perceive the world of the play, it is natural that she should disappear when Hamlet revises his picture of the world. Fortune, whose image has loomed so prominently for so long, must vanish as suddenly as she first appeared.


  1. General studies of Fortune in Shakespearean tragedy include: Paul Reyher, Essai sur les idées dans l'oeuvre de Shakespeare, Bibliothèque des langues modernes (Paris: Marcel Didier, 1947); Soji Iwasaki, The Sword and the Word: Shakespeare's Tragic Sense of Time (Tokyo: Shinozaki Shorin, 1973), esp. pp. 13-49; J. Leeds Barroll, “Structure in Shakespearean Tragedy,” ShakS [Shakespeare Studies], 7 (1974): 345-78. See also Robert Kilburn Root, Classical Mythology in Shakespeare, Yale Studies in English, 19 (New York: Henry Holt, 1903), pp. 61-64. For Shakespeare's treatment of time, see Frederick Turner, Shakespeare and the Nature of Time: Moral and Philosophical Themes in Some Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). A wide-ranging study of time in the Renaissance has been made by Ricardo Quinones, The Renaissance Discovery of Time, Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature, no. 31 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972).

  2. Virgil K. Whitaker, The Mirror up to Nature: The Technique of Shakespeare's Tragedies (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1965), p. 119.

  3. Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1960), p. 51. Ribner makes much the same point in The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, rev. ed. (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 162.

  4. Richard II and Shakespeare's Tragic Mode,” TSLL [Texas Studies in Literature and Language], 5 (1963): 350.

  5. Shakespeare's Historical Plays (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), p. 119.

  6. Studies of Fortune in Richard II and in the other histories include: Reyher, Essai sur les idées dans l'oeuvre de Shakespeare, esp. pp. 245-52; and Walter F. Schirmer, “Glück und Ende der Könige in Shakespeares Historien,” Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Forschung des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen, 22 (1954): 5-18.

  7. Peter Ure, ed., New Arden King Richard II, 5th ed. (London: Methuen, 1961), p. lxxxii.

  8. H. M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 134.

  9. Rolf Soellner, Shakespeare's Patterns of Self-Knowledge (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1972), p. 99.

  10. According to Peter Ure, ed., King Richard II, “The figure of buckets and well is adapted from the medieval and Elizabethan figure of Fortune's buckets …” (p. 136). Howard R. Patch discusses the figure, in The Goddess Fortuna in Mediaeval Literature (1927; reprint ed., New York: Octagon Books, 1967), pp. 53-54. Guillaume de Machaut uses the image of Fortune's buckets in Remède de Fortune (c. 1342), printed in Oeuvres, ed. Ernest Hoepffner, 2 vols. (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1911), 2: 35-36.

  11. The Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily B. Campbell (1938; reprint ed., New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960), p. 163.

  12. The Origins of English Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 109.

  13. Ibid., p. 124.

  14. Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy, pp. 49-50.

  15. Richard's most memorable images—the buckets and, later, the clock—while implying some sort of cause and effect, locate the cause without rather than within.

  16. Willard Farnham, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (1936; reprint ed. with corrections, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970), p. 415.

  17. Samuel Schoenbaum, in “‘Richard II’ and the Realities of Power,” ShS [Shakespeare Survey], 28 (1975): 1-13, has argued that the king is actually more astute, at least in the trial-by-combat scene, than readers of the play recognize. Diane Bornstein, however, in “Trial by Combat and Official Irresponsibility in Richard II,ShakS, 8 (1975): 131-41, argues that the scene demonstrates serious error on Richard's part.

  18. The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), p. 178.

  19. Ed., New Cambridge King Richard II (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1939), p. xx.

  20. Shakespeare's History Plays (1944; reprint ed., New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969), p. 260.

  21. “The Wheel of Fortune in Shakespeare's Historical Plays,” RES [Review of English Studies], NS 1 (1950): 3.

  22. Quoted in the New Cambridge King Richard II, ed. Wilson, p. lxii.

  23. The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Edward Arnold, 1961), p. 251.

  24. Like her husband, the queen speaks of Fortune, using imagery in keeping with her sex: “methinks / Some unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune's womb, / Is coming towards me” (II.ii.9-11). There is an interesting parallel in Fulke Greville's Life of Sir Philip Sidney, Intro. Nowell Smith (London: Clarendon Press, 1907): “these Tyrannicall encrochments doe carry the images of Hell, and her thunder-workers, in their own breasts, as fortune doth misfortunes in that wind-blown, vast, and various womb of hers” (p. 109).

  25. The distinction is expressed in this line of Sidney's: “Nor Fortune of thy fortune author is” (The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William A. Ringler, Jr. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962], sonnet 33, p. 181). Editors of Shakespeare and many commentators as well frequently fail to observe this distinction in their handling of capitalization.

  26. Shakespeare's treatment of Bolingbroke probably was inspired, in part, by this passage in Holinshed regarding the departure of the Welsh troops: “… wheras if the king had come before their breaking up, no doubt, but they would have put the duke of Hereford in adventure of a field: so that the kings lingering of time before his comming over, gave opportunitie to the duke to bring things to passe as he could have wished, and tooke from the king all occasion to recover afterwards anie forces sufficient to resist him.” Quoted in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 3 (New York and London: Columbia Univ. Press, 1960), 400.

  27. Holinshed's Third Volume of Chronicles (1587) interprets the rise and fall in providential fashion: “in this dejecting of the one, & advancing of the other, the providence of God is to be respected, & his secret will to be woondered at.” Quoted in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 3: 402. R. Mark Benbow, in “The Providential Theory of Historical Causation in Holinshed's Chronicles: 1577 and 1587,” TSLL, 1 (1959): 264-76, argues that the 1587 edition is more insistently providential in emphasis than the earlier edition and that this shift is largely due to the additions of Abraham Fleming (additions which include, according to Benbow, the sentence quoted above in this note). Benbow also makes the point that “Fleming attempts to subordinate the concept of Fortune to that of Providence” (p. 267). Evidently, the providential interpretation found in the Chronicles was not shared by Shakespeare. As Henry Ansgar Kelly writes, in Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), “After viewing the providential themes in Richard II, we may ask if there is any indication that Shakespeare intended us to feel that God was active in bringing about any of the actions of the play, or in aiding any of the characters. It would seem that we must answer in the negative, for not even the characters themselves are dramatized as considering any of the play's vicissitudes to have been brought about by God” (p. 214).

  28. A. R. Humphreys, Shakespeare: Richard II (London: Edward Arnold, 1967), pp. 43-44.

  29. Moody E. Prior, in The Drama of Power: Studies in Shakespeare's History Plays (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1973), writes that the “evidently calculated absence” of the wheel of Fortune suggests that Shakespeare “was trying to avoid a reductive cliché” (p. 165).

  30. The Virtues Reconciled: An Iconographic Study (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1947), p. 15. See also Heinrich Schwarz, “The Mirror in Art,” Art Quarterly, 15 (1952): 105-06.

  31. “Bolingbroke, A True Machiavellian,” MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly], 9 (1948): 183.

  32. A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 102.

  33. Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers: An Exposition of Their Similarities of Thought and Expression (London: Trübner, 1870), pp. 260 ff.

  34. John W. Velz, in “Undular Structure in ‘Julius Caesar,’” MLR [Modern Language Review], 66 (1971): 21-30, has suggested that the imagery of Brutus' speech may have been inspired by a passage in Plutarch dealing with “the small boat which carried ‘Caesar and his fortune’ to safety through an adverse surf and a dangerous storm when he made his secret journey to Brundisium” (24). This seems to me unlikely.

  35. Brutus does not, of course, actually describe the figure of Occasion. George Lyman Kittredge, however, writes in his edition of Julius Caesar (New York: Ginn, 1939) that Brutus' speech “gives superb expression to a philosophical commonplace that Shakespeare had read in one of his earliest schoolbooks—Cato's Distichs, ii, 26:

    Rem tibi quam noris aptam dimittere noli:
    Fronte capillata, post est Occasio calva.”

    (p. 176)

    A translation, in Preceptes of Cato with annotacions of D. Erasmus of Roterodame (London, [1553]), Book II, sigs. G5v-G6, reads:

    A thing that thou knowest mete for thy purpose.
    See in no case, thou dooest it lose.
    Occasion in the forehead hath heare
    And the polle, balde and bare.
  36. The connection between Time and Occasion is suggested in The Bloody Brother, or Rollo, Duke of Normandy, in which a character says: “Blest Occasion / Offers herself in thousand safeties to you; / Time standing still to point you out your purpose. …” See The Works of Beaumont and Fletcher, ed. Rev. Alexander Dyce, 10 (London: Edward Moxon, 1846), 391. So closely related are Occasion and Time that Shakespeare sometimes conflates the two. In Much Ado About Nothing, for instance, a character speaks of Time when the metaphor, referring to a topknot or forelock, properly demands Occasion: “if he found her accordant, he meant to take the present time by the top …” (I.ii.14-15). Similarly, in All's Well That Ends Well a character says, “Not one word more of the consumed time. / Let's take the instant by the forward top” (V.iii.38-39).

  37. See Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 5 (New York and London: Columbia Univ. Press, 1964), 122.

  38. Among those who find Brutus' reasoning seriously flawed are Virgil K. Whitaker, who writes of Brutus' soliloquy, in Shakespeare's Use of Learning: An Inquiry into the Growth of his Mind and Art (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1953), “Shakespeare has done his best to make the fallacies in the reasoning obvious” (p. 245) and Kenneth Muir, who writes, in Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence (London: Hutchinson Univ. Library, 1972), that “in this crucial soliloquy Brutus is not given a single valid argument” (p. 48).

  39. This soliloquy is not so explicitly informed by the concept of Occasion as is the speech on “a tide in the affairs of men.” However, Douglas L. Peterson, in Time, Tide, and Tempest: A Study of Shakespeare's Romances (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1973), observes that Brutus' images of the serpent and of seizing the tide resemble those in a poem by Robert Southwell “on the importance of seizing occasion when it presents itself” (p. 67, n31).

  40. Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. 117.

  41. See Ausonius, ed. and trans. Hugh G. Evelyn White, LCL, 2 (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1949), 174-77.

  42. Brutus' suicide was a popular subject among emblematists. Andrea Alciati, for example, in Viri Clarissimi … Emblematum Liber (Augsburg, 1531), depicts Brutus plunging a sword into his chest (sig. C1). And Geoffrey Whitney, in A Choice of Emblemes (Leyden, 1586), portrays Brutus falling on his sword (p. 70). Both interpret the action in similar fashion; their common motto reads, “Fortuna virtutem superans” (“Fortune conquering virtue”). In Shakespeare's treatment, however, it would be more accurate to say that Brutus falls victim to Occasio rather than Fortuna.

  43. Prefaces to Shakespeare, 1 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1946), 30. Granville-Barker had made essentially the same point earlier, in “From Henry V to Hamlet,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, 11 (1924-25), 283-309.

  44. For Shakespeare's interest in the visual arts, see Margaret Farrand Thorp, “Shakespeare and the Fine Arts,” PMLA, 46 (1931): 672-93; and Arthur H. R. Fairchild, Shakespeare and the Arts of Design, Univ. of Missouri Studies, 12 (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1937).

  45. For discussions of the world of the play, see Maynard Mack, “The World of Hamlet,YR [The Yale Review], 41 (1952): 502-23; and Bernard McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 29-88.

  46. For analyses of the Player's speech, see Harry Levin, “An Explication of the Player's Speech,” in The Question of Hamlet (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 138-64; Arthur Johnston, “The Player's Speech in Hamlet,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 13 (1962): 21-30; Harold Skulsky, “Revenge, Honor, and Conscience in Hamlet,PMLA, 85 (1970): 78-87.

  47. For Dante's suggestion that arrows belong to Fortune, see the Paradiso, Canto XVII, 23-26. For the pictorial rendering of Fortune with arrows, see Jean Cousin, The Book of Fortune, Two Hundred Unpublished Drawings, ed. Ludovic Lalanne, trans. H. Mainwaring Dunstan (London and Paris: Librairie de l'art, 1883), pls. VII and XIII. Alfred Woltmann, in Holbein and His Time, trans. F. E. Bunnètt (London: Richard Bentley, 1872), notes that a design by Ambrosius Holbein, brother of the painter, associates Fortune with the arrow of Death (p. 257). And the title page of a German work, published in 1564, depicts the figure of Fortuna-Occasio-Tempus holding in her hand an arrow. In this design by Heinrich Lautensack, the figure is identified as “Die Zeit,” but may more accurately be called Occasion: she is winged, carries a razor, wears a forelock, and stands on a winged hourglass. Reproduced in Hollstein's German Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts, ed. Fedja Anzelewsky, 21 (Amsterdam: Van Gendt, 1978), 128. As for the slings of Fortune, I think it likely that the bridle held by Fortuna-Nemesis in many Renaissance representations was mistakenly interpreted as a sling. Erwin Panofsky, in “‘Virgo et Victrix’: A Note on Dürer's Nemesis,” in Prints, ed. Carl Zigrosser (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), pp. 13-38, notes that “the excellent Joseph Hilarius Eckhel (1737-1798) found it necessary to devote a whole page to proving that her [Nemesis] most frequent and distinctive attribute, the bridle (‘frenum’), is indeed a bridle and not a sling (‘funda’) …” (p. 17).

  48. H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1948), p. 97.

  49. The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (London: Methuen, 1951), p. 106.

  50. “Hamlet and Imagery: The Mind's Eye,” NS [Die Neveren Sprachen], 15 (1966): 208.

  51. Style in Hamlet (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), p. 318.

  52. Fortune in the Player King's speech is discussed by James I. Wimsatt, in “The Player King on Friendship,” MLR, 65 (1970): 1-6.

  53. See The Book of Fortune [Liber Fortunae], pl. LXVII. There is an interesting parallel in Webster's Duchess of Malfi, ed. John Russell Brown, The Revels Plays (London: Methuen, 1964). In the “marriage” scene the Duchess says to Antonio, “I would have you lead your fortune by the hand, / Unto your marriage bed” (I.i.495-96). Webster may be indebted to the lines in Hamlet or perhaps to some pictorial representation like that of Jean Cousin.

  54. One of these adversaries, Claudius, has been linked to Fortune by his own self-description. Beatrice White, in “Claudius and Fortune,” Anglia, 77 (1959): 204-07, writes: “the reference of Claudius to his ‘one auspicious and one dropping eye,’ in an ancient antithesis supported by paradoxes reminiscent of those used by writers on Fortune to stress her fickleness, stamps him from the first as a hypocrite, underlines the dubious nature of his real intentions, and marks him out at once as a potentially ‘treacherous villain’” (206).

  55. The Pilgrimage of Life (1962; reprint ed., Port Washington, N.Y. and London: Kennikat Press, 1973), p. 18.

  56. The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), p. 35.

  57. Nigel Alexander, in Poison, Play, and Duel: A Study in Hamlet (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1971), finds a correspondence between Hamlet's lines at III.i.85-87 and Brutus' speech in Julius Caesar about “a tide in the affairs of men” (pp. 74-75). Doris V. Falk, in “Proverbs and the Polonius Destiny,” SQ, 18 (1967), sees a reference to the wheel of Occasion in Ophelia's mention of a wheel at IV.v.172 (35).

  58. Shakespearian Tragedy, p. 103.

  59. J. V. Cunningham usefully assesses the meaning of “readiness,” in Woe or Wonder: The Emotional Effect of Shakespearean Tragedy (Denver: Univ. of Denver Press, 1951), pp. 9-13.

  60. S. F. Johnson, “The Regeneration of Hamlet,” SQ, 3 (1952): 205.

Michael Lloyd (essay date July 1962)

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SOURCE: Lloyd, Michael. “Antony and the Game of Chance.” JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology 61, no. 3 (July 1962): 548-54.

[In the following essay, Lloyd examines the destabilizing role of fortune in Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, observing Antony's affinity with the unpredictable powers of chance.]

Plutarch's Roman Fortune1 is a planning goddess beneficent to Rome, because through Rome she will establish universal peace. Rome has been chosen to serve as “a maine pillar to sustaine the decaying state of the world, ready to reele and sinke downward; and finally, as a sure anchor-hold against turbulent tempests, and wandering waves of the surging seas.” Octavius is Fortune's favoured instrument in this voyage to fixity out of dangerous flux: “for I reckon Cleopatra among the favours that Fortune did to Augustus, against whom, as against some rock, Antonius … should run himself, be split, and sink. …” Here, as elsewhere in the essay, Plutarch maintains the concept of stability being reached, out of a state whose fluctuations are like those of the sea. Fortune shares none of these fluctuations: she is the steadfast pilot who guards her chosen across them.

Shakespeare's Octavius proclaims the peace to which Fortune has led Rome and the world. But Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra2 depict the Rome of sealike instability that preceded peace. Shakespeare retains Plutarch's sea images. Men are creatures afloat on “the Tide of Times.” Brutus shares Antony's image:

There is a Tide in the affayres of men,
Which, taken at the Flood, leades on to Fortune:
Omitted, all the voyage of their life,
Is bound in Shallowes, and in Miseries.
On such a full Sea are we now a-float,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or loose our Ventures.


These are the “surging seas” against whose “wandering waves” Rome must prove the world's “anchor-hold.” But until Octavius' ultimate triumph, Rome's idea of her own fixity is an illusion. Shakespeare builds for her images of architectural or sculptural weight and solidity, only to shake, break, or fell them. Physically, “All the sway of Earth / Shakes like a thing unfirme.” Politically, Julius Caesar strides the narrow world like a colossus; but this god also can shake with fever, and must sit secure or he will be shaken. The “Fortresse” of the triumvirate that succeeds him is a cracked edifice botched up first by the “Cyment” of fear, then by a domestic bond that proves too fragile to hoop its disruptive impulse. Alongside the Rome of apparently established fixity, Shakespeare shows the Rome that shakes, melts, or is fractured from within. Nor can a “triple Pillar of the world” that has not kept its “square” lead Rome to become “a maine pillar to sustaine the decaying state of the world, ready to reele and sinke downward.” For Antony shares this tendency to sink and turn into the sea, rather than act as a pillar against such subsidence. He would “Let Rome in Tyber melt, and the wide Arch / Of the raing'd Empire fall.” Caesar's claim to be “fix't” had been an irony of self-deception after his veering in the previous scene. So is Antony's claim to be the “firm Roman” after a like veering, from the ambassadors to Cleopatra, from her to the ambassadors. This veering movement is that of Plutarch's sea into which, without the protection of the goddess, all succumb. So Shakespeare recurrently reminds us that alongside the Rome of monumental stone stand the Tiber and the “Empire of the Sea.”

Shakespeare's fortune herself resembles the fluctuating sea. Ventidius believes in a purposive fortune like Plutarch's. But Shakespeare does not choose to show her as such.

Wisedome and Fortune combating together,
If that the former dare but what it can,
No chance may shake it.

(Antony and Cleopatra, III.xiii.96-98)

Fortune here is not the planning goddess who brings stability to an unstable world, but the very “chance” that “shakes” it. The planners are those “high Powers / That governe us below.” To their instruments, “our Gods,” Pompey will submit; but not to fortune (II.i.62; vi.69-71). To Cleopatra, fortune is merely that “lucke” which they give to men to “excuse their after wrath” (V.ii.339). As such, it is not she who chose Octavius for a divine plan, but the gods who gave her to him. In so far as she has herself the power to give, she gives irresponsibly, as a creature of moods: “Fortune is merry, And in this mood will give us anything” (J.C., III.ii.280-81). When the mood changes, she “offers blowes,” and is then to be scorned (A.C., III.xi.84). This is the “false Huswife” with her “Wheele”; and though she is still associated with the sea, that is as a figure for what she is, not what she controls:

                              blow winde, swell Billow,
And swimme Barke:
The Storme is up, and all is on the hazard.

(Julius Caesar, V.i.77-79)

Shakespeare has dethroned her from the position of guardian pilot over the waves. She is simply, as Brutus describes her, the reward of the man whose own initiative in sea peril is timely.

“Chance,” “hazard,” “lucke” are the names of a fortune who is not the controller of the element of flux, but that element itself. Yet Shakespeare retains for her the prominence in Roman affairs that Plutarch gave to the goddess. For the revolutions of her wheel and the fluctuations of her tides are the underlying movements of the plays, linked as they are with the characters of Antony and the populace who give and take away his power. All three—fortune, Antony, and the populace—meet in the movement of that water against which the “maine pillar” will bring ultimate stability. Until then, man is a creature afloat on “the Tide of Times.” His “affayres” are a “Sea” that may take his “Ventures” to “Fortune,” or leave him in the “Shallowes.” This tidal state of men's affairs resembles the moods of fortune, who gives when she is “merry”; and when she is not, “offers blowes.” But what she gives is given also by the populace who resemble her. It is upon their moods, as Antony realises, that “the state of things” depends. Behind the illusion of a monumental Rome stand not only the water into which Antony would have it melt, but the populace who in their tidal switch of mood will weep their tears into the river till it floods (J.C., I.i.1-71). Behind the triple pillar that has not kept its “square,” it is they who have abandoned their “rule.” Behind the fortune who will give anything when she is merry, and the man of power who in his “idlenesse” will give “a Kingdome for a Mirth,” it is these “idle creatures” who “cull forth a holiday” from a “labouring day.” They would give Brutus a triumph as they did Pompey and Caesar; and in these shifting allegiances they share with fortune and the man of power the movements of a tidal water:

                                        the ebb'd man,
Ne're lov'd, till ne're worth love,
Comes fear'd, by being lack'd. This common bodie,
Like to a Vagabond Flagge upon the Streame,
Goes too, and backe, lacking the varrying tyde
To rot it selfe with motion.

(Antony and Cleopatra, I.iv.49-54)

Antony's own associations with water both derive from his own temperament, and link that temperament with those of fortune and the populace. His word “revolution” associates his moods with fortune's wheel; but his description of those moods evokes the “too, and backe” movement of water: “Hurle from us,” “wish it ours againe”; “plucke her backe,” “shov'd her on” (I.ii.144-48). So he will abandon the “firme Securitie” of land for the “chance and hazard” of water (III.vii.58-59). When, after the departure of his kings, Antony is “ebb'd” by the wholesale defection of those slaves and knaves that were his companions and confederates, it is in terms of a navy that that occurs. Their flung caps and carousing translate into terms of the sea the cast caps and holidays of the populace of Julius Caesar, I.i; as their mutiny translates to the sea Antony's own willingness to incite to and theirs to follow mutiny in the forum. From the Antony who would go “a-ducking,” authority “melts,” and he himself seems at last to turn to water. Until the last he had still seemed a creature of solid land: boar, pine, horse, retaining his foot on the hills (A.C., IV.x.6-7; xii.28; xiii.2). Now what had seemed beast, pine, mountain, horse, is seen to be cloud, and “dislimes … indistinct / As water is in water” (IV.xiv.4-15). Apparent solidity takes the nature of the tide it has followed, and at death “The Crowne o'th'earth doth melt.” It is a resolution into that element to which he is most akin. But when Antony is a leaky vessel sinking, Octavius is a “landlord”; for the control of policy or judgment is contrasted with the submission to hazard as dry land is contrasted with water. The entry into this element occurs characteristically in the irrational act of the dare: and as Julius Caesar and Cassius had leapt into the flood for a dare, so Antony at Actium takes to water because Octavius “dares us to't.”

Antony would not “confound the Time.” He is by temperament and policy “a Child o'th'time,” fluid in his responsiveness to its “strong necessity” (A.C., I.i.59; ii.108; iii.57; II.vii.118). “Things that are past, are done, with me.” So when Brutus is in the ascendent, Antony claims that he will “follow The Fortunes” of Brutus through future “hazards” (J.C., III.i.154-56). When the tide turns against Brutus, Antony abandons his “Fortunes.” Yet it was Antony's own initiative that, acting upon the populace, turned fortune from Brutus to himself. For Antony may appear to underrate individual action: when, for example, he sees the outcome of battle as, passively, what has “chanc'd” (J.C., V.iv.37). Nevertheless he maintains a balance of submission to the time, and of personal intervention to take advantage of the time.

Others maintain this double attitude. Menas, whom Pompey supposed his faithful servant, had on the contrary but held his cap off to Pompey's fortunes. When Pompey will not act to take advantage of the time, Menas will “follow” those “Fortunes” no longer. For Menas also has a theory of intervention as well as of submissiveness: “Who seekes and will not take, when once 'tis offer'd, / Shall never finde it more” (A.C., II.vii.94-98). That view resembles Brutus'. He also preached patient acceptance of what was sent to man, and personal initiative at the right moment. For good fortune depends not only on fluctuations external to man, but on man's willingness to take the flood when it comes.

Man thus recognizes the power of fortune's unpredictable tides, but gambles on his own right choice of the one that will lead him to good fortune. For man's participation in “the Tide of Times,” Shakespeare's dominant image is appropriately the game of chance. “Plato therefore compared our life to a game of Tables; wherein the plaier is to wish for the luckiest cast of the dice.”3 Such images are shared among these figures who regard fortune as not a planning goddess but a capricious ebb and flow. When Brutus predicts that men will fall “by Lottery” (J.C., II.i.137), he is referring to a game of chance played with a wheel like fortune's own. But lottery may also be played with cards, and it is probably of that that Mecaenas thinks (A.C., II.ii.281-82) when he links “Lottery” with “heart.” When Enobarbus would cry “Take all” (IV.ii.12) he is using a gaming term which means a refusal of composition. The soothsayer had put Antony's relationship with Octavius in the context of the game, with the odds in Antony's favour; and Antony extends the view (II.iii.31, 43). It is as such a gaming contest that Cleopatra sees their opposition at Antony's death: “The oddes is gone” (IV.xv.83). Yet what seemed a game between mortal contestants was perhaps rather played out between their angels; or again, by “Nature” herself, with Antony as her “peece,” in a vie-ing game with “fancie” (V.ii.118-20).

It is Antony, most temperamentally akin to fortune, who is at the centre of such images. It is a characteristic vision that sees his dependent kings as boys scrambling about him in the game of musse; and Octavius' messenger as his “Jacke” in the card game of “Triumph” (A.C., III.xiii.112, 127, 165). His “quicke Spirit” was introduced to us as “Gamesom,” and we first met him as a competitor in those public games that ally him with the populace for whom they were given. It is he who is master of ceremonies at that “Foolerie” in which a crown was offered, and the populace hissed or clapped the antics as they did “the Players in the Theatre” (J.C., I.ii.36-37, 222, 280-82). Antony is a lover of plays, and this one we are later taught to see as like a game of chance. For it is thus that Antony looks back on such lordly acts, when he remembers his lost greatness as a game of make and marr, in which he played with half the world and made fortunes as he pleased (A.C., III.xi.72-73). Likewise the theatrical element in the public triumph itself is put by him into the context of the game of cards, when a cluster of covert references, to “Knave,” “Queene,” “heart,” culminate in the pun of triumph as trump:

                                                                      shee Eros has
Packt Cards with Caesars, and false plaid my Glory
Unto an Enemies triumph.


Antony's “glory” is to himself that of the winning gamester; and when we see him “pricking” men to death, we are reminded of Brutus' description of such tyranny as a game of “Lottery.” To lose is to him to be cheated: so Cleopatra is “a right Gypsie” who has beguiled him in the gypsies' game: “fast and loose” (IV.xii.33-34).

To see a political contest like Antony's with Octavius in terms of a game at cards is a commonplace of Italian renaissance poets.4 Familiarity with games of chance might show Shakespeare adapting the image to character and situation. Antony's musse emphasises the element of incorrigible youth reproved in Octavius' comparison with “Boyes.” It is rebuked as rashness by Antony himself, when he distinguishes the white hairs from the brown; then vindicated in a further image from games. For when he is fighting for Cleopatra, in the unison of nerves and brain, he sees himself as playing a game not of chance but of skill, in which the “yonger brown” can still “Get gole for gole of youth” (IV.viii.26-29).

Card-play is different from dicing “because the latter is open, whereas play with cards takes place from ambush, for they are hidden.” Thus with the “cunning” Cleopatra, Antony associates the card game of “triumph,” which joins “to chance the art of play.”5 He sees in her the cunning of the gypsy cheat at fast and loose. Perhaps Shakespeare reprieves her of such suggestion, in showing her at billiards: “Both an ingenious, and a cleanly game,” as Charles Cotton calls it.6 Nevertheless the “breefe” Cleopatra gives Octavius probably holds a multiple pun. Not only is it so brief as to omit “Enough to purchase what you have made known” (V.ii.167, 177); but in the gaming cheat known as the breef, the cards of highest value are shortened so that when the pack is cut, these need not be given away.

Of chess Cardanus writes that it depends on “industriously acquired skill”; and for Octavius is reserved the term “jump” from its associated game of draughts (III.viii.9). For Octavius does not discount the power of skill to aid the shaping of circumstances. He sends out spies that beguile Antony's; his eyes are on his opponent, whose affairs come to his knowledge on the wind (; vii.95). That is in contrast to Antony's negligence of the intelligence of messengers, his casual assumption that Cleopatra may have heard some pressing news before he has. Yet if Octavius appears to show us events dependent not on chance but on man's skill and gravity, that is itself but a partial truth. Octavius, in seeking his “vantage” before Actium, is but aiding fortune to aid himself. He may answer Antony's injunction to be a child of the time with the exhortation rather to possess it. He is nevertheless himself willing to recognise the time's necessity and make his concessions to it. Nor does skill win all for him and fortune nothing. At Actium the odds were against him, and he won; after, loaded with advantage, he lost. All his policies cannot hold Cleopatra, who, by stepping out of the realm of fortune, shows him an “Asse, unpolicied.” For “Not being Fortune, hee's but Fortunes knave”: a title that shows him as not even a player, but a card in fortune's game.


  1. “Of the Romans Fortune,” Morals, trans. P. Holland, 1603 (edition of 1657), p. 515.

  2. References are to the Variorum editions.

  3. Plutarch, “Of the tranquillity and contentment of mind,” Morals, p. 122.

  4. O. Ore, Cardano (Princeton, 1953), pp. 118-19.

  5. Ore, pp. 206, 220.

  6. Charles Cotton, The Compleat Gamester (1674), reprinted in Games and Gamesters of the Restoration, ed. C. H. Hartmann (London, 1930), p. xxi.

Wendy Rogers Harper (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Harper, Wendy Rogers. “Polanski vs. Welles on Macbeth: Character or Fate?” Literature-Film Quarterly 14, no. 4 (1986): 203-10.

[In the following essay, Harper contrasts Roman Polanski's naturalistic, psychological, and character-driven film adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth with Orson Welles's supernatural, externalized, and fatalistic screen interpretation of the tragedy.]

Character or fate—which holds the key to the destiny of the characters in Macbeth? Shakespeare's play suggests both possibilities, but in interpreting Macbeth for the screen, directors Roman Polanski and Orson Welles each choose only one element as the determining factor. Polanski selects character, Welles fate, and their differing cinematic treatments reflect their choices. Whereas Polanski's imagery is realistic, Welles's is surrealistic. The former director focuses on the natural, the latter stresses the supernatural.1 Consistent with the notion that character is destiny, Polanski's film probes the psychology of its characters, illuminating the human motivation for their deeds and tracing their degeneration as they wade deeper in blood. Conversely, Welles's film externalizes the characters' inner struggles, transforming them into a battle between good and evil superpowers in which the human figures become mere pawns of the Gods.

Polanski's realistic imagery grounds the tragedy in the sublunary sphere. His salient metaphor, blood, is inescapably human. He reddens the celluloid, graphically and brutally depicting those incidents which Shakespeare only reports: Macbeth hewing enemy soldiers, Duncan hanging the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth repeatedly stabbing Duncan, Macbeth's henchmen murdering Banquo or raping and destroying Macduff's household, Macduff decapitating Macbeth. Crumpled bodies and blood-spattered messengers litter the screen. In a gratuitous echo of Macbeth's mad carnage, Polanski inserts additional atrocities—the hanging of enemy soldiers, the shooting of Seyton, the mangling of bears.2

However, many of Polanski's realistic touches are not grotesque but simply ordinary,3 a slice-of-medieval-life in all its primitiveness: the castle's unglamorous interiors—rough stone walls surrounding a dirt courtyard, the persistent mud and rain, the dust rising from the traveler Macbeth's cloak as Duncan claps him in greeting, geese cackling as servants prepare dinner in open pots in the courtyard and Lady Macbeth reads her husband's letter, Macbeth's tying his shoes while Banquo warns him against the instruments of darkness, the housekeeping preparations for Duncan's arrival—the getting out of clean linen, the making of beds sprinkled with dried flowers, the sweeping of rooms and the pitching of hay into the common room where many of Duncan's retinue will sleep, Banquo's chasing a large dog from his “bed” on the hay before he can retire, Lady Macduff giving her son a bath. Some details are charming. Others, such as the sheep being sheared at the Macduff's shortly before the murderers arrive or the Macbeths' polluting their courtyard with the bloody water in which they have washed their hands, carry ominous overtones.

Counterpointing the quotidian image of Polanski's creation is the surrealistic distortion of Welles's nightmare.4 Welles's primary symbols are abstractions, shades of darkness such as night, fog, shadows, silhouettes. There is a fantastic quality to the action. Banquo's murderers slink down out of gnarled trees; the fog envelopes Malcolm's tree-bearing soldiers, making them appear to walk on clouds. Characters are front lit so as to cast enormous, menacing shadows on the walls behind them, or backlit so as to fade into silhouettes. Perpetually seen in shadow or silhouette, the characters become ghostly and dehumanized. An errie wind claws continually at the characters' clothing or beats on the castle, whose bleak countenance and environs are made even bleaker by the chiaroscuro of black-and-white film. Camera angles further distort reality. Intense close-ups swell hands and foreground figures to gigantic proportions. The camera catches distorted reflections in shields or partial glimpses of bodies from strange angles.5

In Polanski's more naturalistic world, the supernatural is de-mystified.6 The three weird sisters in his film are not the classical goddesses of destiny but the toothless crones and rumpled girls common to poor rural life. While their predeliction for witchcraft, boiling cauldrons and naked covens is unusual, their behavior is not otherwise mysterious or inexplicable. They do not, for example, vanish into thin air. Macbeth's remarks to the contrary to Banquo are punctuated with mocking laughter, as if to say, “Who could believe such a foolish superstition?” Like their fellow creatures, these “spirits” require shelter and food. First seen in the light of day, when Macbeth happens upon them in the rain, they are huddling under a canopy and retreat at the end of the encounter to their dwelling in the earth, taking with them their goat. Polanski stresses that it is Macbeth who pursues them, both here and in the later scene when he seeks their intelligence. By omitting scenes of Shakespeare's play that enhance their supernatural powers—the first part of I.iii, in which the witches plot to harass a ship's captain, and all of III.v, in which Hecate predicts Macbeth's next visit to the weird sisters and vows to raise spirits to confound him—Polanski places the responsibility for Macbeth's actions in his own hands. If the hags read Macbeth's destiny, they do so not in the Book of Doom, but in his face, as does his wife: “Your face, my Thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters.”7 Like Lady Macbeth, the witches tell Macbeth what he wants to hear.

Where Polanski carefully extricates Macbeth from the witches' toils, Welles entangles him further. A prologue that Welles added intones:

Our story is laid in Scotland, ancient Scotland, savage, half lost in the mist that hangs between recorded history and the time of legends. The cross itself is newly arrived here. Plotting against Christian law and order are the agents of chaos, priests of hell and magic, sorcerers, and witches. Their tools are ambitious men. This is the story of such a man and his wife. A brave soldier, he hears from witches a prophecy of future greatness, and on this cue murders his way up to a tyrant's throne, only to go down hated and in blood at the end of all. Now riding homeward from victorious battle in defense of his true king, here on the blasted heath, the witches hail him king. Here the spell is laid upon him and the story begins.8

Then the witches, unseen save for their hands which mold a clay figure in a swirling cauldron, chant the lines of the first scene. As they conclude “there to meet with Macbeth,” the name “Macbeth” being given special emphasis, they raise the clay figure, a bust of the protagonist. The camera zooms in on the voodoo doll,9 while the music mounts to a crescendo. The film then cuts to the third scene of Act I, with the witches visible for the first time. Unlike the witches in Polanski's film, who are clearly seen in daylight, the sorceresses in Welles's version never reveal their faces; they are always shot from behind or in silhouette, and their eerie appearance is like no country folk one might encounter in this world. As the weird sisters prophesy Macbeth's future greatness, they place a thane's chain and a king's crown on the clay bust. Driven off by a holy man brandishing the celtic cross. Welles's witches literally vanish into thin air. They reappear at the end of the scene to observe silently Macbeth's departure as the new Thane of Cawdor with Duncan's emissaries.

Shakespeare summons witches three times, Polanski only twice. Welles raises his supernatural agents, either in person, by voice, or by proxy in the form of the voodoo doll, numerous times. From first to last, they hover over the film, extending their influence even to the apparitions which assault Macbeth. Before Macbeth envisions a dagger, the camera shows a blade passing in front of the voodoo doll. As Macbeth wanders through subterranean passages in the castle after meeting with Banquo's murderers, he relives via voice-over his last conversation with Banquo. Banquo's last remark, however, is extended from “I will not fail” to “I will not fail your feast.” This ghostly addition foreshadows the entrance of Banquo's ghost in the next scene. When Macbeth vows after the banquet to seek the witches a second time, he is immediately transported to a blustery crag. The camera shoots down on him—a lone, spotlighted figure surrounded by darkness—while three voices from above relay three warnings. (The question concerning Banquo's issue is omitted.)

Conversely, Polanski treats the apparitions as if they were “daggers of the mind. … Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain” (II.i.39-40). Both Shakespeare's and Polanski's Macbeth vacillates between regarding the dagger as an encouraging omen or a psychological projection. “Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going, / And such an instrument I was to use” (II.i.43-44), he reflects, then decides that “there's no such thing. / It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes” (II.i.48-50). In a final volte-face, Macbeth concludes, “the bell invites me” (II.i.63), rationalizing his actions with these supernatural solicitings. In Polanski's interpretation of the banquet on the eve of Banquo's murder, it is Macbeth alone who, after a draught of wine, sees Banquo's ghost. The guests contemplate an empty chair. When Macbeth enters the witches' coven, he does not meet their “masters” as he requests. Instead, their mystic messages are contained in a hallucinatory vision which Macbeth experiences only after he has imbibed the witches' brew. This is not the first drugged potion to be administered in the film; Lady Macbeth had earlier proffered one to Duncan's guards.

Just as the apparitions in Polanski's film are not messengers from another world but psychological projections or psychogenically induced hallucinations, so the forces that drive Macbeth to his doom are not occult but human. An ambitious, jealous man with a savage streak and a perfectly natural desire to shine in the eyes of his attractive wife, Macbeth is ripe for the role of murderer. Polanski reveals the title character's barbarousness in an opening scene where Macbeth prods a prone soldier, then axes the man in the back when he moves. Duncan and his soldiers regard Macbeth's “carving” and “unseaming” of the enemy as laudable, but Macbeth's brutality, coupled with his ambition, will propel him to violent crimes. Once the witches' appellations have fueled Macbeth's desire to become king, Macbeth broods obsessively over the idea. When King Duncan fixes the succession on his own son, Malcolm, Macbeth leaves the room in a fit of jealous pique. Later he slackens in his resolve to murder Duncan, but his spur, Lady Macbeth, “holps” him to it by asserting that his virility and his love for her are questionable if he refuses to assassinate the king. (Lady Macbeth will likewise attack her husband's masculine pride in an attempt to banish his visions of Banquo's ghost.)10 Although in Shakespeare's play, Lady Macbeth's insinuations suffice to spur her husband on, Polanski's Macbeth resists her blandishments until he is snubbed by his rival for the crown, Malcolm. Malcolm smiles condescendingly at Macbeth while thrusting his wine glass at his host, so that Macbeth is forced to wait on Malcolm by pouring wine for him. After that encounter, the new Thane of Cawdor returns to his wife's side, hackles raised, ready to avenge the injury done his machismo. Having killed Duncan, Macbeth, in a double entendre directed at his wife, professes his motive to be devotion to her: “Who could refrain / That had a heart to love, and in that heart / Courage to make's love known?” (II.ii. 117-118). It is human factors also—jealousy and fear—that motivate Macbeth to kill Banquo and to sack Macduff's home. Both men have children; the Macbeth marriage is barren. Banquo is a further reproach to Macbeth for having withstood the temptation to which Macbeth succumbed.

Polanski motivates other characters in the film in a similar fashion. Macbeth manipulates Banquo's murderers by using the same techniques his wife employed with him. When they hesitate, he challenges their virility: “In the catalogue ye go for men” (III.i.91). As they accede to his bidding, his tone softens and he places an arm round their shoulders, just as Lady Macbeth placed a hand on him, and tells them, “I to your assistance do make love” (II.i.123). The ambitious Ross deserts Macbeth for Malcolm when Macbeth awards Seyton, not Ross, the Thane of Cawdor's chain, just as Macbeth had jealously deserted Duncan when the King named his son Prince of Cumberland. Lady Macbeth's motivation is more difficult to fathom. Certainly, she delights in the response, her sexual charms elicit from men and probably in the power it gives her over them. In addition to charming her husband, she dances seductively with Duncan and smiles when Fleance serenades her with a ballad proclaiming that she slays with her eyes. Many of her actions, however, seem motivated by childish prankishness. She pouts when she does not get her way and treats smearing the grooms' hands with blood as a game. Her invitation to the “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex me here” (I.v.41) summons no spirits. Such dares and boasts are her way of screwing her “courage to the sticking place” (I.vii.61).

Neither Polanski nor Macbeth is concerned with the hereafter. Macbeth had been willing to “jump the life to come,” to risk future damnation for present success. Ironically, Macbeth does suffer the tortures of hell, but it is a psychological hell, a hell located “here upon this bank and shoal of time” (I.vii.6-7) where he had thought to triumph. Shakespeare's Macbeth begins as a sensitive man who, despite his failings, has the moral sense to be revolted by killing Duncan. In Polanski's film, Macbeth hesitates to kill Duncan until Duncan wakes and sees him, thus forcing his assassin to finish what he has started. Macbeth is disturbed that he could not say “Amen” to the guards' overheard prayers and finds his bloody hands “a sorry sight” (II.ii.19), but by the end of the film he has hardened into a conscienceless killer who indifferently dispatches women and children.11 Even the death of his once dear wife scarcely moves him. His earlier qualms have disappeared, and he no longer cares to repent. “Throw physic to the dogs; I'll none of it” (V.iii.47), he curtly informs the doctor who declares the patient must minister to himself. From a brave warrior who enjoys both men's approbation and an easy, jovial camaraderie with the best men in the kingdom, Macbeth shrinks to a thug surrounded by thugs. At the end of the film, before the battle with the English, Macbeth calls for his armor even though “'tis not needed yet” (V.iii.33), as if he could recover the “golden opinions” (I.vii.34) in which he once was dressed by merely donning his armor. But like a “dwarfish thief” in a “giant's robe” (V.ii.21-22), Macbeth finds his armor no longer fits him properly. All who are able to desert him do so, even killing to escape from his fortress. The road winding down from his castle is flooded with anxious folk scurrying far from his reach. After Lady Macbeth's death, he is left with only the most degenerate of his henchmen, those who killed Macduff's family, and even they abandon him. When the English forces arrive, they enter a deserted castle, a body from which the soul has flown. Stripped of all that “should accompany old age, / As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends” (V.iii.24-25), Macbeth sits alone on his throne.

The psychological toll taken on Lady Macbeth differs from that exacted from her husband. He responds by killing others, she responds by killing herself. Like her husband, she had questioned, “What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?” (V.i.36-39). Yet, in the next line of her sleepwalking speech, she gives the answer: “Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?” The old man's blood haunts her still, not as a ghost who walks but as the stings of conscience. In an addition by Polanski, Lady Macbeth, with shaking hands and broken voice, re-reads Macbeth's earlier letter to her in which he rejoiced in their future greatness. Their victory has been pyrrhic, and her present madness, her sleepwalking and hand washing, is the price she has paid for it.

Perhaps the most poignant loss is their love. She had been his “dearest partner” and “dearest love.” When he first returns home as Thane of Cawdor, he sweeps her into his arms and carries her up to their bedroom, although, as elsewhere when they are in bed together, the topic of conversation is murder. At the banquet in Duncan's honor, Macbeth and his wife exchange warm glances across Duncan, who sits between them. This separation by Duncan is prophetic, however, for his murder will irreparably divide them. As time passes and Macbeth's obsession with retaining his crown drives every other thought, including thoughts of his wife, from his mind, he keeps alone, leaving her to stand at the foot of his stairs with his retinue. At the banquet where Banquo's ghost appears, he desires to sit not with her but with Ross, his new partner in crime. After the banquet, she denies the hand he offers her to walk upstairs. Although they continue to share a bed, their joy in each other is gone. As Macbeth pursues his bloody course, she retreats further and further into herself. After she has killed herself by jumping from the parapet, Macbeth, regarding her mangled body, does not even embrace her one last time. Though his thoughts (“out, out, brief candle”) indicate he feels something, if only increased bitterness, he neither touches her nor orders his servants to remove her body. Instead, he leaves her lying in a crumpled heap in the courtyard, where she remains until the film's end.

In contrast to Polanski's rich characterizations, Welles flattens his characters. The latter's Macbeth is a sensitive, henpecked husband spurred on by the three weird sisters and by his shrewish, vampish wife, who nags even in her sleep.12 Sylized performances,13 abbreviated speeches, and weak or histrionic acting all contribute to the thin characterization. As discussed earlier, the strange camera angles and shots of characters in shadow or silhouette lend an air of unreality to the Macbeths. Gone is the psychomachia so conspicuous in Polanski's production. Welles de-internalizes the action by transforming asides and soliloquies into public speeches or by divorcing them from the speaker. For example, Macbeth's rumination that “this supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good” (I.iii.130-131) is directed at Banquo and Ross, while the remainder of his speech concerning the shaken state of his “single state of man” is omitted. The “out, out brief candle” speech becomes a voice-over accompanying the advance of Malcolm's army.

Welles projects the struggle in Macbeth onto a cosmic scale.14 No longer an internal psychological battle, the struggle becomes a war between God and Satan. The witches' numerous appearances as representatives of the infernal have already been noted. To counterbalance them, Welles adds a cross-carrying “Holy Hermit.” When Duncan arrives at Dunsinane, his chanting retinue kneels while the Holy Hermit invokes the Archangel Michael to protect them from Satan and other evil spirits who roam the world. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth whispers to her husband that she will drug the guards' drink. The Hermit then asks, “Do you renounce Satan?” and the crowd thunders “Yes.” When Duncan's murder is proclaimed, the holy man is the first to awake, and, as Duncan's body is carried out, he prays, “God's benison go with you and with those that would make good of bad and friends of foes.” The Holy Hermit then joins Malcolm and the English forces. As Macduff vows to kill Macbeth, the hermit stands next to him in shadow, like his good angel. Conversely, Welles indicates that Macbeth's advisors are evil spirits by changing the word “angel” in Macduff's remark to Macbeth—“the angel whom thou still hast serv'd” (V.viii.14)—to “devil.” Truly an army with God on their side, the English forces sport helmets emblazoned with crosses and carry hundreds of poles bearing the cross as their standard. In their vanguard rides the Holy Hermit. They arrive at Dunsinane chanting religiously. This externalized battle for dominion over the earth resembles the morality play structure in which good and evil counselors battle for man's soul. Unlike the morality plays, however, Welles's production de-emphasizes the protagonist's free will and crucial choice for good or evil. Instead, the Holy Hermit and the three weird sisters determine the outcome of events.

The difference in Polanski's and Welles's points of view can be summed up by comparing their treatment of the play's conclusion. Both filmmakers indicate that the cycle of violence will continue as Donalbain, Duncan's other son and Malcolm's brother, makes a bid for the throne. Once again, however, Polanski stresses human factors as the cause of continued disorder, while Welles attribues the strife to the powers of darkness. In the former's version, Donalbain shares Macbeth's jealous ambition. Polanski underscores the similarities between the two by focusing on both Donalbain's and Macbeth's discomfited expressions as Duncan names Malcolm Prince of Cumberland and by endowing Donalbain with a limp, which links him to Macbeth's henchmen. Donalbain has been conspicuously absent from Malcolm's fight against Macbeth and subsequent coronation, but after the coronation he reappears at the witch's crag. It is a rainy day similar to the one on which Macbeth first encountered the witches and was hailed with prophecies of greatness. The witches are not in sight, but Donalbain dismounts from his horse and goes to seek them. Polanski thereby emphasizes human responsibility in voluntarily choosing and fostering evil.15 If there is a power outside Macbeth which shapes his destiny, it is a human not a superhuman one—Lady Macbeth, the ambitious wife, or Ross, the kingmaker who first serves Duncan, then crowns Macbeth, and finally crowns Malcolm.16 In Welles's film, the supernatural has the last word. Just before Macduff kills Macbeth, the camera shows the voodoo doll being decapitated. Its crown falls to the ground, and a male figure, seen only from the waist down, picks up the crown. Then the camera returns to Macduff, holding Macbeth's head. Macduff hails Malcolm as “King of Scotland.” The camera cuts from Malcolm, to the crowd, to Donalbain clutching the voodoo doll's crown. The film closes with a long shot of Dunsinane; the witches preside in the foreground, while fog envelopes the castle.

Taking their cues from the same source, the two directors pursue very different directions. Roman Polanski's film tells the story of a man whose “will became the servant to defect” (II.i.18) and whose unleashed passions, like stampeding horses, hurtled him “the way to dusty death” (V.v.23). A psychological study, Polanski's Macbeth employs realistic imagery and minimizes the supernatural elements in Shakespeare's play. Orson Welles's production, on the other hand, relates the tale of a man caught in the crossfire of warring deities, “between the pass and fell incensed points of mighty opposites.” A shadowy figure, Welles's Macbeth is set in a surrealistic world dominated by supernatural forces.


  1. Although Michael Mullin (“Macbeth on Film,” Literature/Film Quarterly: [1973]: 332-342) contrasts the expressionistic and naturalistic styles of Polanski and Welles, his final interpretation of both films is radically different from my own. Furthermore, he fails to relate the technique to the question of free will.

  2. The violence in Polanski's film has been much discussed. Many critics, such as Pauline Kael (Deeper Into Movies [Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1973], p. 393) and Bernard Weinraub (“A Visit with Roman Polanski,” The New York Times Magazine, 12 Dec. 1971, p. 64) read the film biographically. Kael argues: “One sees the Manson murders in this Macbeth because the director has put them there.” Weinraub records the director's vehement protests that the film is not about his life, but offsets these assertions with remarks to the contrary by Polanski's friends, Kenneth Tynan and Michael Klinger. The biographical approach finds its extremist expression in Kenneth Rothwell's “Roman Polanski's Macbeth: Golgotha Trimphant,” (Literature/Film Quarterly, 1, [1973]: 71-151) Rothwell labels Polanski's creation “a Golgotha in technicolor (p. 75), a “series of amusing cruelties” (p. 73), permeated with “the bizarre ambience from whence the film was generated” (p. 71), namely, the Manson murders, the Playboy lifestyle, and Polanski's interest in the occult as evinced by Rosemary's Baby.

    In “Macbeth: Polanski and Shakespeare” (Literature/Film Quarterly, 1, [1973]: 291-298), Normand Berlin urges a return to formalist concerns: “It seems easy to see in the movie's emphasis on bloodshed a working out of Polanski's personal obsession. Whatever truth such a view may have, it should not stop us from investigating Polanski's use of the horror. … There is no denying that Polanski has an imagination that is essentially Gothic. … But his Gothic sensibility serves artistic purposes” (p. 293). Polanski himself cites one such use: “To explain why Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are so shaken, we have had to make the murder of Duncan very long and horrible and full of blood” (quoted by Francis Wyndham, “The Young Macbeth,” The Sunday Times Magazine, 28 Feb. 1971, p. 19).

    Polanski admits that the film is violent, while insisting “But the play is violent. And life is violent too” (Weinraub interview, p. 64). Unlike the censors who endorse “murder as long as it's committed in a ‘clean’ way” (Weinraub interview, p. 82), Polanski claims that “If you don't show [violence] realistically, then that's immoral and harmful” (Weinraub interview, p. 64). Polanski thus argues that his film is a statement against violence, against war. Jack Jorgens agrees: “Seldom has war been less appealing … seldom has a murder … been less of a romantic adventure. The violence is not the central focus of the film any more than it is the central focus of Shakespeare's play” (Shakespeare on Film [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977], pp. 173-174).

  3. William Johnson (Film Quarterly, 25 [Spring, 1972], 47) regards the “medieval local color” as “distracting details of time and place”; having dismissed these norms of human behavior, he not unsurprisingly concludes that the world of the film is Kottsian (see footnote 14).

  4. Jorgens recognizes the nightmarish quality of Welles's production: “Welles places concrete details in the film not to ground it in reality but to serve (as in dreams) as emblems. … (Jorgens, p. 152).

  5. Two useful investigations of Welles's technique are Roger Manvell's Shakespeare and the Film (London: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1971), pp. 55-61; and James Naremore's “The Walking Shadow: Welles's Expressionist Macbeth,Literature/Film Quarterly, 1 (1973): 360-366. Manvell discusses camerawork, composition of the frame, sound, editing and set. Naremore discusses aspects of the film such as the camerawork that makes Welles' Macbeth “the purest example of expressionism in the American cinema” (p. 364).

  6. Nigel Andrews, in a review of Polanski's Macbeth in Sight and Sound, 41 (1972), 108, also notes “the film's general determination to de-mystify,” citing as an example the withces' failure to vanish into thin air.

  7. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1980), I.v.62-63. All further references to this work appear in the text.

  8. The text of the narration can be found in Jorgens's outline of the final version of Welles's Macbeth (Jorgens, p. 280). The key words “tool,” “agent,” “cue,” and “spell” signal a protagonist whose fate is sealed before the film even begins. This is precisely the kind of film which Polanski set out not to make: “There will be no superstition in my version. The witches are real witches—those sort of poor women who were burnt at the stake in the Middle Ages. The ghost of Banquo is just in Macbeth's imagination. … Traditionally, Macbeth is always done one way: the tragedy starts before the curtain has time to go all the way up” (quoted in The Sunday Times Magazine, p. 19).

    Jorgens, Mullin, Manvell and Higham (The Films of Orson Welles [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971], p. 133) concur that the fate of Welles's protagonist is predetermined. Conversely, some critics manage to discern free will in Welles' Macbeth. Jean-Claude Allais (“Orson Welles,” Premier Plan, No. 16 [1961]); quoted by Peter Cowie in the Cinema of Orson Welles (London: A. Zwemmer Ltd., 1965, p. 98) sees him “shaken between good and evil.” Maurice Bessy (Orson Welles, trans. Ciba Vaughan [New York: Crown Publishers, 1971], p. 42-48) believes Welles's Macbeth is typical of the Wellesian criminal/hero who creates his own end.

  9. Welles first employed his vision of the witches as voodoo witch doctors in his all-black production of Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem in 1936. Richard France (“The’Voodoo’ Macbeth of Orson Welles,” Yale Theatre, 5, No. 3 [1974], 66-78); John S. O'Connor (“But Was It Shakespeare? Welles's Macbeth and Julius Caesar,” Theatre Journal, 32 [1980], 337-348); and Michael Mullin (“Orson Welles's Macbeth: Script and Screen,” in Focus on Orson Welles, ed. Ronald Gottesman [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976], pp. 136-145) discuss the pattern of predetermination and the diminishing of Macbeth's responsibility for his crimes as a result of the witches' interference. France and O'Connor devote themselves to the play; France and Mullin briefly relate the concept of predetermination in the play to the film. O'Connor sees the Harlem production in terms of historical cycles of stage conventions regarding Macbeth: “Welles and a number of other theatre artists in this century are reacting against [eighteenth and nineteenth century] attempts to rationalize the supernatural and make understandable the power of the witches. They want to emphasize rather than ignore the primitive and magical elements in Macbeth” (p. 344).

  10. When Macbeth refuses his lords' invitation to sit down at the banquet table, saying “The table's full” (III.iv.46), and then addresses Banquo's ghost in lines 50-51, Lady Macbeth pulls her husband aside. “Are you a man?” she hisses (III.iv.58). He protests that he is; she deprecates his fancies as “flaws and starts [that] would well become a woman's story” (III.iv.63-65). When Macbeth addresses the ghost yet a second time, his wife protests, “What, quite unmann'd in folly?” (III.iv.74).

  11. William Johnson (Johnson, p. 45), Michael Mullin (“Macbeth on Film,” p.337), and Pauline Kael would disagree with my conclusions. They find no degeneration in Polanski's Macbeth because, in Kael's words, “Macbeth is so villainously twisted throughout that it's not a matter of his yielding to his worst impulses but of his just being himself” (Kael, p. 401).

    Normand Berlin (Berlin, p. 293), however, notes the “close physical and emotional relationship” that the Macbeths enjoy early in the film, a union that foils their later relationship of callous king/indifferent husband and mad wife (Berlin, p. 293). This reading accords more closely with the director's intention to present a Macbeth who “is quite happy at the beginning” (Polanski quoted in The Sunday Times Magazine, p. 19), and a husband and wife who are young and ardent and strongly attracted to one another.

  12. Again, the Welles's type of Lady Macbeth is one which Polanski sedulously avoided. “They always present Lady Macbeth as a nagging bitch. … They think of her in Charles Addams terms. But people who do ghastly things in life, they are not grim, like a horror movie” (Polanski quoted in The Sunday Times Magazine, p. 19). Accordingly, Polanski cast his Lady Macbeth as a young, innocent-looking redhead, not a mature, dark-haired Morticia.

  13. Claude Beylie discusses the artifice and theatricality in Welles's film, seeing it as a “reflection of the consciousness, or rather the subconscious, of the hero” (“Macbeth, or the Magical Depths,” Etudes Cinematographiques, 24-25 [1963], pp. 86-89, reprinted in Focus on Shakespearean Films, ed. and trans. Charles Eckert [Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972], pp. 72-75).

  14. This cosmic scale is reflected even in the sound. Roger Manvell reveals that “Welles used an echo chamber at times to give the voices a dimension larger than life” (Manvell, p. 56).

  15. In the Playboy interview for December, 1971 (p. 96), Polanski denied that he is “preoccupied with the macabre”: “I'm rather more interested in the behavior of people under stress.” Yet, if the evil that men do fascinates Polanski, it is the evil that men do which obsesses his critics. Pauline Kael, Kenneth Rothwell, Robert Knoll, and to some extent William Johnson regard the film as a Kottsian wasteland of meaningless violence. Such readings ignore the crucial element of choice or free will in Polanski's film. True, the film does project a dark view of human nature, but it does not portray a world where action is meaningless. The choices that people make in the world of the film have the most serious consequences for their community and themselves. While most of the choices in the film are negative ones, they imply the possibility of positive choices as a normative standard by which they are judged. It is in this sense that Polanski's film is an ethical statement, a rejection of human violence and cruelty, not a sanguinary endorsement of a Kottsian universe.

  16. Polanski has changed Shakespeare's text at a number of points to show Ross manipulating the action.

Raymond B. Waddington (essay date fall 1977)

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SOURCE: Waddington, Raymond B. “Blind Gods: Fortune, Justice, and Cupid in The Merchant of Venice.ELH 44, no. 3 (fall 1977): 458-77.

[In the following essay, Waddington examines how the forces of fortune, justice, and Cupid dictate the fates of men and women in The Merchant of Venice.]

Almost obligatorily, critics of The Merchant of Venice split into warring camps. Generally the schism arises between those readers who, emphasizing allegory and Christian themes, treat the Christian characters of the play in largely positive and approving terms and those who, noticing that commerce, wealth, and financial speculation as thoroughly preoccupy the Venetians as they do Shylock, see the play ironically exposing the failure of the Christians to practice the beliefs which they profess. The issue of Christian commerce surfaces most conspicuously in the almost obsessive recurrence of a related set of words denoting financial speculation—venture, hazard, thrift, usury, fortune, advantage. Remarking upon this phenomenon, Ralph Berry concludes, “The formal principle of The Merchant of Venice, then, I take to be a series of mutations of ‘venture.’”1 And A. D. Moody voices his reservations about the appropriateness of such commercial venturing for Christians: “But to be committed to the pursuit of worldly fortune is to be subjected, in the medieval view of things, to the whims of the fickle goddess Fortune; at the most serious level it is to forfeit the redemptive influence of Providence for the chances and reverses of Fortune's wheel.”2

There can be no question that the issues of risk, venture, hazard, and so commitment to fortune are crucial to the meaning of the play. But whether commitment to fortune means abdication of Christian values is another question, one that cannot be settled without respecting the play's distinctions between the business activities of Antonio (venture and hazard) and those of Shylock (advantage, thrift, interest) and trying to comprehend their implications. In short, whereas Berry believes that venture and fortune are “fluid” terms with “no really firm basis of meaning,”3 I will argue that we can understand the play best by recourse to the traditions accruing to these terms, reading in Shakespeare's intellectual backgrounds and reading out our own.

Let us first review the commercial connotations of venture or adventure. E. M. Carus-Wilson comments, “The epithet ‘merchant venturer’ or ‘merchant adventurer’ came into use only toward the end of the fifteenth century. But the conception of a merchant venturer, or at least of a merchant venture, goes back far beyond this. A venture (aventure, auenture, or auntre, in Middle English) was a risk. To venture was to take a chance, to hazard one's life or one's goods in an enterprise that might bring a worthwhile reward.”4 By Shakespeare's time the term “Merchant Adventurer” had, of course, taken on a far more specific meaning; the aggressive and powerful Merchant Adventurers' Company maintained a virtual monopoly upon foreign trade.5

Despite the entrenched security of the Merchant Adventurers, the term retained its earlier well-defined connotations of high risk and high reward enterprise. Sir Walter Ralegh so explained the motive of his Guiana voyage in 1596: “If I had knowen other way to win, if I had imagined how greater adventures might have regained, … I would not doubt but for one yeare more to holde faste my soule in my teeth, til it were performed.”6 In Shakespeare's dramatic vocabulary the connotation of trade is always present (e.g., 2 H. IV II.iv.63-65); yet the element of high risk gets strong emphasis. Baptista Minola, having second thoughts about the sudden marriage contract between Kate and Petruchio, remarks, “Faith, gentlemen, now I play a merchant's part, / And venture madly on a desperate mart” (Shrew II.i.326-27). And high risk inevitably shades into high—and romantic—reward. Romeo, rashly venturing into the garden of the Capulet house, assures Juliet, “I am no pilot, yet, wert thou as far / As that vast shore wash'd with the farthest sea, / I should adventure for such merchandise” (Romeo II.ii.82-84).

In The Merchant of Venice the idea of venturing and its consequences is initiated immediately as Antonio enters protesting, “In sooth I know not why I am so sad / … / And such a wantwit sadness makes of me, / That I have much ado to know myself” (I.i1, 6-7).7 Salerio and Solanio assure him that his “mind is tossing on the ocean” with his argosies, the fear of “misfortune to [his] ventures” causing the sadness. Surely underlying their vivid images of the dangers to his ships is the ancient topos of the sea of fortune.8 Antonio, however, denies the major:

Believe me no, I thank my fortune for it—
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.


If not fortune, then love, conjectures Solanio, which Antonio also denies. A neutral referee may record a palpable hit, nonetheless; with Bassanio's entrance we learn that the lady to whom Bassanio “swore a secret pilgrimage,” and so the probability of separation from his loving friend, occupies Antonio's thoughts. In explaining how, by risking more of Antonio's money to recoup his previous debts, he proposes to court the fair heiress Portia, Bassanio provides the first definition of a venture:

In my school-days, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the self-same flight
The self-same way, with more advised watch
To find the other forth, and by adventuring both
I oft found both: I urge this childhood proof
Because what follows is pure innocence.
I owe you much, and (like a wilful youth)
That which I owe is lost, but if you please
To shoot another arrow that selfway
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
(As I will watch the aim) or to find both,
Or bring your latter hazard back again,
And thankfully rest debtor for the first.


Although Bassanio's earlier reference to his “plots and purposes” may momentarily lend the impression that he is a calculating schemer, the “pure innocence” of the hazard rests on intuition: “I have a mind presages me such thrift / That I should questionless be fortunate” (I.i.175-76).9

Since “all [Antonio's] fortunes are at sea,” the venture must be financed on credit by borrowing from Shylock, to whom Antonio's business practices are irrational: “… he hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies, I understand moreover upon the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he hath squand'red abroad,—but ships are but boards, sailors but men” (I.ii.15-20). More than just rashness, however, Shylock's enmity sparks from Antonio's whole attitude toward money: “… in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice. / … / He hates our sacred nation, and he rails / (Even there where merchants most do congregate) / On me, my bargins, and my well-won thrift, / Which he calls interest” (I.iii.37-40, 43-46).

The opposition of venture and interest climaxes in the opposed interpretations of Jacob's scheme for obtaining the best lambs from Laban (Genesis XXXI: 37-43). Shylock offers the story as a justification of interest and thrift. Antonio retorts, “This was a venture sir that Jacob serv'd for, / A thing not in his power to bring to pass, / But sway'd and fashion'd by the hand of heaven” (I.iii.86-88). Arnold Williams' study of the Renaissance commentaries on this episode indicates that Shakespeare has assigned Antonio the orthodox position on the matter: “The ‘hand of Heaven’ is clearly responsible for the outcome … and Jacob is merely following divine guidance in taking a way of recovering his own property of which Laban had defrauded him.”10

Fortune or the “hand of heaven”? How can we determine which governs the ventures of this play? Howard R. Patch has documented the many similarities between the goddesses Ventura and Fortuna; however, Patch also traces the tradition—figuring importantly in Boethius, Dante, Chaucer—of a Christianized fortune.11 Fortuna becomes servant to Divine Providence, following a pattern of order normally hidden from the eyes of man. Hamlet, for instance, who spends so much time inveighing against the “strumpet” Fortune is dispatched to his death in England, literally voyaging upon the sea of fortune, when the hand of Heaven intervenes. He discovers the commission for his murder, alters and reseals it (“even in that was heaven ordinant. / I had my father's signet in my purse”), just in time to be plucked away and returned to Elsinore by the pirate ship. Thus Hamlet learns “There's a divinity that shapes our ends” and a “special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (Hamlet V.ii.10, 48-49, 219-20).12 The lesson which Hamlet received so dramatically was Renaissance Christian commonplace: “nothing is done at aduenture.” As Calvin put it, “… nothyng commeth by chaunce, but what soeuer commeth to passe in the world, commeth by the secrete prouidence of God.” If all hazard is directed by Providence, the ultimate adventurer is Christ himself. In Piers Plowman William Langland wrote, “And after auntrede god hymself, and tok Adams kynde.”13

It is not insignificant that the strongest statement for the pagan view of fortune—that is, fortune as random chance—comes from a character of pagan origin, the Prince of Morocco. Unlike the godless Aaron of Titus Andronicus or the convert Othello, Morocco's religious beliefs are not specified for us. Such ostensibly Christian vocabulary as he uses—“this shrine, this mortal breathing saint,” “heaven,” “angel,” “damnation”—is entirely directed to Portia, explainable both as the conventional language of Petrarchan compliment and as recognition of her embodiment of Christian virtues. Morocco himself would seem to be just what he appears, an erring Barbarian and, as prince, a supporter of the Muslim faith. Portia's explanation that “the lott'ry of my destiny / Bars me the right of voluntary choosing” (II.i.15-16), provokes his disquisition on fortune:

                                                                                But alas the while!
If Hercules and Lichas play at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw
May turn by fortune from the weaker hand:
So is Alcides beaten by his page,
And so may I, blind Fortune leading me,
Miss that which one unworthier may attain,
And die with grieving.


The assurance that only by making his “hazard” can he compete for Portia at all draws his supplication, “Good fortune then, / To make me blest or cursed'st among men!”

Immediately after this anticipatory scene of the hazard in Belmont, we shift to Launcelot Gobbo's case of conscience. Act II, scene ii—which presents the clown deciding to flee from Shylock's service, his deception of and reconciliation to his blind father, his transferral to Bassanio's service—offers itself as a comedic microcosm of the play's themes. Launcelot's conflict between natural inclination and restraint of conscience, for instance, picks up Portia's initial ambivalence (I.ii) about the inflexible method by which the identity of her husband will be decided; his determination to run from his “devil” master anticipates the succeeding action in which Shylock's daughter Jessica runs away from the “hell” of her father's house; Launcelot's line “it is a wise father that knows his own child” certainly evokes the entire theme of father-child relationships in the play, both Shylock's blindness about Jessica and the far-sightedness of Portia's father; and one can accede to René Fortin's suggestion that the entire scene offers an “oblique commentary on tensions between Judaic and Christian traditions.”14

This largess, however, has not prevented the scene from being misread. Fortin, for example, writes that “The encounter [between Launcelot and Old Gobbo] takes place immediately after Launcelot's decision to leave the service of his Jewish master and seek service with the Christian Bassanio.”15 In fact Launcelot says nothing about seeking Bassanio's service prior to old Gobbo's entrance. He simply concludes that he will bolt, in much the same aimless way that Jessica and Lorenzo elope. Old Gobbo enters and Launcelot's first impulse is to deceive the blind man by concealing his identity. In other words, he would deny the bond of filial relation just as he has decided to break the bond of relation to his master. At this point he has a change of heart, finding himself unable to sustain the deception:

Do you not know me father?
Alack sir I am sand-blind, I know you not.
Nay, indeed if you had your eyes you might fail of the knowing me: it is a wise father that knows his own child. Well, old man, I will tell you news of your son,—[Kneels.] give me your blessing,—truth will come to light, murder cannot be hid long, a man's son may, but in the end truth will out.


We observe that the Jacob and Isaac prototype, discerned by several readers,16 has become contrastive: rather than obtaining his father's blessing by false identity, Launcelot does it after revealing his true identity. Only after the parent-child bond is renewed does Launcelot articulate the scheme to change masters lawfully by having Old Gobbo petition Bassanio to obtain his release. “O rare fortune! here comes the man, to him father” (II.ii.106-07). They make their fumbling petition to find that it has already been granted: “… thou hast obtain'd thy suit,—/ Shylock thy master spoke with me this day, / And hath preferr'd thee” (II.ii.137-39). Assured of new service and “guarded” livery, Launcelot exits complacently reading his palm—that is, telling his own fortune—and reflecting, “well, if Fortune be a woman she's a good wench for this gear” (II.ii.157-58).

The prevailing tendency is to read the scene ironically; Moody remarks “we don't judge [Launcelot] as a Christian soul, but simply as a sly rogue with an eye for the main chance.”17 And Fortin, the only reader to see a serious thematic function in Old Gobbo's blindness, turns it to an ironic interpretation: “… the scene insists upon the mutual blindness of father and son, the involuntary blindness of Gobbo—and by extension, of the Jewish tradition—and the willed blindness of Launcelot—and by extension of the Christian tradition, which chooses to ignore its indebtedness to the older tradition. …”18 Much more simply, and perhaps more pertinently, I suggest that Old Gobbo is a comic embodiment of that Blind Fortune invoked by Morocco in the preceding scene. As Fluellen, that gifted explicator of the obvious, put it, “Fortune is painted blind, with a muffler afore his eyes, to signify to you that fortune is blind” (Henry V There is, however, one important difference between Old Gobbo and the Blind Fortune of Fluellen and Morocco: this quasi-symbolic scene illustrates the difference between the Christian and pagan notions of fortune, why it is that Bassanio wins and Morocco loses. The lesson to be developed in both the casket and trial scenes is that we “hazard all” by remaining true to bonds, thereby obtaining release from them.19 The hazarding, in this sense, is an individual act of blind faith or implicit trust in God, Hamlet's “the readiness is all.” Launcelot, even in his shallow way, commits such an act of faith by refusing to bolt and acknowledging his bonds. He is rewarded on the spot with good fortune. To quote Fluellen once again, “Fortune is an excellent moral.”

The three caskets, gold, silver, and lead, which control access to Portia contain their own morals. Morocco studies the inscription of the leaden casket—“Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath”—and finds it ominous:

This casket threatens—men that hazard all
Do it in hope of fair advantages:
A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross,
I'll then nor give nor hazard aught for lead.


Forgetting his own sensible appeal to Portia not to value him by his complexion, Morocco chooses the golden exterior and learns, “All that glisters is not gold.” The Prince of Arragon, too, regards the choice of caskets as action under the aegis of fortune (see II.ix.15, 19, 38, 52). He spurns the hazard of lead because it promises insufficient reward, then snobbishly chooses the silver and is exposed as a fool. In both instances choice is a revelation of character with nothing random about the result. Progressing from approval of the silver casket's appearance to scrutiny of its inscription, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves,” Arragon had observed, “And well said too; for who shall go about / To cozen Fortune, and be honourable / Without the stamp of merit?” (II.ix.37-39). The idea of “cozening Fortune” epitomizes the difference in attitude toward the lottery exhibited by Morocco and Arragon, on the one hand, and Bassanio on the other. Neil Carson has remarked, “The contrast … is between the ‘cozeners’ who think that good fortune may be earned by merit or endeavour, and the ‘hazarders’ whose recklessness is a token of their faith in God's divine providence.”20

Arragon's departure is saluted by Nerissa's “ancient saying” that “Hanging and wiving goes by destiny” (II.ix.83). Her proverb echoes Portia's earlier comment on “the lottr'y of my destiny” (II.i.15), albeit now with somewhat different connotations. In Shakespeare's private lexicon destiny seems closely linked to providence, suggesting a conception similar to the Boethian one wherein the aspect of Providence controlling the visible, mutable world is called destiny and fortune administers the decrees of destiny which affect men.21 In The Tempest, for instance, the good characters directly attribute causation to “Providence divine” and Ariel describes himself as a “minister of Fate” (III.iii.61), directed by “Destiny, / That hath to instrument this lower world / And what is in't” (III.iii.53-55). Similarly here, attitudes toward hazard and fortune reveal the degree of a character's awareness of providential design. Man's will is free, but his character, his willingness to risk, determines choice in a way which God foresees and uses. In this respect Shakespeare's reworking of the casket mottoes from his probable source, the Gesta Romanorum, illuminates his intention. Whereas he merely switches the inscriptions of the gold and silver caskets, with the lead he alters the overtly providential “Who so chooseth mee, shall finde that God hath disposed for him” to “Who Chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath.”22 With the direct reference to God's will effaced, the emphasis shifts from the chooser as passive recipient to active seeker of God's will, his readiness to hazard all on faith in imitation of the first Christian adventurer.

Just as Bassanio conceived of the courtship as a “venture” and a “hazard,” so Portia describes the choice of caskets in the same words:

I pray you tarry, pause a day or two
Before you hazard …
.....I would detain you here some month or two
Before you venture for me. I could teach you
How to choose right, but then I am forsworn,
So will I never be,—so may you miss me,—

(III.ii.1-2, 9-12)

She, too, will risk all by respecting the bond of obligation to her father. Beyond the common propensity to speak of courtship in terms of venturing, readers have remarked that the commercial language of Venice carries into Belmont with the image of the Golden Fleece. Bassanio thus described Portia to Antonio: “… her sunny locks, / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece” (I.i.169-70). John Russell Brown notes:

The golden fleece was a symbol of the fortunes for which merchants ventured; … Sir Francis Drake returning from his voyage round the world was said to have brought back with him “his goulden fleece.” That the phrase was used of merchants' ventures, gives point to Gratiano's boast:

                                                                                what's the news from Venice?
How doeth that royal merchant good Antonio?
I know he will be glad of our success,
We are the Jasons, we have won the fleece.


Brown is entirely correct in reminding us that the Golden Fleece was a common descriptive image for the rewards of merchant adventuring; but the comparison of Drake to Jason bringing back the golden fleece, which occurs in Whitney's A Choice of Emblems (1586), is suggestive in another way. The motto of the emblem is Auxilio diuino; the picture shows “the hand of Heaven” guiding Drake's ship by a celestial bridle; and the verse enumerates circumnavigational hazards, concluding: “but, GOD was on his side, / And throughe them all, in spite of all, his shaken shippe did guide. / And, to requite his paines: By helpe of power deuine.24 The associations in Whitney's emblem were enduring ones; the Jason and the Golden Fleece myth was used in Lord Mayor's Pageants designed by Anthony Munday in 1614, 1615, and 1623, and by Thomas Middleton in 1621 and 1626. In the last of these Middleton commemorated Drake as “England's true Jason.”25 For the assumption of Providential guidance we might consult the venturers themselves. Both Drake and Sir John Hawkins left verses spelling out their belief that venturing, undertaken in the proper spirit, partakes of divine guidance. As William Pelham argued, “For where the attempt, on vertue dooth depend: / No doubt but God, will blesse it in the ende.”26 Against this background we may see that the implication of the Jason and Golden Fleece analogy is not that Portia is commercial booty; rather it is that in romantic venturing, as in commercial venturing, one risks all to gain all, succeeding only “by helpe of power deuine.”27

We need not go overboard on Jason's voyage, however. Shakespeare's use of myth in this comedy is iconic, not narrative. He will focus upon a single facet of a mythic character or episode of his career to inform an action or illuminate a motive; he does not sustain a continuous, mythic pattern. Those critics who, following out the Jason story, associate Portia with Medea make an association which Shakespeare refused.28 The tragic overtones of Jason and Medea as lovers are so strong that they can be permitted to enter the play only in the catalogue of unfortunate lovers recited by Lorenzo and Jessica (V.i.1-22).

Indeed, Jason is not the primary mythological referent for the character and role of Bassanio; upon Bassanio's arrival in Belmont that assignment shifts to Jason's better-known shipmate from the Argo, Hercules himself. The idea of hazarding the choice of caskets as a Herculean action had been anticipated by Morocco's analogy of Hercules and Lichas playing at dice. It is reintroduced by Portia's description of Bassanio:

                                                                                          Now he goes
With no less presence, but with much more love
Than young Alcides, when he did redeem
The virgin tribute, paid by howling Troy
To the sea-monster: I stand for sacrifice,
The rest aloof are the Dardanian wives,
With bleared visages come forth to view
The issue of th' exploit: go Hercules!
Live thou, I live—with much much more dismay,
I view the fight, than thou that mak'st the fray.


Portia's exuberant “Go Hercules!” will echo in a later comedy, As You Like It. There Rosalind first tries to dissuade Orlando from challenging Charles, the Duke's “wrastler”: “If you saw yourself with your eyes, or knew yourself with your judgment, the fear of your adventure would counsel you to a more equal enterprise” (I.ii.175-78). But, since Orlando persists in his adventure, she cheers him on. “Now Hercules be thy speed, young man!” (I.ii.210).

The Herculean label, in one sense, simply identifies the two young men as heroes, both of whom, of course, are successful in their ventures. Nevertheless, the prototypes for their Herculean actions differ. Whereas Orlando's triumph is modeled upon the conquest of Antaeus,29 Bassanio's hazard goes outside the labors. The method here is “By indirections find directions out.” Morocco's reference to Hercules and Lichas dicing reflects his mistaken notion of hazard as blind fortune; Portia's analogy of Hercules rescuing Hesione is a partial truth, reflecting her personal anxieties. By repeating the Hercules association and requiring us to discard inappropriate actions from his career, Shakespeare nudges us toward recognizing the correct one. The game is virtually given away in the linkage of act, choice, and actor, Hercules: Bassanio's hazard is a reenactment of the choice of Hercules, that pivotal event wherein the young hero, by choosing Virtus over Voluptas—the lifestyle represented by the sober maiden rather than the fleshy seductress or, alternatively, the high, hard path instead of the broad and easy one—conquered Fortune.30

Shakespeare's handling of Bassanio's choice of caskets reflects this very popular tradition in several aspects. First, the number of options is effectively reduced from three to two. This is accomplished by framing the choice as opposition between essence and appearance. Silver thereby becomes merely a variant kind of deceptive appearance, an appendix to gold with the same objections obtaining, and can be dismissed in an additional one and a half lines. Second, the concentration upon the issue of false appearance—“outward shows,” “fair ornament,” “outward parts,” “supposed fairness,” “seeming truth,” are Bassanio's phrases—evokes the tradition of Voluptas as the seeming fair of sensual allurement or of the deceptive, downward path as the apparently easy and attractive one. Sigurd Burckhardt has observed that Arragon and Morocco fail the choice of caskets because “… they try to interpret the lines inscribed on the caskets rather than the substance … The noteworthy thing about Bassanio is that he disregards the inscriptions; he lets the metals themselves speak to him (quite literally: he apostrophizes them as speakers).”31 Apostrophizing the metals as speakers would seem a heritage of the prototypic choice tradition in which the opposed values or lifestyles are personified as women.

The suggestion is more than latent here. Bassanio muses,

                                                                                                                        Look on beauty,
And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight,
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it:
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea: the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.


His comparisons are complex. The “crisped snaky golden locks” are a demonic version of his own description of Portia's “sunny locks / Hang[ing] on her temples like a golden fleece.” The “guiled shore / To a most dangerous sea” reminds us of the opening descriptions of Antonio's ships risked to the sea of fortune, while the veiled “Indian beauty” evokes a fusion of romantic and mercantile venturing. Bassanio has seen the risks in appearance, stakes his hazard that Portia's beauty is substantial, essential, and he deserves the implicit claim to Herculean courage when he observes that cowards “… wear yet upon their chins / The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars, / Who inward search'd, have livers white as milk” (III.ii.84-86). The significance of the Choice of Hercules is that the hero, by choosing correctly, reveals that he has conquered himself. Coming to understand himself, he has properly ordered his own mind, passions, appetities; it is only then that he can conquer others.

With his usual efficiency Shakespeare had established this theme at the very outset; Janus-minded Antonio, divided in his love for Bassanio, has “much ado to know myself.” That Bassanio knows himself the casket scene puts beyond dispute. He dismisses the gaudy of golden Voluptas, whether wigged in snaky curls or veiled as the Indian beauty: “but thou, thou meager lead / Which rather threaten'st than doest promise aught, / Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence, / And here choose I” (III.ii.104-07). Unlike Lear who opts for the golden speech of Goneril and Regan to reject the threatening plainness of Cordelia's bond, Bassanio remains unmoved by mere eloquence. It is the hazard of meager and threatening lead which, as Virtus moved Hercules, moves Bassanio to trust his blind intuition; and, by risking all, he wins all.

Hercules, as Book V of The Faerie Queene reminds us, was a “Champion of true Justice”; and in establishing the reign of justice over himself, in the sense of his own temperance, as a prerequisite to his public career as administrator of justice, Hercules only follows a paradigm going back at least to the Nicomachean Ethics.32 A similar progression is evident in the movement from the casket choice of Act III to the trial scene of Act IV. Portia matches Bassanio's successful hazard by giving all in her own way: “Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours / Is now converted” (III.ii.166-67). Converted to Bassanio, in Act IV she plays the role of judge, literally wearing a man's costume, that was his in Act III, while Antonio “stand[s] for sacrifice” as she did earlier.

Samuel Chew first observed in the trial scene the presence of the conventional iconographic attributes of Justice, the sword and scales.33 Shylock whets his knife on the sole of his shoe as he anticipates the pleasure of cutting the pound of flesh from Antonio and weighing it upon the scales (see IV.i.120-26 and 255-56). The perversion of the sword of Justice to Shylock's knife shocks and revolts as deliberately as does the reduction of the scales, traditional symbol of equity, to a butcher's measure. But, if Shylock represents—in Chew's words—“a travesty of Justice,” the goddess Justice herself appears to re-establish her honor. When Portia enters as “Balthazar,” the young doctor of law, she says something rather curious; the Duke inquires whether she is acquainted with the issue, and she replies:

I am informed thoroughly of the cause,—
Which is the merchant here? and which the jew?


Insofar as the line has been noticed, it has been used to support the modernist interpretation that Shylock and Antonio are interchangeable, faceless merchants in business suits with equally corrupt motives. This is to ignore the careful distinction of Shylock's costume, “my Jewish gaberdine” (I.iii.107), from the more splendid appearance of the gentile merchant prince. If Portia cannot distinguish between the two, it is her way of announcing that she will judge the case on its merits, impartially, without respect to the persons involved. She is acting as Blind Justice.34

Renaissance commentators generally divide justice into three topics: absolute justice, in which the letter of the law is rigidly maintained; equity, which considers the particular circumstance of the individual under the general law; and mercy or clemency.35 These three topics structure the progression of the trial scene. Portia first seems to concede the claim of absolute justice as Antonio admits the obligation of the bond (IV.i.177-78) and she rebuts Bassanio's appeal to the duke to bend the law:

It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
'Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.


Shylock may lawfully claim the penalty, so she can only entreat him to be merciful, as she does in the “quality of mercy” speech and, again, when she admits the legality of the forfeiture: “be merciful, / Take thrice thy money, bid me tear the bond” (IV.i.229-30). Portia presses the consideration of equity; the practical effect of administering the letter of the bond will be an unspecified personal consequence, the loss of Antonio's life. “Have by some surgeon Shylock on your charge, / To stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death” (IV.i.253-54). Shylock, however, refuses to recognize the principle of equity: ‘“tis not in the bond.”

Portia then reverses the procedure with Shylock, instead of Antonio, the focus of the examination. He is exposed to the rigors of letter-of-the-law, absolute justice: “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood, / The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’: / … If thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are (by the laws of Venice) confiscate / Unto the state of Venice” (IV.i.302-03, 305-08). Next, the claim of equity is invoked negatively as Portia informs Shylock that the law authorizes confiscation of his estate and puts his own life in jeopardy for having conspired against the life of a Venetian citizen (IV.i.343-59). Justice having been satisfied, both the duke and Antonio are afforded the opportunity to extend Shylock the mercy which he could not find in the bond. He looked in the wrong place; it exists only in the heart's core.

The trial scene is a fine example of what Rosalie Colie has called “unmetaphoring.”36 Shakespeare has created a dramatic literalization of the Protestant Reformers' legalistic theory of the Atonement—surely for Christians the ultimate source of all Justice-Mercy considerations—with their characteristic law-court terminology, distinctions, and atmosphere.37 In such a context, doubts about the efficacy of Shylock's forced conversion seem hardly relevant. Portia's lesson, “That in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation” (IV.i.195-96), makes the familiar point that we are all guilty under the Old Law. Indeed, Shylock's illness (IV.i.392) and Gratiano's shouted insistence that the Jew be given a halter to hang himself (IV.i.360-63, 375), are, perhaps, less “realistic” strokes than reminders that the sinner brought to a full consciousness of his guilt under the Law will be reduced to a state of suicidal despair. Gratiano proferring the halter, even in his choice of instruments, performs as conventional an action as do the giants named Despair in The Faerie Queene and Pilgrim's Progress.38

Shylock loses really because he loses faith; he cannot trust absolutely in his own bond, in the law he has insisted upon. As Burckhardt has suggested, Portia's decision to trust the absolute justice of the bond is a magnificant hazard. Enacting the inscription of the leaden casket, she had given all to Bassanio and now risks all, because of course Shylock has the option of saying, “Yes, I will take my pound of flesh whatever the consequences.” Instead, there is a failure of nerve; in Burckhardt's phrase, he “… turns apostate to the faith he has so triumphantly forced upon his enemies.”39 Shylock's function, then, is primarily contrastive. Where the gentle Portia hazards all, he hedges his bet, unwilling to move beyond the usurer's principles of “advantage” and “thrift.” Where Shylock will grant no mercy to the gentile Antonio, the merchant can and does extend mercy to the usurer. Antonio's previous behavior had been characterized equally by his kindness toward Shylock's gentile victims and his brutal contempt for the moneylender himself, earning Shylock's sneering epithet, “fawning publican” (I.iii.36) an apparent allusion to Matthew V:46, “For if ye loue them, which loue you, what rewarde shal you haue? Do not the Publicanes euen the same?”40 Christ's lesson from this passage in the Sermon on the Mount is central to the entire trial scene, not merely Portia's pleas for mercy:

But I say vnto you, Loue your enemies: blesse them that curse you: do good to them that hate you, and praye for them which hurt you, and persecute you,

The ye may be the children of your Father that is in heauen: for he maketh his sunne to arise on the euil, and the good, and sendeth raine on the iuste, & vniuste.

(Matthew V:44-45)

That Antonio has absorbed the spirit of the lesson is evident in his conversion from a stoic resignation to death—“herein Fortune shows herself more kind / Than is her custom” (V.i.263-64)—to actively Christian behavior, a conversion effected by his providential salvation. Not Fortune, but the hand of Heaven.

Antonio's education to a state of fuller self-knowledge concludes with the ring trick of Act V, an action designed to expose and reduce the tensions between love and friendship. The ordeal of the trial had revealed both Antonio's jealousy of Bassanio's new wife and Bassanio's willingness to value Antonio's life even above that wife. When “Balthazar” demands as reward for his services the ring with which Portia had pledged her love, Bassanio at first demurs, but is persuaded by Antonio: “My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring, / Let his deservings and my love withal / Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandement” IV.i.445-47). With the ring trick, as Anne Barton has argued, Portia resorts to “… a test which forces Bassanio to weigh his obligations to his wife against those to his friend and to recognize the latent antagonism between them.”41 Portia plays the part of a comic Shylock, harping on the letter of the ring-bond, until she achieves her purpose. Bassanio admits the wrong and renews his pledge: “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (V.i.247-48). Antonio recognizes that he has been the cause of dissension and removes the impediment by underwriting the venture anew: “I dare be bound again, / My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord / Will never more break faith advisedly” (V.i.251-53). The progression of the play is underscored by the movement from physical to spiritual bonds, a progression in which the idea of faith figures significantly. The point to all of the fifth-act bawdy jokes about marital infidelity is simply that marriage, as much as Providence or Justice, is a matter of unswerving, blind faith in the bond.

An illuminating exchange between Erwin Panofsky and Edgar Wind has taught us that during the Renaissance the image of Blind Cupid could carry divergent connotations.42 The more common tradition interprets the blindness as random, unreasoned, physical attraction; but, more particularly in the current of Renaissance platonism, the blindness could be employed as a symbol of supra-intellectual transcendence, a condition beyond reason perhaps analogous to the way in which Bassanio is “moved” by the lead casket. We know from Midsummer Night's Dream that both kinds of blindness in love interested Shakespeare at this stage of his career.43 Cupid first insinuates his presence into this play when Bassanio describes his romantic venture in terms of Cupid's favorite activity: shooting an arrow to see what it hits. The god gains direct entrance, however, in Act II, scene vi, with Jessica's elopement. Pausing as she throws down to her lover a casket full of Shylock's money and jewels, Jessica is momentarily abashed, but for social rather than moral reasons. She finds it indecorous to appear publicly in boy's clothing:

But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit,
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy.


The relationship of Jessica and Lorenzo to the primary lovers, Portia and Bassanio, consistently is contrastive and negative: they undergo no tests of character or faith; they are obedient to no bonds; they take all, rather than giving all; they hazard nothing.44 It is right, therefore, that Jessica should here associate their love with the negative variety of blindness, just as later they will add their names to the catalogue of famous, unfortunate lovers. Reading by contraries, it is appropriate also to associate with the renewed bond of Portia and Bassanio the higher sort of blind love, a Christian relationship based on total trust and faith. Discussing the plot, the bond, and the ring as the controlling metaphors of the play, Sigurd Burckhardt concludes:

The Merchant is a play about circularity and circulation; it asks how the vicious circle of the bond's law can be transformed into the ring of love. And it answers: through a literal and unreserved submission to the bond as absolutely binding.45

Within the circular pattern of this play, which the platonic musical overture to Act V reveals as a dance to the music of time, the three blind deities—Fortune, Justice, and Cupid—like three unexpected Graces, move us to the end of the measure.


  1. Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Exploration in Form (Princeton, 1972), pp. 113-14. For the most influential allegorical reading, see Barbara K. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 13 (1962), 327-43.

  2. A. D. Moody, from Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice (London, 1964), reprinted in Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Merchant of Venice, ed. Sylvan Barnet (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970), p. 102.

  3. Berry, pp. 114-15, 137.

  4. E. M. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers: Collected Studies (1954; London, 1967), pp. xv-xvi.

  5. See Carus-Wilson; and G. D. Ramsay, English Overseas Trade During the Centuries of Emergence (London, 1957).

  6. The Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana … by Sir Walter Raleigh, ed. Sir Robert H. Schonburgh, Hakluyt Society, no. 3 (reprinted New York, 1970), “Epistle Dedicatory,” p. iv.

  7. I quote from The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown, New Arden (Cambridge, Mass., 1955); for all other Shakespeare quotations I have used The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston, 1974).

  8. For the sea of fortune, see Howard R. Patch, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature (1927; New York, 1967), pp. 101-07.

  9. Cf. Sylvan Barnet, “Prodigality and Time in The Merchant of Venice,PMLA, 87 (1972), 27-28.

  10. Arnold Williams, The Common Expositor: An Account of the Commentaries on Genesis, 1527-1633 (Chapel Hill, 1948), p. 171.

  11. Patch, pp. 39-40.

  12. For the sixteenth century revival of the Fortune-as-handmaiden-of-Providence theory, see Marie Tanner, “Chance and Coincidence in Titian's Diana and Actaeon,” Art Bulletin, 56 (1974), 541-46. For the role of providence in Hamlet, see, e.g., Maynard Mack, “The World of Hamlet,” YR [The Yale Review], 41 (1952), 502-23; and Sidney Warhaft, “The Mystery of Hamlet,ELH, 30 (1963), 193-208.

  13. Pierre Viret, A Christian Instruction, tr. John Shute (1573), p. 7; John Calvin, Commentaries … upon the Prophet Daniell, tr. Arthur Golding (1570), fol. 65 [Quoted by C. A. Patrides, Milton and the Christian Tradition (Oxford, 1966), pp. 53, 56]; and William Langland, Piers the Plowman, ed. Rev. W. W. Skeat (Oxford, 1886), I.585, C. Passus XXI.228-35.

  14. Fortin, “Launcelot and the Uses of Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,SEL [Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900], 14 (1974), 262.

  15. Fortin, p. 265. For other misreadings, see, e.g., Berry, pp. 113-14; and John F. Hennedy, “Launcelot Gobbo and Shylock's Forced Conversion,” TSLL [Texas Studies in Literature and Language], 15 (1973), 406.

  16. The parallels to Genesis XXVII were first noted by Dorothy C. Hockey, “The Patch is Kind Enough,” SQ, 10 (1959), 448-50; see also Norman Holland, The Shakespearean Imagination (New York, 1964), p. 107.

  17. Moody, in Twentieth Century Interpretations, p. 104.

  18. Fortin, p. 267.

  19. See Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond,” in his Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), pp. 206-36.

  20. Carson, “Hazarding and Cozening in The Merchant of Venice,” ELN [English Language Notes], 9 (1972), 174-76.

  21. See De Consolatione Philosophiae, especially—V.ii. The word providence, of course, does not occur in The Merchant of Venice; but cf. the traditional connotations of Portia's metaphor for mercy, “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath” (IV.i. 181-82), and Lorenzo's “Fair Ladies, you drop manna in the way / Of starved people” (V.i.294-95).

  22. See Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 1 (New York, 1957), 460-61, 511-14.

  23. Brown, Merchant, p. iv. The verbal complex of “venturing” or “hazarding” for the “Golden Fleece” was familiar enough that Marlowe could subvert the romantic idealism wittily by attaching it to a man: “His dangling tresses that were never shorne, / Had they beene cut, and unto Colchos borne, / Would have allu'rd the vent'rous youth of Greece / To hazard more, than for the Golden Fleece” (Hero and Leander I.55-58).

  24. Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblems: 1586, English Emblem Books No. 3 (Menston, 1969), p. 203. The providential thrust of the emblem is noticed by Henry Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (London, 1870), pp. 413-14; and by David M. Bergeron, English Civic Pageantry 1558-1642 (London, 1971), pp. 293-94.

  25. See Bergeron, pp. 152-53, 161, 191-92, 198-99.

  26. The Voyages and Colonising Enterprises of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, ed. David Beers Quinn, Hakluyt Society, Second Series, 83 (1940; reprinted New York, 1967), II.438. See also Robert R. Cawley, Unpathed Waters: Studies in the Influence of the Voyagers on Elizabethan Literature (Princeton, 1940), p. 138, n. 75.

  27. See Sylvan Barnet, “Prodigality and Time,” pp. 28-29; and Carson, p. 177.

  28. See D. J. Palmer, “The Merchant of Venice, or the Importance of Being Earnest,” Shakespearean Comedy, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 14 (London, 1972), pp. 101-03; and H. S. Donow, “Shakespeare's Caskets: Unity in The Merchant of Venice,ShakS [Shakespeare Studies], 4 (1968), 87-88.

  29. See Richard Knowles, “Myth and Type in As You Like It,ELH, 33 (1966), 3-5.

  30. See, particularly, Jane Aptekar, Icons of Justice: Iconography and Thematic Imagery in Book V of the Faerie Queene (New York, 1969), pp. 180-86, 194-200; and Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero (New York, 1962), pp. 47-48. For Herculean virtue dominating fortune, see R. Wittkower, “Chance, Time and Virtue,” JWI [Journal. Wartburg and Courtault Institute], 1 (1937-38), 316-20; and Pierre Courcelle, La Consolation de Philosophie dans la tradition littéraire, Études Augustiniennes 8 (Paris, 1967), pp. 233-35.

  31. Burckhardt, p. 217.

  32. See Nicomachean Ethics V.xi.9 and V.i.15-20; and, for the temperate Hercules, see Aptekar, p. 181, and Waith, pp. 40-43.

  33. Samuel C. Chew, The Virtues Reconciled: An Iconographic Study (Toronto, 1947), p. 48.

  34. As Erwin Panofsky has remarked, the figure of Blind Justice “… is a humanistic concoction of very recent origin,” stemming from the vogue for Egyptian hieroglyphics, but one that quickly obtained wide circulation. See Studies in Iconology (1939; New York, 1962), p. 109 and n.

  35. See James E. Phillips, “Renaissance Concepts of Justice and the Structure of The Faerie Queene, Book V,” HLQ [Huntington Library Quarterly], 33 (1970), 103-20; W. N. Knight, “The Narrative Unity of Book V of The Faerie Queene: ‘That Part of Justice Which is Equity,’” RES [Review of English Studies], 21 (1970), 267-94; and R. B. Waddington, The Mind's Empire: Myth and Form in George Chapman's Narrative Poems (Baltimore, 1974), pp. 171-72.

  36. See Rosalie L. Colie, Shakespeare's Living Art (Princeton, 1974), p. 11 and passim.

  37. See C. A. Patrides, “Milton and the Protestant Theory of the Atonement,” PMLA, 74 (1959), 10-13.

  38. See Susan Snyder, “The Left Hand of God: Despair in Medieval and Renaissance Tradition,” Studies in the Renaissance, 12 (1965), especially 30-34, 50-57.

  39. Burckhardt, p. 234.

  40. Lewalski, pp. 330-31. I quote from The Geneva Bible, facsimile of the 1560 edition (Madison, 1969).

  41. Barton, The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 253.

  42. See Panofsky, Studies in Iconology, pp. 95-128; Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (rev. ed., New York, 1968), pp. 53-80; and Panofsky, Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic (New York, 1969), pp. 129-38. See also C. D. Gilbert, “Blind Cupid,” JWCI [Journal. Wartburg and Courtault Institute], 33 (1970), 304-05.

  43. See, e.g., Frank Kermode, “The Mature Comedies,” Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays (New York, 1971), pp. 204-10.

  44. See, especially, Burckhardt, pp. 223-27, and Barton, The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 253.

  45. Burckhardt, p. 210.

Tibor Fabiny (essay date November 1989)

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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 literary or imaginative critics of our century have explored the vision-aspect of the tragedy and the evidence-respecting historical critics have been at work to substantiate their hypotheses by proofs. The fact that both use their own languages leads to mutual suspicion or misunderstanding, and this occasionally results in fierce debates.2 Nevertheless it is my assumption that the often intuitive insights of the imaginative critics can be reconciled with the findings of historical research. Moreover, I should like to demonstrate that they can mutually support or illuminate one another. It is our hope that we can graft imaginative criticism into historical research and vice-versa. Therefore I shall start by discussing how the literary critics define the problem of evil in Shakespearean tragedy and then go on to discuss aspects of the medieval heritage and its impact on Shakespeare's imagery and vocabulary. In conclusion I should like to illustrate how the imagery determines the structure and how we can apply the ideas of Paul Ricoeur's The Symbolism of Evil in a poetic-structural analysis of the tragedies.

Some twenty years ago Frank Kermode, in an ingenious essay, wrote as follows: ‘When tragedy established itself in England it did so in terms of plots and spectacle that had much more to do with medieval apocalypse than with the mythos and opsis of Aristotle.’3 Apocalypse, as we know, means revelation: something that has been hidden for long is suddenly revealed, very frequently in forms of visions. Indeed, the radiating force of the apocalyptic vision of evil, as Joseph Wittreich has recently demonstrated, conspicously left its imprint on the imagery of Shakespeare's tragedies, particularly King Lear.4

The problem of evil in Shakespearean tragedy has frequently been discussed. Even the well-known Hegelian critic A. C. Bradley touches this aspect when discussing ‘the substance of Shakespearean tragedy’:

Evil exhibits itself everywhere as something negative, barren, weakening, destructive, a principle of death. It isolates, disunites and tends to annihilate not only its opposite but itself. That which keeps the evil man prosperous, makes him succeed, even permits him to exist, is the good in him. … When the evil in him masters the good and has its way, it destroys other people through him, but it also destroys him.5

As is well known, the ‘character-critic’ Bradley was heavily attacked by the influential poetic or imaginative school of critics and interpreters.6 While discarding the psychological, ‘life-like’ approach of Bradley, they reemphasized the importance of the tragic vision of evil. G. Wilson Knight stated as early as 1930 that ‘Macbeth is Shakespeare's most profound and mature vision of evil.’7 Still in the 1930's, L. C. Knights wittily argued that instead of the ridiculous and irrelevant question ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ we should explore the drama as a statement of evil that has greater affinity with The Waste Land than with The Doll's House.8 Last but not least, Caroline Spurgeon in her analytical inventory came to the conclusion that evil in Shakespeare's imagination is reflected as something dirty, black and foul; it appears as a blot, spot, stain, infection, contamination, corruption or bad smell. Moreover, evil frequently disguises itself as good in Shakespearean tragedy:

Thus in these pictures as a whole we see evil as something corrupt, horrible and repugnant, which is to the world as foulness and disease to the body or rank weeds to the garden; it is a condition, a growth, which if health or fruitfulness are to be attained, must at all costs be expelled.9

Some of the extravagant insights of poetic criticism have frequently been balanced by the calling cards of historical scholarship. Scholars exploring the antecedents of Shakespearean tragedy have contributed much to form principles on the structure of the tragedies. Farnham's pioneering book The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (1936)10 was the first to emphasize the medieval tradition, i.e. the Boethius-Boccaccio-Chaucer-Lydgate-Mirror for Magistrates line, and his thesis was supported by Margeson in 1967.11 Farnham attributed a great deal of importance to the ‘narrative tragedies’ of the de casibus tradition, particularly to the influence of the iconography of the wheel of fortune. A protagonist mounts the wheel of fortune mainly by way of hybris and is thus naturally exposed to its vicissitudes. This process involves a ‘pyramidal structure’ of rise and fall which is the image of human ambition and the consequences of this boundless aspiration. The tragic hero reaches an apex or zenith from where his downfall is inevitable. In Shakespeare such a figure becomes ‘Time's fool’ or ‘fortune's fool’. This traditional view of a retributive mechanism was challenged by Professor J. Leeds Barroll in 1974.12 He found that it was both ‘naive’ and ‘simplistic’. Instead of the wheel of fortune iconography Barroll stresses the influence of a ‘much more important visualization’, i.e. The Table of Cebes, which more vividly reinforces ‘the usual prose statements about Fortune’. He also rejects the critical reappearance of this configuration, namely Freytag's pyramid, by questioning the pyramidal structure in the tragedies that would involve a ‘pinnacle’ as a relevant turning point that is followed by a ‘fall’.

Interesting as Professor Barroll's analytical approach is, it did not persuade me to reject the presence of a circular or pyramidal structure in the tragedies. While I am not in a position to judge the historical relevance of the wheel of fortune iconography, my thesis is that the circle or the wheel is still a useful and applicable configuration for a poetic-symbolic interpretation of the tragedies. I agree with Professor Barroll insofar as the structure of the tragedies cannot simply be confined to the rise and fall pattern of the career of a human protagonist. In my opinion, however, the poetic images testify to an underlying symbolism of evil, a phenomenon which I would call a ‘figurative and supernatural protagonist’ whose birth, growth and decline suggests a pyramidal or circular structure. A symbolical reading of the plays seems to converge with Farnham's thesis on the medieval origins of Elizabethan tragedy. In order to argue for the presence of this type of medievalism, I propose to elucidate three points.

1. Historicity, with temporality, is a basic attribute of Elizabethan tragedy. Shakespearean tragedy is an outcome of histories, and the wheel of fortune constitutes the link between histories and tragedies. Theoretically, the tragic structure is a ‘downward movement’ or a ‘fall’. This notion creates a generic link between the medieval narrative and the Elizabethan dramatic tragedies.

2. Shakespeare's imagery frequently echoes the medieval notions of ‘circle’, ‘wheel’ or ‘fall’.

3. Some of the tragedies can also be structured by the pattern of the circle or the wheel. This is not simply shaped by the ascent and descent of the human protagonist but by the movement of the ‘figurative protagonist’. There is a crucial turning in the movement and the progress of the play. This is the point when the gradually unfolding aggression of evil reaches its culmination and begins to destroy itself. This is the point when the figurative protagonist has attained to its height and is ‘ready to decline’ (Julius Caesar 4:3:216). This might metaphorically be called ‘the orgy of Evil’ when ‘confusion now hath made his masterpiece’ (Macbeth 2:3:71). However, in accordance with the Elizabethan proverb ‘When things are at worst they will mend’13 we can quote from Macbeth: ‘Things at the worst will cease, or else climb upward / To what they were before’ (4:2:23-24). It is my intention to reflect upon this crucial point in Richard III, King Lear and Macbeth.


In the Elizabethan age tragedy still preserved a ‘reality principle’, as its plot was relying on history, while the plot of the comedy was generally fictitious. The idea goes back to the distinction by the fourth century writer Evanthius which was often included in the Renaissance editions of Terence.14 A similar definition was given by Scaliger's Poeticae in 1561.15 It is also known that there was much uncertainty in the Folio-edition with regard to what exactly constituted tragedy or history.16 Some of Shakespeare's histories were registered as tragedies and some of the tragedies were entitled histories. I would stress that there is an organic interrelationship between Shakespeare's histories and tragedies. The images of the tragic are already present in the histories, and the historico-political setting is also relevant in the tragedies. In the tragedies, however, the time-scale of events has suddenly shrunk, and what was acted out in the epic flow of history is now condensed upon a single character or situation. History merges gradually into tragedy. Discussing Shakespeare's historical plays, Raymond Chapman and Walter Schirmer17 have shown that the wheel of fortune was a moralizing cliché in the dramas, and the plays were in fact dramatic variations on the theme of the fall of kings.

While the wheel of fortune was a theme in the histories, it became absorbed into the structure of the tragedies. Some recent theories seem to support this view. Susan Langer calls tragedy a ‘cadential form’18 and Northrop Frye says: ‘The downward movement is the tragic movement, the wheel of fortune falling from innocence towards hamartia and from hamartia to catastrophe.’19 Moreover, in his book on Shakespearean tragedy, Frye suggests that the two organizing conceptions of Elizabethan tragedy are the order of nature which corresponds to Nietzsche's ‘Apollonian vision’ and the wheel of fortune ‘rotated by the energy and ambition of man’—the latter being the complementing ‘Dionysian’ or heroic vision.20 Frye also stresses the view that tragedy is deeply rooted in history. History, however, is an aspect of time as time is the ‘stuff’ of history. Time is indeed an indispensable category of tragedy since temporality is the very basis of human existence: ‘time is itself tragic,’21 and the consequence of Adam's fall was described by Sir Walter Raleigh as being driven out in exilium temporalis, into the banishment of temporal life.22 Frye says that ‘the basis of the tragic vision is being in time.’23 David Kastan draws our attention to the ‘fall’ of Antony which is the moment when ‘time is at his period’ (Antony and Cleopatra 4:12:106). ‘Tragedy’, he writes, ‘finds shape in the temporality of the individual life.’ I would conclude that the temporality of human existence is perhaps the basic a priori of the image of the tragic.

These theoretical remarks also tend to support the view that Shakespearean tragedy, being a condensed outcome of his vision of history, is conspicuously indebted to ‘medieval tragedy’. The medieval narrative tradition, as we know, provided historical examples of the ambition and downfall of the individual. Chaucer's translation of Boethius marks the first use of the word ‘tragedy’ in English. His famous gloss on the margin of his translation defines it thus: ‘Tragedye is seyn a dite of a prosperite for a tyme that endeth in wrecchidnesse’ (Boece, II, Pt 2). Chaucer's other allusions to tragedy are well known.24 It is the Monk's Tale that provides some seventeen examples ‘falls’ as ‘tragedies’, and the most pregnant definition of the idea of medieval tragedy is to be found in the Monk's Prologue:

Tragedy means a certain kind of story,
As old books tell, of those who fell in glory,
People that stood in great prosperity
And were cast down out of their high degree
Into calamity, and so they died.

(Nevill Coghill's translation, my italics)


Did Shakespeare ever have Chaucer's definition of tragedy in mind? If we want to investigate Shakespeare's potential debt to ‘Chaucerean tragedy’ and to the de casibus tradition we should turn to studying his imagery. It is quite obvious that the historical plays record the rise and fall of kings, their ambition for power and glory. The crown as the symbol of glory is the central object of aspiration in all these plays. In King John it is called ‘the circle of glory’ (5:1:2).

Shakespeare's most expressive image concerning the essence of power and glory is put into the mouth of Joan of Arc in the first part of Henry VI. This image describes most graphically the transitory and illusory nature of human glory, its unfolding, triumph and annihilation:

Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceases to enlarge itself,
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.
With Henry's death the English circle ends,
Dispersed are the glories it included.


In King Lear the ‘circle’ and the ‘wheel’ images are identified in Edmund's line when he acknowledges the end of his early success: ‘The wheel is come full circle, I am here’ (King Lear 5:3:174). John Doebler mentions that this image is a notable de casibus icon25. Rolf Soellner, in a recent article on ‘King Lear and the Magic of the Wheel’, provides an explanation of the complex iconography of this image. He alludes to the ‘wheel of life’ iconography illustrating the different ages of life (‘Cycle of Life’) on the one hand and the wheel of justice or nemesis on the other hand. This wheel, just as the ancient ‘Dike’ denotes retribution, illustrates the punishment of the wicked.26 Concrete images of the wheel occur several times in Lear27 and Soellner notes six ‘serious’ allusions to the ‘major tragic icon’ of the wheel of fortune.28

We are, however, mistaken if we disregard ‘dramatic propriety’ and only hunt for the occurrence of certain words. Shakespeare's allusions to the cyclic rotation of time are in most cases metaphorical and implicit rather than literal or explicit. In Julius Caesar, for example, Cassius says:

This day I breathed first, time is come round,
And where I did begin, there shall I end;
My life is run on his compass.


Brutus' stoic observations on the ‘tides of time’ also contain a hint at fortune, expressing the pyramidal career of the hero:

We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.


The idea of retribution is expressed by the image of the ‘whirligig of time’ meaning the change of fortune that comes with time. The phrase is said to have been first used by Shakespeare.

And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

(Twelfth Night, 5:1:385)

Similarly, Margaret in Richard III uses the image of justice ‘whirl'd about’ when she gloats over the ‘fall’ of Queen Elizabeth. The New Penguin edition, however, prefers the image of the wheel:

Thus hath the course of justice wheel'd about
And left thee but a very prey to time.


Both ‘whirl'd’ and ‘wheel'd’ have the same implication about the circular motion of a retributive justice.

The histories especially abound in powerful images on the quintessence of ‘fall’. This fall is an inevitable consequence of ambition and hybris.Pride must have a fall’, we read in Richard II (5:5:88). This is the only use of the Elizabethan proverb29 that ultimately derives from the Old Testament: ‘Pride goes before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall’ (Proverbs 16:18). The human fall is analogous to the fall of the angels, and to that of Lucifer in particular: ‘How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning’ (Isaiah 14:12) It is Wolsey in Henry VIII who most rhetorically laments his fall:

I have touched the highest point of all my greatness;
But from that full meridian of glory,
… I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening.


Wolsey depicts his growth and greatness in terms of natural-organic images when he recites his ‘farewell-speech’ to greatness (3:2:350-71). Describing the state of man, he uses the images of ‘leaves of hopes’, ‘blossoms’ and ‘frost’.

His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And there he falls, as I do.


The imagery here is strikingly similar to the organic pictures of the circular motion of life in Sonnet XV.30 In fact, Wolsey compares his downfall to that of Lucifer:

And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer
Never to hope again.


Wolsey recognizes that his downfall is due to his ‘ambition’, which corresponds to the original rebellion of the angels.

Mark but my fall, and that that ruined me.
Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition.
By that sin fell the angels: how can men then,
The image of his maker, hope to win by't?


The ambition-fall scheme is also depicted in Macbeth:

Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other.


In Richard II the old king's power is compared by Salisbury to a falling star.

I see thy glory like a shooting star
Fall to the base earth from the firmament!


The peril of overambition and climbing high is perhaps best expressed by the prophecy of Margaret in Richard III.

They that stand high have many blasts to shake them
And if they fall, they dash themselves to pieces.


In conclusion, to quote from Antony and Cleopatra: ‘The star is fallen. / And time is at his period’ (4:14:105-6). The fall is the time or the period of the tragic, whether it is caused by ambition or hubris, whether it is deserved or undeserved. It is related to the fall of angels and the fall of Adam in the line of the definition of Chaucer. Milton, indeed, considered the story of Adam (the fall in Eden) as the archetypal human tragedy.


Neither the word ‘tragedy’ nor ‘fall’ occurs as a relevant image: in the context of the great tragedies. Shakespeare seems to have translated these commonplaces into dramatic form and thus the images became intrinsic constituents of the structure of the poetic drama.31 It would, of course, be far beyond the scope of this paper to provide convincing interpretations of the tragedies that would argue for the pyramidal structure brought about by the rise and fall of Evil, the figurative protagonist. Therefore I only wish to reflect on the turning point in three plays.

Turning to Richard III, I would like to grasp the crucial point, the ‘turning of the wheel’32 in the movement of the drama's process. Gloucester has failed in the moment of his triumph. Having reached the top, his career has immediately taken a descending line. He is crowned in Act 4, Scene 2, but that is the moment when his chief accomplice, Buckingham, proves reluctant to give support to kill the young Princes. Moreover, Stanley informs Richard that Dorset has defected to Richmond and in addition his wife is going to die. As in Richard's case, the literal and figurative protagonists happen to coincide, the apex of his own career marks the pinnacle of Evil in the tragedy.

In King Lear there is a similar circle, yet it is ascending for the figurative and descending for the literal protagonist. Recent studies by Frederick Kiefer33, Rolf Soellner34 and James Dauphiné35 have extensively argued for the abundant allusions in this tragedy to fortune and to the wheel in particular. The most exhaustive analysis was provided by Dauphiné, who suggested that Shakespeare found the wheel of fortune adaptable enough to hold the unity of the action. Thus the wheel, as an image of eternity, encircles all the characters who constantly struggle with it and want to overleap it, but never succeed. In this sense the wheel of fortune reflects the tragic organization of the story.36

I would suggest that the turning point or the moment of triumph and fall of the figurative protagonist can be grasped in Act 3, Scene 6—the plucking out of Gloucester's eyes. This scene is the point of culmination in the acceleration of Evil. However, this moment of orgy is that of defeat as well. This is marked by some sudden and unexpected events: Cornwall mortally wounded, Oswald killed, the letter captured by Edgar, the so-far hesitant Albany taking side with the Lear group, the sisters' mutual jealousy gradually unravelled. Evil turns against itself, the snake bites into its own tail.

Finally, the drama most pregnantly representing the beginning and the end of evil is Macbeth. At the very beginning of the play it is the magic circle of the three weird sisters that make the ‘charm’ ‘wound up’, i.e. set in readiness for action. (1:3:37) It is Macbeth that most intensively suggests a symbolism of evil as contagion, infection and stain. The encounter with the witches is the time of the intersection of the evil and the human world. The moment of infection is the conception of evil which takes place when they eat ‘on the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner’ (1:3:84-85). From here onwards the circle of evil is set in motion. Macbeth is fully aware that it is going to be a ‘swelling act’ (1:3:128). The overall symbolism of the ‘thickening air’ and ‘growing darkness’ testifies to this frightening cycle. The gradual growth and intensification of evil reaches its final climax before the murdering of Banquo. Evil's climate here is even more tense than before the murdering of Duncan. Macbeth's monologue ‘Come, seeling Night’ (3:2:46) echoes Lady Macbeth's invocation before the first murder: ‘Come you Spirits’ (1:5:40) and ‘Come thick Night’ (1:5:50). Macbeth's soliloquy, however, is a much more condensed, compact and concentrated poetry. The intensity of this symbolism is in proportion to the total emanation of evil.

The triumph of evil again entails its own defeat. The turning point is the murdering of Banquo, since Fleance manages to escape. Macduff flees to England. The powers of regeneration have been conceived. Macbeth knew from the very beginning that Evil would destroy itself—‘Bloody instructions … return / To plague th' inventor’ (1:7:9-10). The villain as hero is by now so much permeated by evil that he has completely lost his freedom and has become enslaved by the figural protagonist.

Macbeth exemplifies the gradual internalization of evil, a process that is profoundly described by Paul Ricoeur in his The Symbolism of Evil.37 According to Ricoeur, the most archaic symbol in the experience of evil is that of ‘defilement’ (stain, filthiness). Macbeth provides excellent examples: ‘foul is fair’; ‘filthy air’; ‘O, damned spot!’ The symbolism of defilement is the representation of something that infects, contaminates by contact (‘insane root’). The next link in the chain of symbol is ‘sin’ which is the experience of a power that lays hold of a man (‘why do I yield to that suggestion’, 1:3:131). Contrary to defilement that infects from without, sin is internal. The third link, ‘guilt’, is the subjective moment, as it is already a completed internalization of sin, the result of which is ‘conscience’38. Guilty conscience may eventually end up in the ‘sin of despair’ which is not a transgression any more but, in Ricoeur's words, a ‘desperate will to shut oneself up in the circle of interdiction and desire’39, like Lady Macbeth. Ricoeur concludes that the symbolism of evil can be recapitulated in the concept of the servile will. This is the stage of captivity, enslavement and being bound in the circle. This is the state of both Macbeth and Richard III.

                                                                                                                                            I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far, that should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.



                                                                                                                                            I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.

(Richard III. 4:2:63-4)

At this final turn of the wheel the villain's fight is hopeless, perhaps desperate, but not without heroism:

They have tied me to a stake: I cannot fly,
But, bear-like I must fight the course.


This heroism does not leave Macbeth even after Macduff's fatal blow: ‘Despair thy charm’ (5:8:13). The heroism of evil ‘will not yield’ (1:8:27) and ‘will try the last’ (1:8:32).

I have tried to follow the birth, growth and the zenith of the figurative protagonist. Having reached its height, evil is already in decline. The decline, however, does not yet mean the complete blotting out of evil from the ‘rotten’ land. The wheel can come ‘full circle’ and time can be ‘free’ only if there is another circle, though of a different kind, which has already been set into motion.


  1. Richard B. Sewall, The Vision of Tragedy (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1980).

  2. I am thinking of the Roland Mushat Frye-G. Wilson Knight controversy: Roland Mushat Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1963) and G. Wilson Knight, Shakespeare and Religion (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967).

  3. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theories of Fiction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 30.

  4. Joseph Wittreich, ‘Image of that Horror’: History, Prophecy, and Apocalypse in King Lear. (San Marino, The Huntington Library 1984).

  5. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy 1904 (London, Macmillan, 1979), p. 26.

  6. See books by Caroline Spurgeon, W. Clemen, G. Wilson Knight, L. C. Knights and by some of the New Critics, e.g. Cleanth Brooks. A highly intelligent and balanced discussion of this tradition can be found in S. Viswanathan, The Shakespeare Play as Poem: A Critical Tradition in Perspective (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980).

  7. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire. Interpretations of Shakespearean Tragedy. (London, Methuen, 1930), p. 140.

  8. L. C. Knights, ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth’ (1933), In ‘Hamlet’ and Other Shakespearean Essays (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1960), p. 287.

  9. Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells Us (1935) (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 166.

  10. William Farnham, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (Oxford, Blackwell, 1936).

  11. J. M. Margeson, The Origins of English Tragedy (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1967).

  12. J. Leeds Barroll, ‘Structure in Shakespearean Tragedy’, Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974), 345-378.

  13. T 216 in M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, Michigan University Press, 1950).

  14. ‘Omnia comoedia de fictis est argumentis, tragoedia saepe de historia fide petitur.’ Quoted by Helen Gardner, Religion and Literature (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 63.

  15. Quoted by John Wilders, The Lost Garden: A View of Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays, (London, Macmillan, 1978), p. 4.

  16. Ibid. p. 1.

  17. R. W. S. Chapman, Fortune and Elizabethan Drama. Unpublished M.A. Thesis, (London, 1947) and ‘The Wheel of Fortune in Shakespeare's Historical Plays’, Review of English Studies NS I (1950), 3.

    Walter Schirmer, ‘Gluck und Ende der Könige in Shakespeares Historien’, in Arbeitgemeinschaft fur Forschung des Landes Nordrhein Westfalen, Heft 22 (1954), 5-18. On the Fortune-theme, the most valuable discussion is still H. H. Patch's classical monograph The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1927) esp. chap. V. on Fortune's Wheel, pp. 147-77. F. P. Pickering's, Literature and Art in the Middle Ages, (London, Macmillan, 1970) is informative, pp. 168-222. There is also a valuable chapter on the wheel of fortune in Leo Salingar's Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy, (Cambridge, 1974), pp. 129-157.

  18. Susan Langer, Feeling and Form (1953), p. 351. See also R. Quinones, The Renaissance Discovery of Time (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 361-5.

  19. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 163.

  20. Northrop Frye, Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1967), p. 13.

  21. Quoted from Spengler by David S. Kastan, Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time (London, Macmillan, 1982), p. 79.

  22. Quoted by Wilders, p. 11.

  23. Frye, Fools, p. 3.

  24. Troilus V, 1786-8; Prologue to Monk's Tale, 3160-71; Monk's Tale, 31-81-4, 3648-51, 3951-6; Prologue to the Nun's Priest's Tale, 3973-8.

  25. John Doebler, Shakespeare's Speaking Pictures (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1974), pp. xi-xii.

  26. Rolf Soellner, ‘King Lear and the Magic Wheel’, in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3 (1985), 274-83. See also Tibor Fabiny, ‘Theatrum Mundi and the Ages of Man’, in Shakespeare and the Emblem, ed. Tibor Fabiny (Szeged, 1984), pp. 302-5, and 333-4.

  27. Tibor Fabiny, ‘“Ripeness is All”: The Wheel of Time as a System of Imagery in Shakespeare's Dramas’, in Papers in English and American Studies, Vol. 2, ed. Balint Rozsnyai (Szeged, 1982).

  28. Lucrece I. 952; Hamlet 2:2:495; Lear 2:2:173; 2:4:72; 5:3:175.

  29. Tilley, p. 581.

  30. Cf. Fabiny, ‘Theatrum Mundi’, p. 279.

  31. A similar point was made concerning the image of time and the structure of the romance by I. S. Ewbank, ‘The Triumph of Time in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale’, in Review of English Literature 5 (1964), 84.

  32. Fabiny, ‘Theatrum Mundi’, pp. 307-26.

  33. Frederick Kiefer, Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy (San Marino, The Huntington Library, 1983).

  34. Soellner.

  35. James Dauphine and Jean Richer, Les Structures Symboliques du Roi Lear de Shakespeare. Première partie: La Roue de Fortune par James Dauphiné, Paris, Societé d'édition ‘Les Belles Lettres’, 1979), pp. 9-34.

  36. Ibid. p. 13.

  37. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston, Beacon Press, 1969).

  38. Ibid. p. 193.

  39. Ibid. p. 146.

Marilyn L. Williamson (essay date July 1968)

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SOURCE: Williamson, Marilyn L. “Fortune in Antony and Cleopatra.JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology 67, no. 3 (July 1968): 423-29.

[In the following essay, Williamson 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.]

The fickle goddess Fortune is the most neglected person of importance in Antony and Cleopatra. Though she looms far larger in that play than in any other of Shakespeare's or in most contemporary plays, one might apply a line from the text to commentators' treatment of her: “We scorn her most when most she offers blows.”1 In Antony and Cleopatra forms of the word fortune appear forty-one times, or almost twice as often as in other high-frequency plays like Lear and Timon.2 Furthermore, two scenes in the play are devoted to fortune-telling—one from Plutarch, in which the soothsayer warns Antony of Caesar's superior fortune whenever the two triumvirs are together (II.iii); the other, entirely Shakespeare's, in which the soothsayer tells the fortunes of Cleopatra's waiting women, an activity much to be expected in the land of the gypsies (I.ii). This latter scene breaks and stays the complicated historical narrative in a way that brings Fortune to our attention at the onset of the action.

When Shakespeare's characters are not talking directly about Fortune, their personal fortunes, or someone else's, they often express themselves in imagery that is associated with Fortune. Such imagery not only takes from the tradition a significance beyond the merely figurative, but it also constantly reminds us of Fortune's role in human affairs and thus leads us to use her to interpret the narrative. Michael Lloyd has pointed out two important groups of such images—those relating to the sea with its constant motion and tides (Antony is the “ebbed man”) and those of games of chance.3 There are additional images, however, that reveal their full significance when one remembers other traditional symbols for Fortune and her behavior. In commenting on Antony's challenge of Caesar for single combat, Enobarbus uses a cluster of such images:

Yes, like enough! High-battled Caesar will
Unstate his happiness, and be stag'd to the show
Against a sworder! I see men's judgements are
A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward
Do draw the inward quality after them,
To suffer all alike, that he should dream,
Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will
Answer his emptiness; Caesar, thou hast subdued
His judgement too.


Caesar is “high-battled” because his fully equipped armies are ready for the engagement and because he is high on Fortune's wheel; he is approaching the top of the wheel while Antony is falling down. Enobarbus moves to an observation that emphasizes the effect of Fortune on character, and then he employs another figure associated with the goddess: the measure of fruit, symbol of the worldly gifts Fortune bestows.4 Antony's measures are empty, and Caesar's are full. Thidias will shortly use the same image to taunt Antony with Caesar's good fortune; he calls his leader “the fullest man, and worthiest / To have command obey'd” (III.xiii.87-88).

Again it is Enobarbus who makes use of another familiar image associated with Fortune when, after Actium, he begins the process of vacillation about his loyalty to Antony. Hearing others plan desertion, he decides to remain loyal: “I'll yet follow / The wounded chance of Antony, though my reason / Sits in the wind against me” (III.x.35-37). The image here involves one of Fortune's most familiar attributes, her winds;5 Enobarbus' reason, like the sail so often also associated with Fortune, would carry him in the prevailing winds along with Canidius and the other deserters, but for Enobarbus' greater loyalty to his leader.

Several times in Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare makes us very much aware of the moon and of the fact that the drama takes place in the sublunary world. Though Enobarbus' address to the moon in his death scene calls on other associations with the moon, it does serve to remind us that we are dealing here with the sublunary world. Such an awareness should develop in us a livelier consciousness of Fortune, who not only was closely associated with the moon,6 but also had her power in the world beneath the moon.7 Cleopatra reminds us that her story takes place below the moon when she follows a gaming image easily associated with the lady of chance with a reference to the moon:

                                                                      … the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.


It is fitting also that as she prepares to kill herself, “to do that thing that ends all other deeds, / Which shackles accidents, and bolts up change” (V.ii.5-6), Cleopatra renounces the moon because she is saying farewell to a variable and unstable earthly life: “Now from head to foot / I am marble constant; now the fleeting moon / No planet is of mine” (V.ii.239-41).

Earlier in the scene with Thidias, when Antony thinks that Cleopatra is about to betray him to Caesar, he exclaims, “Alack, our terrene moon / Is now eclips'd, and it portends alone / The fall of Antony” (III.xiii.153-55). Here commentators have seen Isis in the terrene moon,8 when a more familiar connection fits neatly into the surrounding imagery and the sense of the scene. Antony seems here to be using an image associated with “fortune-following love,” which “eclipses soon / As does the moon that falls into the shade / Of mother earth.”9 The connection with Fortune fits with Enobarbus' figure of Antony as a vessel10—“Sir, sir, thou art so leaky / That we must leave thee to thy sinking, for / Thy dearest quit thee” (ll. 62-65)—and with Thidias' comment to Cleopatra about “wisdom and fortune combating together,” his use of “the fullest man” (l. 87), and the language from games of chance (ll. 90-91, 93, 103). Later in another fit of rage at Cleopatra, when he thinks she has betrayed him for the last time, Antony exclaims, “The shirt of Nessus is upon me, teach me, / Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage. / Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o' the moon” (IV.xii.43-45). Again the Fortune tradition adds richness and significance to the lines. In the classic story Hercules simply flung Lichas high into the air and he landed in the sea, but Antony will lodge him on the symbol of his waning fortune, the pale, horned moon.

This interesting use of what one might call implicit or latent images connected with Fortune, combined with the prominence of the explicit theme of Fortune in Antony and Cleopatra, may be taken to demonstrate that Shakespeare uses the concept of Fortune to interpret his source story. In writing Antony and Cleopatra, however, Shakespeare cannot be said simply to have assimilated a theme already clear in his source, as he seems to have done in Romeo and Juliet. In that play Fortune and the stars are suggested as significant in the action, but they have a similarly important role in Brooke's narrative as well. Now, though Fortune appears in Plutarch's narrative, she is not the Fortune of Shakespeare's play. She is “a planning goddess beneficent to Rome,”11 the fortuna publica of that great city, while Shakespeare's Fortune is the blind, fickle personification of chance and change, the “false huswife” who plays games even with Caesar, who is “but Fortune's knave.” So, we may conclude, Fortune is in Antony and Cleopatra because Shakespeare put her there, and she is the kind of figure he preferred over that in his source.

Fortune seems an appropriate figure to preside over Antony and Cleopatra, not only because the play involves love and war, two of her special provinces,12 but also because both of the principals have many qualities in common with her. Lloyd has made this point about Antony,13 but there remain to be explored those associations and qualities which Cleopatra and Fortune have in common. Both are wanton, alluring, but wavering, changeable women of infinite variety. Both are associated with Isis, with Venus,14 with a serpent:15 “He's speaking now, / Or murmuring, ‘Where's my serpent of old Nile?’ / For so he calls me” (I.v.24-26). And Cleopatra treats Antony very much as Fortune does; he believes himself betrayed by her three times—at Actium, with Thidias, and in the final battle of the play. Though Cleopatra is the character who reminds us of the tradition (“Let me rail so high, / That the false huswife Fortune break her wheel, / Provok'd by my offence,” IV.xv.42-45), Antony's tirades against Cleopatra (IV.xii) are those that most recall the rhetoric of victims' complaints against Fortune. The language that he uses to condemn his beloved could apply equally to Fortune and Cleopatra: she is a “triple-turn'd whore” who plays “at fast and loose” with Antony, “has / Pack'd cards with Caesar, and false-play'd his glory.” The closeness of the invective to traditional speeches inveighing against Fortune not only emphasizes how closely Cleopatra resembles the goddess, but also adds a richness of association to them.

A familiar and important theme in poems and comments about ill fortune is that with adversity “we discover our true friends, and a friend in need is a friend indeed.”16 Shakespeare does more than simply follow Plutarch's narrative in showing us how Antony's descending fortunes quickly reveal that most of his friends, even his dearest, are more friends to his greatness than to him; the dramatist develops this theme beyond what he found in his source by addition to the narrative of Enobarbus' debate with himself about remaining loyal to Antony and his romantic death from agony over betraying his master. Antony's plaintive comment when he hears of Enobarbus' defection, “O, my fortunes have / Corrupted honest men,” is one of a number of statements that show a definite connection between character and fortune.

If adverse fortune corrupts the honest men around Antony, it also reveals significant qualities in Cleopatra, who, as Hardin Craig has pointed out,17 finds “a better life” in her desolation. When Boethius describes the effects of good and bad fortune, he might almost be describing the development of Cleopatra:

I think that ill fortune is of greater advantage to men than good fortune. The latter is ever deceitful when, by a specious happiness, it seems to show favor; the former is ever true when, by its changes, it shows herself inconstant. The one deceives; the other edifies. The one, with a pretense of apparent goods, enchains the minds of those who enjoy them; the other, with a conception of happiness' brittleness, frees those minds. You see, then, that the one is blown about by winds, ever moving and ignorant of self, while the other is sober, ever prepared and prudent through the sustaining of adversity itself.18

Cleopatra herself connects her change with Fortune and announces that, like Boethius' sufferer in adversity, she sees the mundane gifts of Fortune for what they are and is a free person who can willingly embrace the only remedy Fortune really fears on earth—death:

My desolation does begin to make
A better life: 'tis paltry to be Caesar:
Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave,
A minister of her will: and it is great
To do that thing that ends all other deeds,
Which shackles accidents, and bolts up change;
Which sleeps, and never palates more the dung,
The beggar's nurse, and Caesar's.


That she may remain all that she was and still be edified by adversity, as she clearly tells us she is in this passage, is a conception of character complexity not beyond our greatest dramatist. A knowledge of the traditional reactions to bad fortune helps us recognize and assess Cleopatra's development after Antony's death.

While Fortune figures large in Antony and Cleopatra, she is clearly not the all-powerful determiner of the action she might be in a truly Senecan play. Shakespeare seems, like Machiavelli,19 to interpret human affairs as partially the product of character and partially ruled by Fortune. Although we are aware that Caesar is “twenty times of better fortune” than Antony, Enobarbus also tells Cleopatra that Antony is responsible for his own defeat, “that would make his will / Lord of his reason” (III.xiii.3-4). We also should recall that if men make crucial decisions that alter the course of action, the results can change men, who may be corrupted by fortune and whose “judgements are / A parcel of their fortunes.”

The importance of Fortune affects the nature of the tragedy in Antony and Cleopatra in several ways. We seem here not to be dealing with the kind of tragedy of character that Shakespeare perfected in Macbeth and Othello. In place of the exploration of the human interior which Shakespeare presents in the tragedy of character, we have in this play an emphasis on the external world of Roman business and Egyptian pleasure, a world of forces over which the characters, powerful as they are, exercise a limited control. In Antony and Cleopatra two interests replace elaborate analysis of the world within man: a vivid portrait of the things of this world—glory, fame, greatness, sensuous experience—and an emphasis on historical event, which shapes character and is shaped by it. So the audience becomes fully aware, as the characters have always been, of the powerful allure of Fortune's gifts. Except for Cleopatra no one in the story questions the value of those mortal concerns over which Fortune rules. Even after Antony's death, Cleopatra's treasure (riches are the most obvious and crass of Fortune's gifts) becomes an issue between her and Caesar. Indeed Caesar proves to fit perfectly Cleopatra's description of him as Fortune's knave when he emphasizes in his final speech values closely associated with the goddess—fame and glory.

So long as we interpret Antony and Cleopatra as a tragedy of character, we shall find it wanting when compared with Shakespeare's achievements in that mode. As such it becomes shallowly retributive, a sermon against lust,20 upholding “the view, common to vulgar Pagans and vulgar Christians alike, which ‘comforts cruel men’ by interpreting variations of human prosperity as divine rewards and punishments or at least wishing they were.”21 But enter the whimsical deity and the view of life that attends her, and we are treated instead to a spectacle of the most fortunate among us caught in the toils of being human: we are made constantly aware that those who hold most the gifts of Fortune are most liable to lose them, because for all its grandeur that is the way our world is. Shakespeare does not moralize on the instability of earthly estate any more than he is didactic about the love of Antony and Cleopatra. He simply tells the story and lets us learn from Cleopatra's desolation that it is paltry to be Caesar, because though he has conquered the whole world, it is still beneath the visiting moon.


  1. III.ii.73; all references to the play are to the Arden edition, ed. Case and Ridley (Cambridge, Mass., 1956). Only Theodore Spencer has noticed her importance, and he simply remarks on it in passing: “Fortune (the word occurs more frequently here than in any other play) will bring about [Antony's] downfall” (Shakespeare and the Nature of Man [New York, 1942], p. 169).

  2. This count does not include all the traditional words and images for the concept of Fortune, such as the “wounded chance of Antony,” which are also numerous.

  3. Michael Lloyd, “Antony and the Game of Chance,” JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology], LXI (1962), 548-54.

  4. H. R. Patch, The Tradition of the Goddess Fortuna, Smith College Studies in Modern Languages, III (Northhampton, 1922), 152-53.

  5. H. R. Patch, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1927), pp. 102-103.

  6. See Patch, Medieval Literature, p. 50; Michael Lloyd connects this moon imagery with Cleopatra as Isis (“Cleopatra as Isis,” Shakespeare Survey, VIII [1959], 92), but since Fortune is far the more familiar figure and since Fortune and Isis are often identified (W. W. Fowler, “Fortune,” Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. Hastings [New York, 1955], VI, 103), it appears more plausible that the connection would be with Fortune or with both. An audience likely to know Isis would certainly know Fortune.

  7. Patch, Medieval Literature, p. 58; see Boiardo, Orlando Innamorato:

    Tutte le cose sotto la luna
    L'alta ricchezza, e' regni de la terra
    Son sottoposti a voglia di Fortuna.


  8. See gloss in Arden edition, for example.

  9. Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, The Romance of the Rose, trans. H. W. Robbins (New York, 1962), ll. 4799-4801.

  10. “The sea-figure, comparing life to a sea and one's career to a vessel of which Fortune is in charge, is used with such great frequency in discussions of the work of Fortuna that it becomes a theme of unusual importance” (Patch, Medieval Literature, p. 101).

  11. Lloyd, “Antony,” p. 548.

  12. Patch, Medieval Literature, pp. 90-108.

  13. Lloyd, “Antony,” pp. 551-53.

  14. See Patch, Medieval Literature, pp. 96-97, and Antony and Cleopatra, II.ii.200.

  15. See Patch, Medieval Literature, p. 52.

  16. Ibid., p. 74.

  17. “The Shackling of Accidents: A Study of Elizabethan Tragedy,” PQ [Philological Quarterly], XIX (1940), 1-19.

  18. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, ed. J. J. Buchanan (New York, 1957), Book II, par. viii.

  19. In Ch. 25 of The Prince Machiavelli comments, “I think it may be true that fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but that she allows the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us” (The Prince and the Discourses, trans. L. Ricci [New York, 1940], p. 91).

  20. I suspect it is no accident that F. M. Dickey, whose interpretation of Antony and Cleopatra is highly retributive, sees Shakespeare as “minimizing the part of fortune in the tragedy” (Not Wisely But Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies [San Marino, 1957], p. 176). That Shakespeare does not moralize about the instability of worldly estate, as do his Senecan predecessors, is only to say that he is the greater artist; he may suggest subtly what they put more obviously.

  21. C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge, 1964), p. 82.

Charles A. Hallett (essay date January-April 1976)

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SOURCE: Hallett, Charles A. “Change, Fortune, and Time: Aspects of the Sublunar World in Antony and Cleopatra.JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology 75, nos. 1-2 (January-April 1976): 75-89.

[In the following essay, Hallett investigates Shakespeare's combined emphasis on mutability, fortune, and time as defining forces in the pre-Christian world of Antony and Cleopatra.]

Antony and Cleopatra is an account of things in terms of the World and the Flesh, Rome and Egypt, the two great contraries that maintain and destroy each other, considered apart from any third sphere which might stand over against them. How is it related to the plays of the ‘great period’, the period which comes to an end with King Lear? The clue is given, I think, in the missing third term. Antony and Cleopatra is the deliberate construction of a world without a Cordelia, Shakespeare's symbol for a reality that transcends the political and the personal and ‘redeems nature from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to’.

—John F. Danby, Poets on Fortune's Hill

As the design of the seventeenth-century playhouse testifies, the Jacobean world had three levels: the stage represented earth, below it lay hell, and above it heaven. It was the latter realm that provided the values against which all human judgments could be measured. That Shakespeare accepted this division of the world into three zones is a commonplace. Whether he was writing comedy, history, or tragedy, it was the existence of a spiritual level in the universe that offered his characters a fixed point upon which to anchor their lives. Throughout Shakespeare, the lower world was in constant flux, but one could find rest from its turmoil by turning the mind from the temporal to the eternal. In doing so, one perceived that the chaos of the lower world was only apparent, that behind it, its source in divine love, lay order. And to perceive order was to perceive meaning.

In The Merchant of Venice we find the typical Shakespearean multileveled universe. The serene harmony of Belmont results from the awareness in its inhabitants of another level of being above their own which orders the motions of the heavens in a great cosmic symphony:

Sit, Jessica: Look, how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb, which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.


Understanding their relationship to the universe and the necessity of emulating on earth the love that creates harmony out of chaos in the heavens, these characters are never lost in the world. It is no accident that the lovers in Merchant of Venice are noted for their wise judgments—Bassanio for seeing through appearances and selecting the lead casket, though it required him to “give and hazard all he hath,” Portia for counseling Shylock on the relationship of mercy to justice. Their judgments, based on the notion that earthly power is best when it “shows likest God's,” are accurate and final.

In Antony and Cleopatra, there is no Christian heaven, no divine truth against which decisions can be weighed. Shakespeare has identified Rome itself with reason and Egypt with passion, but he has not seen fit to include a reconciling Jerusalem which would give meaning and direction to the lives of his characters. The result is that in Antony and Cleopatra the world is surprisingly hostile. Agrippa, for example, complains that the Romans seem to be compelled by Nature to “lament their most persisted deeds.” One character after another finds that the world keeps canceling out his judgments and forcing him to change his mind. Nothing is stable. Some seek satisfaction in the cold-hearted pursuit of Fortune, who was ever a fickle mistress. Antony and Cleopatra find meaning in love, but this, too, lacks permanence; when death comes to the loved one, meaning drains out of the world once again. There are few characters in Shakespeare to whom the world seems more totally absurd than it does to Cleopatra:

                                                                                          All's but naught;
Patience is sottish, and impatience does
Become a dog that's mad.


Few conclude, as she does, that nothing “shackles accidents, and bolts up change” save death.

Critics have now and then noted in passing that there is something different about the world of Antony and Cleopatra, that the multileveled universe which Shakespeare assumed in the majority of his plays has disappeared, but if they have speculated at all on the matter, it has generally been to mark this down to a falling off in Shakespeare's powers,2 to insist that Shakespeare was drawing “a world beyond providence,”3 or to otherwise miss the point. Those whom we would most expect to have noticed what Shakespeare was up to—the “complementarious” critics like Smith, Spencer, and Shapiro who have studied the dualities and ambiguities which characterize the world of the play4—are the last to associate ambivalence with a fragmented world. And both Smith and Shapiro speak disparagingly of John F. Danby, who did.5 What modern-day critics see immediately is that the world of this play very closely resembles our own; what they forget is that no Jacobean would have mistaken it for the complete world. To the Jacobean, the world of Antony and Cleopatra was the sublunar world.

The failure of commentators to make the fine distinction between what we today call the “real” world and what was known in the seventeenth century as the “sublunar” world has resulted in certain critical blind spots. Among scholars who are sympathetic to the lovers, there is a widespread neglect of studies which turn up evidence that their love is a physical rather than a spiritual love (strains of imagery embodied in the play associate the love of Antony and Cleopatra and their worship of pleasure with the baser appetites, for example), and there is also a failure to distinguish between the kinds of transcendence that are possible in the world. The words “transcendence” and “immortality” are rather loosely bandied about and no care is taken to associate with the play only those kinds of transcendence conceivably available to characters who are denied access to higher levels of knowledge. Moreover, among those scholars who see ambivalence as the theme of the play there is a tendency to make Shakespeare into a relativist. Failing to see that it is the absence of the meaning-bearing level in the universe of the play that prevents the characters from finding fulfillment in their world, such critics argue that the plight of the characters is the plight of the audience, which is not necessarily the case at all. If the play is viewed from the vantage point of the multileveled universe from which it was written, these errors can be eliminated. But to gain that vantage point, we must first be willing to agree that the world of the play is incomplete.

That the play is set in pagan Rome may seem ample reason for Shakespeare's omission of a New Jerusalem. Yet, after all, neither Shakespeare nor his contemporaries were citizens of Rome, nor were they archaeologists striving for an accurate scientific reconstruction of it. The Rome we see is a poetic Rome, vastly different in landscape and structure from the Rome we find in history. It is not so much a place as a metaphor, just as Venice and Belmont are in The Merchant of Venice, as Denmark is in Hamlet, and as the Island is in The Tempest. Therefore, had Shakespeare wished to endow his classical setting with a Christian Jove, he most certainly would have done so. But he added something else instead: he embellished Plutarch's pre-Christian setting not with a stabilizing heaven but with all those unstable attributes traditionally associated in Christian-Humanist thought with the mundane world (e.g., Fortune, Time, Change). It seems that he meant us to see in the setting of Antony and Cleopatra a metaphor for the “lower world.”6

Much has been made of the ambivalence in Antony and Cleopatra, but little has been said of its subservience to the theme of change. Whereas in the seventeenth century the realm of the infinite was characterized by stillness, permanence, and rest, the finite world was defined by motion and was therefore subject to change. Change, reigning over all “mortall things beneath the moone,” was the very essence of the world's imperfection. In his anatomy of this unruly force in The Faerie Queene, Spenser even makes Mutability (rather than Eve) responsible for the Fall ( Her world is a flawed world. Such, Shakespeare is at great pains to prove, is the world of Antony and Cleopatra. Spenser's Mutability, who failed in Nature's court to make good her claim to dominions beyond the moon, would have had little trouble in proving her authority over the “wide-rang'd empire” of Shakespeare's play, for Shakespeare has deliberately drawn for us a constantly shifting world, a world that contains no fixed star by which wandering barks can take their bearings. Impermanence, he stresses, is found on all levels—the natural, the social, the personal. It permeates existence. And for Antony and Cleopatra, there is nothing beyond.

Building a case for a Whitmanesque blending of the lovers with the whole universe at the end of the play, Knight erroneously supposed that the melting and dissolving of elements was one form of the mating theme; elements, he said, mingled like lovers.7 This is hardly Shakespeare's point. In Antony and Cleopatra, elements deceive. Shakespeare has made the lovers uniquely aware of the unreliability of the natural world. Whereas he allowed Lorenzo and Jessica to look into the sky and find there assurances of divine love and the soul's immortality, he permits Antony to deduce from it only instability and deception:

Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish,
A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower'd citadel, a pendant rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon't, that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air: Thou hast seen these signs;
They are black vesper's pageants. …
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.


And if the air “mocks our eyes,” making us believe that we see substance where there is none, water is equally culpable here, for it has set the example for air. Shakespeare reminds us, throughout the play, of the way water changes from ice to liquid to vapor; it “melts” and “dissolves.” One of the four elements, it transmutes itself and becomes air. Earth, too, melts and dissolves. Antony and Cleopatra foresee that Rome, a kingdom of “clay,” will in time “melt” into the Tiber, and Egypt into the Nile, whereupon earth will then become water. But change in the natural world is without predictable direction; water can also become earth, as the receding Nile does in Egypt. Cleopatra rejects life on the grounds of its mutability; the very food which the earth provides to sustain life, she knows, was formerly dung, and, whether it be fed to Caesar or to a beggar, will shortly become dung once again. There is nothing in the natural world that can “bolt up change.”

The political world whirls as chaotically as the natural. Whereas in the history plays the actions of great men serve to reveal the pattern of divine retribution which gives unity to the apparent chaos of events, in Antony and Cleopatra men are up or down only according to whether they are up or down. History here, and the characters are very much concerned with time past, is merely the recounting of the vagaries of Fortune. Sextus Pompey recollects that his father, Pompey the Great, was overthrown by Julius Caesar, who was overthrown by Brutus and Cassius, who were overthrown by Antony and Octavius, whom he, Sextus Pompey, now challenges. Had Pompey succeeded, a pattern might have emerged, but he does not succeed.

Since the leaders of society hold their offices so briefly, the loyalties of those beneath them are understandably transitory. Both Caesar and Antony tell us that the populace wavers in its loyalties as naturally as the oceans reverse their tides:

It hath bin taught us from the primal state
That he which is was wish'd until he were;
And the ebb'd man, ne're lov'd till ne're worth love,
Comes dear'd by being lack'd. This common body,
Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,
Goes to and back, lacking [i.e., lackeying] the varying tide,
To rot itself with motion.


As Octavius sees the “slippery people” who in the past had deserted Pompey the Great now flocking to support Pompey's son, and then, on the example of Menas, deserting him as suddenly, so Antony will witness his soldiers, one by one, transfer their hearts from himself to Caesar, and will see his fleet, once impeccably loyal, turn from enemies of Caesar to “friends long lost.” Again, motion is the rule. Everything in the political world of Antony and Cleopatra changes, but changes without measure, without purpose. As Antony notes, change seems to occur simply because “quietness, grown sick of rest, would purge / By any desperate change” (I.iii.53-54).

If change is the essence of the macrocosm and of the body politic, it is equally central to the microcosm—man's mind itself is a victim of flux. Spenser's Mutability boasts that in this lower world not only do men's bodies “flit and fly; / But eeke their minds (which they immortall call) / Still change and vary thoughts, as new occasions fall” (F.Q. VII.vii.19). Just as variable are the thoughts of the characters Shakespeare has created in Antony and Cleopatra; the instability which they detect in the universe and the state renders them unable to make final judgments.

Shakespeare makes us aware that individual judgments, in a world of change, are to a large extent necessarily meaningless. Antony locates the good in a different place almost every time we meet him; as the wheel of circumstance rises, then sinks, he is flipped from Cleopatra to Fulvia, from Fulvia to Octavia, from Octavia back to Cleopatra, and, having finally settled upon “royal Egypt” as the ultimate good, nevertheless vacillates between faith and mistrust in his attitude toward her. Shakespeare locates the source of Antony's inconstancy in mutability:

                                                            The present pleasure,
By revolution low'ring, does become
The opposite of itself: she's good, being gone;
The hand could pluck her back that shov'd her on.


As it revolves, the ever-whirling wheel of change forces him to be continually revising his judgments. Cleopatra, too, is flipped about by change. She had loved Caesar—in her “salad days,” when she was “green in judgment” (I.v.73-74). Her judgment now is otherwise. And the “horrible villain” who brings her news of Antony's marriage becomes “a proper man” on a later occasion when he flatters her majesty. In a world where thoughts change and vary, as new occasions fall, and loyalties are reversed more as the rule than as the exception, Enobarbus is remarkably constant. Yet even his relatively stable judgment is shown by Shakespeare to be wavering. The moment comes when he, too, finds it meet to desert Mark Antony—only to be flung about-face once again by the occasion of Antony's generosity. Man himself, in this play, is shown to be no less changeable than his environment.

Shakespeare, then, has taken great pains to create a world which is never at rest. He has depicted a world whose basic rhythms are those of the tides and whose inhabitants are swept first toward Rome, then toward Egypt, and at the end of the play back toward Rome once again. This imagery of change is not peculiar to Rome, nor is it confined to Egypt, but embraces both halves of this secularized world; the Roman Empire itself stands as a personification of the mutable world. No wonder then that this world is paradoxical, ambiguous, perplexing.

To say that the constant dissolving and rearrangement of impressions in this kaleidoscopic world of change is based on contemporary notions of mutability is not to deny the contribution of the “complementarious” critics. As usual, a commonplace contemporary insight has become in Shakespeare's hands a lamp that throws a brilliant and penetrating light, illuminating, in this case, through an intricate structure of ambiguities, paradoxes, and contradictions, the very essence of the phenomenal world. But Shakespeare does not depend upon ambivalence alone to define the restless world he wished to create; he has linked with the Roman Empire other conventional iconographical attributes of the secular world—Time, which brings each individual into conflict with an endless procession of present but fleeting moments, and Fortune, that area of change which is concerned with the material happiness of the individual. Because critics who deal with ambivalence—indeed, critics of the play in general—tend to undervalue the role of the latter and, so far as I know, have neglected the former almost completely, our perceptions need sharpening in these areas if our definition of the finite world is to be complete.

As Michael Lloyd has noted, Shakespeare's concept of Fortune differs markedly from that of Plutarch. The latter depicted Fortune as an agency which works to bring Augustus to power. In Shakespeare, we find the goddess as she appeared in Medieval and Renaissance thought, subjecting man to “chance,” “hazard,” or “hap.”8 Symbols of her fickleness—the changing moon, the rudderless ship, the fluctuating tides—are everywhere apparent. As with the imagery of change, the fortune imagery is structural, and suggests a world that is constantly in motion; much of the action reflects the turning of Fortune's wheel.

The old adage that “the whele / Of slipper Fortune, stay it mought no stowne, / The wheele whurles vp, but strayt it whurleth downe”9 is well illustrated by the rise and fall of Sextus Pompey, whose invasion of Rome motivates the action during the first two acts. Early in the play, Pompey likens himself to a new moon (“My powers are crescent, and my auguring hope / Says it will come to th' full” [II.i.10-11]). His own daring, the support of the malcontents in Rome, and Antony's negligence bring Pompey to the point where he is feared by the Triumvirate and ultimately admitted to the bargaining table as their near-equal; his powers do indeed “come to the full.” At this point, he must decide whether “to try a larger fortune” ( or to accept the one he has. Pompey makes the wrong choice. The cynical Menas, who understands the world, prophesies that Pompey “doth this day laugh away his fortune” (, and offers him one last chance to stay on top of the wheel (II.vii.60-76). Again misjudging the world and choosing the honorable course over the opportune one, Pompey enters his decline. Thenceforth, his fortunes are “pall'd” (II.vii.85).

The fate of Pompey at Fortune's hands sets the pattern for the decline of Antony in the remaining acts. With the defeat of the invader, the reunification of the Empire, and his marriage to Octavia, Antony's fortunes are at their height; like Octavia, he “stands upon the swell at full of tide” (III.ii.49). Then, with an unremitting force that gives direction to the surface undulations pointed out by those critics who emphasize ambivalence, Fortune thrusts Antony downward. Antony, too, misjudges the world. Ironically, he returns to Egypt convinced by the Soothsayer that his “fortunes shall rise higher” only if he separates himself from Caesar (II.iii.17). But, alas, in Egypt, under Cleopatra's spell, he almost immediately gives himself up “merely to chance and hazard / From firm security” (III.vii.47-48) by attempting to make sailors of his infantry. The result is that “our fortune on the sea is out of breath, / And sinks most lamentably” (III.viii.36-37). Bad fortune proliferates itself; Antony's effort to recoup his honor by challenging Caesar to personal combat, stemming as it does from still another faulty judgment, only contributes to his decline:

                                                                                I see men's judgments are
A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward
Do draw the inward quality after them
To suffer all alike. That he should dream,
Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will
Answer his emptiness!


Nor is Antony unaware that he is losing ground:

My good stars, that were my former guides,
Have empty left their orbs and shot their fires
Into th' abysm of hell.


It is to his credit that he does not make himself “Fortune's knave,” as Caesar does, but continually scorns Her blows (III.ix.74-75; IV.iv.4-5). But in terms of the play, it is good judgment (i.e., the worldly wisdom of Caesar) that overcomes chance, and, having lost his judgment, Antony is doomed to a life in which “his fretted fortunes give him hope and fear / Of what he has and has not” (IV.viii.22-23). Though a temporary victory lifts his spirits, his defeat is inevitable, and his loss of the battle at Alexandria convinces him that he has hit bottom (“Fortune and Antony part here, even here / Do we shake hands” [IV.viii.33-34]). Traditionally, such events could catapult a man from one level of being to another; Philosophy came to Boethius at such a moment. But Shakespeare is not writing a Consolation of Philosophy; he merely leaves Antony puzzled.

The wheel turns for Caesar as well as for Pompey and Mark Antony. Shakespeare has so associated the fortunes of Antony and Caesar that each step in Antony's decline ensconces Octavius more firmly at the top of the wheel. The relationship between Antony's fortunes and Caesar's becomes explicit when the latter states, “I must perforce / Have shown to thee such a declining day, / Or look on thine” (V.i.39-41). As Antony's death approaches, Octavius becomes the “full-fortun'd Caesar” (IV.xi.25) and Cleopatra assumes the role of “his fortune's vassal” (V.ii.29). But Shakespeare makes Caesar's victory as empty as Antony's defeat. We tend to agree with Cleopatra that “'Tis paltry to be Caesar: / Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave, / A minister of her will” (V.ii.2-4). Moreover, the mere fact that he has reached the top is cause for concern; Shakespeare, using still another commonplace drawn from the iconography of fortune, hints that Antony's fall is a “mirror” in which Caesar “needs must see himself” (V.i.36-37). Despite his seeming triumph, even Caesar will find no rest. By relating the action of the play to the turning of Fortune's wheel, then, Shakespeare has once again insisted that we recognize the instability of the world with which the characters are confronted.

The fortune imagery is not merely decorative, nor does it serve a moral function as it does in Mirror for Magistrates; those who reject interpretations which view the play as an exemplum are wise to do so. Like the imagery of time and change, the imagery focusing upon fortune serves rather to characterize the world in which not only Antony and Caesar and Pompey but their subordinates as well must live their lives. Every character in the play is quite conscious of the capricious power of this “false huswife.” Yet each has no choice but to play her game: whatever security he has in the world can be maintained only by pleasing Fortune. To win from her such rewards as she will bestow, or to retain those that have been won, is thus the primary goal of each Roman soldier Shakespeare has introduced into the action. To remain in Fortune's favor, Caesar gears his whole life to the necessities of time. To obtain her rewards, Pompey raises an army to challenge Caesar. In her name, Ventidius sets out under Antony's banner to conquer Parthia, Canidius and Alexas desert the Egyptian cause for the Roman, and Dercetas finds it politic to carry his dying general's sword to Octavius. So important is this urge among the Romans that the worst punishment Dolabella can imagine is that he “might never / O'ertake pursu'd success” (V.ii.102-103). We are not told why these characters wish advancement; it is enough for us to know that, in Rome, reason dictates such a commitment.

In order to rise on the wheel of Fortune, it is necessary, in the world Shakespeare has created, to harken to the commands of Time. What appeared in Julius Caesar merely as a wise observation, made by Brutus at a crucial moment, has become in Antony and Cleopatra a major strain of imagery. “There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to Fortune; / Omitted, all the voyage of their life / Is bound in shallows and in miseries” (Julius Caesar IV.iii.217-20). To a degree that would have astonished Brutus, the characters in Antony and Cleopatra must live by this rule. Time, in Antony and Cleopatra, is not Time the Grim Reaper, who affects men mainly in old age. Even less is it the Bringer of Truth. More fitting to its function as an aspect of the sublunar world, it is an unpredictable and quickly changing Time, Time as Occasion. Time in this play means the present moment, and Shakespeare has so arranged things that human reason, the seat of judgment in the mind, is the slave of occasion. For every moment, there is an appropriate action, and it is up to each individual to sense, to guess, to judge what that action is, and then to take it. The more knowledge at his command, the better will be his judgment. But if he is to sup at Fortune's table, his judgments must always be made in direct response to Time.

This tyranny of Time, Time's insistence that individuals set aside their work or their play to do his bidding, is stressed by Shakespeare throughout the play. It is Time that parts Antony from Cleopatra:

The strong necessity of time commands
Our services awhile, but my full heart
Remains in use with you.


It is Time that forces him to repay Pompey's kindness with hostility:

I did not think to draw my sword 'gainst Pompey,
For he hath laid strange courtesies and great
Of late upon me …
                                                                                Time calls upon's.
Of us must Pompey presently be sought,
Or else he seeks out us.


And it is Time that takes Antony from Octavia and catapults Caesar into Egypt to avenge her:

                                                                                Cheer your heart;
Be you not troubl'd with the time, which drives
O're your content these strong necessities,
But let determin'd things to destiny
Hold unbewail'd their way.


In a world where one's fortunes depend upon one's response to Time and where Time is constantly demanding new judgments, the mind can never rest. There are always new occasions developing instant by instant, new decisions to be made. To stand still is to be left behind. Moreover, a judgment is no sooner made than the times, ever-changing, render it invalid. We have seen that the occasion of Fulvia's death served to unsettle Antony's judgment of Fulvia and to make him question his commitment to Cleopatra. As situations change, former events take on new meanings, so that old judgments must constantly be revised. But the Time that Shakespeare has depicted is more insidious still. At the same moment that one is revising his own judgments, others are revising their judgments of him. Antony, for example, finds to his confusion that Caesar keeps “harping on what I am, / Not what he knew I was” (III.xi.143-44). And if the temper of the times demands it, these judgments may be biased. Actions that, when taken, had increased one's honor may in time be deemed the result of happenstance, as evidenced by Antony's impassioned command to Eros, “Do't at once, / Or thy precedent services are all / But accidents unpurpos'd” (IV.x.84-86). Similarly, judgments that were universally taken to be dishonorable may, if occasion demands, be reinterpreted favorably, as when Caesar's policied reaction to time leads him to pity the scars upon Cleopatra's honour “as constrained blemishes, / Not as deserv'd” (III.xi.59-61) and to view the willed injuries she had given him “as things but done by chance” (V.ii.119-21). A man's reputation in the world, indeed his very honor, which Shakespeare has defined in part as the respect bestowed by one's peers upon the individual who has succeeded in conducting himself with good judgment,10 is therefore at the mercy of Time. Under such circumstances, judgments become to a large extent totally meaningless. Even the best reasoned judgments cannot give stability to this world of Time. The reward of the individual dedicated to Fortune and to Time, then, is to be deprived of all hope of ever being able to rest. He must keep changing.

Not all of this has gone unremarked, yet its significance is not always clearly placed. One reads in a key article on ambivalence that “the richness of Antony's humanity increases with the instability of his attitudes.”11 Surely this is a travesty of Shakespeare's meaning. What we must grasp from Shakespeare's emphasis upon change is what his audience would have assumed immediately: change is destructive. One must conquer it, rise above it. The natural—Edenic—state of man is the state of rest. As long as Mutability holds her sway, or as long as one's mind is centered in the mutable, one can never be sure of one's position in the world. At the beginning of the play, Cleopatra will ask in jest, but the question reflects reality:

Why should I think you can be mine and true,
(Though you in swearing shake the throned gods)
Who have been false to Fulvia?


And toward the end of the play Antony, mistrusting Cleopatra, will find reasons in her past for his mistrust:

I found you as a morsel, cold upon
Dead Caesar's trencher; nay, you were a fragment
Of Cneius Pompey's; besides what hotter hours,
Unregist'red in vulgar fame, you have
Luxuriously pick'd out. …


Perhaps the most touching expression of the uncertainty that lies at the heart of all human affairs in this world which offers its tenants no quietude is made by Antony:

I made these wars for Egypt, and the queen—
Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine,
Which whilst it was mine had annex'd unto't
A million more, now lost—she, Eros, has
Pack'd cards with Caesar. …


Having been whipped about by Mutability from the beginning to the end of the play, Antony is ultimately led to feel that, like the moist clouds that evaporate into air, he also cannot hold a visible shape (IV.x.14).

The unprecedented emphasis on change, fortune, and time in characterizing the world of Antony and Cleopatra, then, should warn us that Shakespeare was using the Roman Empire as a symbol for the sublunar world. The emphasis becomes even more obvious, however, when we compare the Rome of Antony and Cleopatra to that found in the other Roman plays. Forms of the word “fortune” occur forty-five times in Antony and Cleopatra but only thirteen times in Coriolanus and seven times in Julius Caesar, a fact which clearly testifies to Shakespeare's desire to associate the world of Antony and Cleopatra specifically with the realm of Fortune. And while the word “time” occurs with almost equal frequency in each play,12 neither in Julius Caesar nor in Coriolanus does Time necessitate actions to the degree it does here. In Coriolanus we learn from references to time by the main characters that an action taken in the present may have dire consequences at a future moment (deeds “will in time break ope / The locks o' the senate” [III.i.136-37]). We also learn that, as in Antony and Cleopatra, man's actions, to be successful, must be carefully timed (II.i.272-78, III.iii.19-22). Yet where in Octavius' empire Time “commands”—indeed, “drives”—men to action, in Coriolanus' republic, Time only “prompts” (III.i.5) and sometimes merely “craves” (III.ii.33). Time in Julius Caesar is even less compelling. The images in this play, when not absolutely neutral (“many a time and oft”), serve most frequently to underscore the upset in nature that accompanies the death of Caesar (“it is a strange disposed time”) or to describe the alloted life-span of man (“so to prevent the time of life”). Just as Othello's Venice is vastly different from Antonio's, so the Rome of Antony and Cleopatra is distinguished from Shakespeare's other Romes.

In arguing that Shakespeare used symbols of impermanence usually associated in his time with the sublunar world throughout Antony and Cleopatra, I am not suggesting that change is the theme of the play; I merely wish to point out that Shakespeare has taken great pains to associate his Roman Empire with the phenomenal world. The play itself is, after all, about Antony and Cleopatra—about love. What Shakespeare had to say about this love that required him to exclude from the world of the play that higher level of reality which in his age was understood to instill meaning into the lower world must be the subject of another essay and can only be touched on briefly here.

That Shakespeare should turn his attention abruptly from the problem of evil in a multileveled world to a study of man's relationship to the mundane world at almost the very moment Donne and others were complaining that all coherence was gone should not be surprising. It is common for studies of the era to note that the old values were breaking down under the onslaught of the new learning, that the Elizabethan world was giving way to the Jacobean, harmony and order to pessimism and doubt. And speculations run high as to what Shakespeare's reaction was to the emerging new order. Some say, with Jan Kott, that he embraced the change and became an advocate for the new, others claim he escaped into romance, others that he found no escape and fell into silence. Whatever one sees as Shakespeare's ultimate stand on the question, it does seem highly probable that before he arrived at it he would have mused on what the effects of a truly secular world-view would be.

To a man used to thinking in historic as well as dramatic terms, the Rome of Antony and Cleopatra must have seemed, metaphorically, just such a world—Rome, the paradigmatic physical world, and the lovers, the embodiments of masculinity and feminity. With this as his metaphor, not as a moralist but with the coolness of a dispassionate scientist, Shakespeare has observed and recorded—without distortion—the futile lives of these demigods stripped of their wings. As always, he was able to pierce through to the fundamental issue—whether, spiritual love gone, eros can support the weight of the world. If this theme escaped the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critics, one can excuse them, since it was not one they ran into every day. However, today, as we reach the totally secularized society and as the life-sustaining quality of eros has emerged as one of the fundamental dogmas of our times, this critical oversight seems a little less understandable. But if today the liturgy of eros sometimes reaches the level of farce, the question remains serious. All else having failed, has physical love sufficient dimension to grant significance to life? In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare has given us an almost clinical analysis of eros, its power and glory, but also its ultimate inability to sustain itself and those who venture all in its cause.

But Shakespeare's metaphor opened other aspects of the secular world as well. What in fact would a virtue—any virtue—be in a world cut adrift from the notion of a summum bonum? Ultimately there would be no virtues; everything would resolve itself into ambiguity and relativism. Or, in terms of the metaphors of the play, judgments—the necessary basis of any meaningful life—would be impossible.


  1. All quotations from Shakespeare are from the Yale edition. Citations to Antony and Cleopatra specifically are to The Tragedy of Antony and Cleoptra, ed. Peter G. Phialas, The Yale Shakespeare (New Haven, 1955).

  2. Virgil Whitaker, The Mirror Up To Nature (San Marino, Calif., 1965), pp. 281-83.

  3. Julian Markels, The Pillar of the World: “Antony and Cleopatra” in Shakespeare's Development (Columbus, 1968), p. 149.

  4. Marion B. Smith, Dualities in Shakespeare (Toronto, 1966); Benjamin T. Spencer, “Antony and Cleopatra and the Paradoxical Metaphor,” SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] 9 (1958), 373-78; Stephen A. Shapiro, “The Varying Shore of the World: Ambivalence in Antony and Cleopatra,MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly], 27 (1966), 18-32. I am following Homan's precedent in adopting Rabkin's term “complementary” to describe this particular approach to the play; see Sidney R. Homan, “Divided Response and the Imagination in Antony and Cleopatra,PQ [Philological Quarterly], 49 (1970), 460; and Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York, 1967), pp. 185-88 and p. 191, n. 22.

  5. John F. Danby, Poets on Fortune's Hill (London: 1952), p. 149.

  6. I refer here to the Empire as a whole, as distinguished from Rome itself. However, I do not mean to contest the accepted practice of interpreting the Roman and Egyptian halves of that Empire as symbols of reason and passion (or honor and love). Rather, I would argue that if the parts have metaphorical functions, the whole might be expected to have a symbolic value as well.

  7. G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme (London, 1965), p. 236.

  8. Michael Lloyd, “Antony and the Game of Chance,” JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology], 61 (1962), 548. The reader will find discussions of related aspects of the imagery of fortune, which it seemed unnecessary to duplicate here, in Lloyd's study and in that of Marilyn Williamson, “Fortune in Antony and Cleopatra,JEGP, 67 (1968), 423-29.

  9. Thomas Sackville, Mirror for Magistrates, 3 vols., ed. Joseph Haslewood (London, 1815), II, 312.

  10. See Curtis Brown Watson, Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor (Princeton, 1960), pp. 68-69.

  11. Shapiro, p. 24, quoting David Daiches. William Blisset, “Dramatic Irony in Antony and Cleopatra,SQ, 18 (1967), 161, tells us that Antony's rage is “a rage gloriously refreshing to us who do not wish a hero to be always patient.” Here again the point has been missed.

  12. Antony and Cleopatra, 42; Coriolanus, 39; Julius Caesar, 32. Figures in this paragraph are from Martin Spevack, A Complete and Systematic Concordance of the Works of Shakespeare, III (Hildesheim, 1968).

D. Douglas Waters (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Waters, D. Douglas. “Fate and Fortune in Romeo and Juliet.Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 74-90.

[In the following essay, Waters illuminates the significance of fate and fortune in Romeo and Juliet and explains how the intersection of chance circumstances, seemingly irrational forces, and human contingency come together to produce a tragedy written in the stars.]

In critical discussion of Romeo and Juliet in the last three decades or so, there are at least three significant ways of approaching the play: 1) traditional character-study as the key to the tragedy, 2) a recent de-emphasis on the genre of tragedy in favor of discussion of culture, sexual difference, and ideology, and 3) the role of fate as the key to the tragedy. The complexity of these issues necessitates clarification of my own critical stance. First, I think the character-study critics have overemphasized the study of character in this play, but not because I think, as Christopher Norris writes in “Post-Structuralist Shakespeare: Text and Ideology” (1985), that character-study in itself is naive.1 Still, what Norris writes might have at least some bearing on Romeo and Juliet. Second, I admit that my representation of many current approaches to this play as de-emphasizing the genre of tragedy is in itself a debatable judgment and one possibly subject to some few slight exceptions of which I am not aware. Third, I intend here to open up the debate about fate and fortune in Romeo and Juliet and to reargue their importance in the play's tragic pattern. I shall operate in the hybrid tradition of historicist/formalist concerns for ideas in history which possibly have some bearing on the form of the tragedy. I am conscious of the dominant influence of Murray Krieger's Theory of Criticism: A Tradition and Its System (1976), Poetic Presence and Illusion: Essays in Critical History and Theory (1979), Words About Words About Words: Theory, Criticism, and the Literary Texts (1988), and other works including his introductory essay in The Aims of Representation: Subject/Text/History (1987), where he agrees with David Carroll's emphasis in another essay in this same volume, “Narrative, Heterogeneity, and the Question of the Political: Bakhtin and Lyotard.” Here Carroll refers to the frustration and reaction recent critics have made “to the fact that formalism in some form or other just won't go away no matter how often and how forcefully history and politics are evoked to chase it away.”2 Carroll then adds significantly:

Another version of formalism always seems ready to rise out of the ashcan of history to take the place of previously discarded versions. This may in large part be due to the fact that the critique of formalism has too often taken the form of a naïve, precritical historicism, one whose shortcomings certain types of formalism (for example, a certain Russian formalism and early, critical structuralism) have quite effectively exposed and challenged. Such critiques, rather than being post-formalist (or post-structuralist, if this term has any sense), are really preformalist (prestructuralist). Perhaps the problem even is not really how to become post-formalist at all, as if one could ever really leave the problem of form behind, but rather how to establish a critical perspective on form and history that does not depend on either formalist or historicist, post-formalist or metahistorical assumptions.3

In an essay entitled “Poetic Presence and Illusion II: Formalist Theory and the Duplicity of Metaphor” Krieger makes a significant distinction between “narrow formalism” and “broad formalism.” A narrow formalism, which was associated in various ways by various critics with the once “New Criticism” in America, “equated formalism with aestheticism as a doctrine which would cut the art object off from the world while treating only its craftsmanlike quality as an artifact.”4 This definition of narrow formalism has been erased by the efforts of structuralists and poststructuralists during the last three decades. Krieger defines broad formalism as follows:

At its broadest, formalism must recognize (and has recognized) the several elements in the aesthetic transaction to which the word “form” may be applied. There is the imaginative form as it is seen, grasped, and (it's to be hoped) projected by the mind of the poet; there is the verbal form, at once diachronic and synchronic, that is seen, grasped, and projected in the course of the reader's (or, in stage production, the audience's) experience; and there is the form that becomes one of the shapes which culture creates for its society to grasp its sense of itself.5

These broader concerns with form bring us “closer to that original sense of form bequeathed to us by its Kantian heritage, a sense of form which ties it at once to our vision of the world.”6 Krieger elaborates as follows:

This would make nonsense of those anti-formalist claims that denigrate the study of form by seeking to empty form out, excluding all worldly relations from it. … [Form] is what gives us the shapes of our world, the creation of the worldly stage and its objects within which we move. … Form in this sense is primal vision and, far from escaping reality for empty shows, it becomes power that constitutes all the “reality” which we feel and know. A formalism deriving from such a fundamental notion of form—precisely the notion of form which philosophers have left with us for two centuries—must be phenomenological as well as anthropological from its very outset.7

Though Krieger is not discussing Shakespeare and though I shall not be concerned here primarily with literary theory as such, I mention these assumptions because they are the groundwork for my study of tragic form in Romeo and Juliet. The chief bone of contention in tragedy being form and the chief neglect among structuralists and post-structuralists being literary form, it is easy to see why relatively few books have been written on the nature of tragedy, either Shakespearean or otherwise, in the last decade or so. In this context, my purpose is to reargue the importance of fate and fortune in the tragic pattern of Romeo and Juliet. But first I must examine some recent treatments of the tragedies in general and Romeo and Juliet in particular. Terry Eagleton in William Shakespeare (1986), a book which is, of course, not typical of all approaches, writes about plays in all genres and explains that he does so with “no particular attention to generic divisions, the importance of which seems to be overrated.”8 Stephen Greenblatt's recent book, Shakespearean Negotiation: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (1988), is less interested in tragic patterns (which many recent critics assume to be either static or unimportant or both) than in defining what he sees as Shakespeare's larger cultural and political ideas. Though Greenblatt concedes the importance of genre, included in what he calls “formal and linguistic design” which “will remain at the center of literary teaching and study,” he says that in this book he intends “to look less at the presumed center of the literary domain than at its borders” in an attempt, by tracking “what can be glimpsed, as it were, at the margins of the text,” to offer “insight into the half-hidden cultural transactions through which great works of art are empowered.”9

Madelon Gohlke in “‘I Wooed Thee with My Sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms” (1980) gives a provocative reading of Shakespeare's tragedies in the light of Theseus' words in A Midsummer Night's Dream (quoted in Gohlke's title); she asserts that there is in the tragedies “a matriarchal substratum or subtext within the patriarchal text. The matriarchal substratum itself, however, is not feminist.” She views Shakespeare's tragedies “as a vast commentary on the absurdity and destructiveness” of the masculine defensive posture of defining “femininity as weakness” and of instituting “the structures of male dominance designed to defend against such an awareness.” Her frontal attack on Freud's concept of “femininity as weakness” is a healthy tonic in itself, an idea worth further consideration in relation to the tragedies; but the formal design of the tragedies will not always fit into her Procrustean bed of sexual difference. But this is not the place to argue about tragedies other than Romeo and Juliet; though I do not wish to deny that, as Gohlke notes, Romeo momentarily perceives “himself as having been feminized by love,” I simply reply that this attitude does not, in itself, cause the tragedy.10 Fate is against both of the lovers—but this is to anticipate my argument.

I wish to glance now at the article by Edward Snow, “Language and Sexual Difference in Romeo and Juliet.” The main contribution of this article, as I see it, is not his main point—the sexual difference of the lovers—but his implications about the positive value of love in both title characters. Review of his thesis is unnecessary here—for my concern is with his slight attention to the tragedy (or more correctly his dismissal of it) and what I see as a wrong-headed interpretation of Romeo's alleged limitations in love as his apparent sharing of something “with the male protagonists in Shakespeare's darkest treatments of love and sexual desire.” Snow admits to the practice of what contemporary critics are fond of expressing metaphorically as reading not the text but the margins of Shakespeare's text: Romeo and Juliet's subtler affirmations have to do not with romantic love but with female ontology.”11 This is quite all right if one chooses to respond to “the margins of the text” in such a way, but surely one can also—if she or he wishes—take an old-fashioned look at the text of Romeo and Juliet itself. When she does, she will find after all that the real text is a tragedy regardless of how we may pretend that it is not. The tragic fate of the lovers—not their sexual difference—forces them both (not just Romeo) to experience a lack (not in themselves) and an estrangement (but not from one another). I think one of the best recent analyses of Shakespeare's early love tragedy is Coppélia Kahn's “Coming of Age: Marriage and Manhood in Romeo and Juliet,” a part of a chapter in her Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (1981). Much of what she writes about love and “the feud as an extreme and peculiar expression of patriarchal society, which Shakespeare shows to be tragically self-destructive,” is reasonable and very well taken. Shakespeare's creation of our deep sympathy for Juliet as she is bullied by her authoritarian father is enough in itself to justify many of Kahn's remarks about the inhumanity of patriarchy in Verona. Her stress on the feud is also effective, but only as far as it goes: The inheritance from their feuding parents “makes Romeo and Juliet tragic because it denies their natural needs and desires as adolescents.” But I wish here to contest the validity of Kahn's view that “the feud in a realistic social sense is the primary force in the play—not the feud as an agent of fate.”12 In order to show the weakness of this assumption I intend, as I noted above, to reopen this complicated, long standing, and important controversy.13 Thus, I shall contend that Romeo and Juliet is indeed a tragedy of fate, and I shall argue the relevance of astrological ideas (including fate and chance) in Ptolemy and Seneca and the concept of fortune (chance) in Seneca. Kahn's concessions in this regard are quite revealing:

Undeniably, the feud is bound up with a pervasive sense of fatedness, but that sense finds its objective correlative in the dynamics of the feud and of the society in which it is embedded.14

Again, she grants the following point:

It cannot be denied that through the many references to fate Shakespeare wished to create a feeling of inevitability, of a mysterious force stronger than the individuals, shaping their courses even against their will and culminating in the lovers' death.15

But her real point is that fate is really unimportant in the play, making the following assertion, which, as she reminds us, Gordon Ross Smith made in 1965:

The play employs fate not as an external power, but as a subjective feeling of the two lovers. And this subjective feeling springs understandably from the objective social conditions of life in Verona.16

In arguing for Shakespeare's use of fate in the tradition of Ptolemy and Seneca, I shall glance in both directions—toward the current critics in the tradition of Gohlke, Snow, and Kahn and toward the traditional critics of the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's, who were mainly character-study critics. Unlike most traditional criticism which discusses Romeo and Juliet in the light of astrology or fortune, I propose treating the play in light of both these elements, for Seneca is in much the same astrological camp as Ptolemy and in his plays and prose works discusses fortune quite often.17

Just as fate and fortune (chance) are both significant in Ptolemy and Seneca, Shakespeare makes similar use of fate and fortune in Romeo and Juliet; specifically, the dramatist's treatment of astrology is much more like that of Ptolemy and Seneca than the usage of English Renaissance astrological writers such as Christopher Heydon, Richard Harvey, and Robert Burton. The dramatist does not, for example, even hint that a Christian God is behind the stars, unlike the others mentioned here who, in the words of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), contended that the stars “rule us, but God rules them” (I. ii. 4.).18 F. E. Robbins, the translator of the Tetrabiblos in the modern Loeb Classical Edition, notes significantly that Ptolemy “took, in general, an Aristotelian position philosophically, though his predilection for mathematics led him to regard that division of science with far greater reverence than the more biologically minded Aristotle.” Robbins reminds us, “The book is a systematic treatise on astrology but it should be remembered that in Ptolemy's time” astrology and astronomy were the same “and that he called what we mean by ‘astrology’ … prognostication through astronomy.”19

Ptolemy divided the subject of astrology into two areas: universal aspects and particular aspects. Universal or general astrology, which treats the movements of planets, the sun, and the moon and their influence throughout the realms of nature and nations, is developed in Books I and II; and particular or “genethlialogical” astrology, which treats the influence of celestial bodies on the destiny and fortune of individual human beings as parts of the realm of nature, is developed in Books III and IV. In both theory and practice Ptolemy stressed the importance of prognostication. He anticipated and answered the objection about the “uselessness of prognostication” based on the assumption “that foreknowledge of events that will happen in any case is superfluous.”20 He argued, first,

that even with events that will necessarily take place their unexpectedness is very apt to cause excessive panic and delirious joy, while foreknowledge accustoms and calms the soul by experience of distant events as though they were present, and prepares it to greet with calm and steadiness whatever comes.21

This much is based on the assumption that some things in the world happen by necessity. Then Ptolemy, taking recourse to a set of “first causes” correspondent to concepts perhaps implied in Aristotle's “unmoved mover,” admitted that “the movement of heavenly bodies … is eternally performed in accordance with divine, unchangeable destiny”; in Aristotelian fashion again Ptolemy was interested in discussing changes in “earthly things,” not in defining the nature of ultimate causes. Here, again paralleling Aristotle, Ptolemy emphasized the fact that “the change of earthly things is subject to a natural and mutable fate, and drawing its first causes from above it is governed by chance and natural sequence.22 And here is where astrology is focused; Ptolemy cleared up one popular misconception about necessity as follows:

We should not believe that separate events attend mankind as the result of the heavenly cause as if they had been originally ordained for each person by some irrevocable divine command and destined to take place by necessity without the possibility of any other cause whatever interfering.23

In order to clarify this assumption further Ptolemy employed his famous distinction between universal and particular astrology as follows:

Some things happen to mankind through more general circumstances and not as the result of an individual's own natural propensities—for example, when men perish in multitudes by conflagration or pestilence or cataclysms, through monstrous and inescapable changes in the ambient, for the lesser cause always yields to the greater and stronger; other occurrences, however, accord with the individual's own natural temperament through minor and fortuitous antipathies of the ambient.24

Ptolemy believed the heavenly bodies operate by necessity but contended that, in the government of earthly things, where chance and natural sequence have parts to perform, necessity is not absolute but a matter of degree. Some earthly events therefore take place necessarily, and others take place contingently.

Seneca treated astrology in Quaestiones Naturales (63 or 64 a.d.) and “De Consolatione and Marciam.” In the first mentioned work, for example, he discussed the significance of comets through the use of a sympathetic analogy comparing them with astrologers or “the Chaldaean soothsayers who tell what sorrow or joy is determined at birth by the natal star.”25 He accepted here what Ptolemy later called particular or “genethlialogical” astrology and what people in Shakespeare's day called “judicial” astrology. Seneca's emphasis again on the limitations of the Chaldeans appears in the following passage from Quaestiones Naturales (II. 32):

The Chaldaeans confined their observations to the five great planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn plus the sun and the moon). But do you suppose that the influence of so many thousands of other bright stars is naught? The essential error of those who pretend to skill in casting the horoscope lies in limiting our destinies to the influence of a few of the stars, while all that float above us in the heavens claim some share in us.26

He asked Marcia to imagine, in “De Consolatione ad Marciam,” that the sun, moon, and “the five planets … whirl through their unwearied rounds” and to imagine also that “on even the slightest motions of these hang the fortunes of nations, and the greatest and smallest happenings are shaped to accord with the progress of a kindly or unkindly star.”27 Here are anticipations of Ptolemy's universal astrology and perhaps even particular astrology. Seneca's well-known stress on fate as an unalterable force appears in Natural Questions (II. 34, 35, 36, 37, and 39) and his plays. He defined fate as “the binding necessity of all events and actions, a necessity that no force can break.”28

As Kahn is herself aware, many traditional critics assume that Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet never makes unambiguous allusions to the astrological importance of individual nativities;29 still he does give details which are suggestive of it. With the “foresight” of an astrologer, he has the Chorus (the Prologue to Act I) foretell that:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.


Connecting here the “star-cross'd lovers” and “the fatal loins of these two foes” (the feud), Shakespeare suggests some malignant influence from the stars at the times of the lovers' birth.30 To the degree that the lovers are “star-cross'd” and their love is “death-marked,” to that degree these references can be interpreted in the light of Ptolemy's particular astrology. Here the stars can symbolize fate as external circumstances both cosmic and social (not just social as Kahn would have them). In harmony also with Ptolemy's view Shakespeare underscores Romeo's following sense of foreboding and/or premonition of fate:

                                                            My mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels, and expire the term
Of a despised life clos'd in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.

(I. iv. 106-11)

This is an example of the dramatist's practice of having characters, in the words of Don Cameron Allen in The Star-Crossed Renaissance (1941), “assuming that stars dominate the flesh and perhaps the spirit of man.”31 Romeo suspects that this night will ultimately be fatal to him, as indeed it will be. After many “misadventures” (which are not all the fault of the lovers themselves) and when he hears the news of Juliet's supposed death, Romeo defies his stars, again a symbol of “inauspicious” fate:

Is it (e'en) so? Then I (defy) you, stars!

(V. i. 24)

Upon reaching Juliet's tomb and after having killed Paris, Romeo vows to put his body beyond the influence of the stars:

                                                                      O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh.

(V. iii. 109-12)

As in the instance of Oedipus leaving Corinth so as not to kill his “father” and yet killing Laius, his actual father, on the road to Thebes, in Sophocles's play as well as Seneca's, Romeo and Juliet's malignant fate, symbolized by the “inauspicious stars,” ironically uses their deaths for its own ends.

If one objects that there are too many Christian allusions in Romeo and Juliet for Ptolemy's and Seneca's ideas to have much, if any, significance, I respond that Shakespeare's Christian setting in Renaissance Verona came from his source, Arthur Brooke's narrative poem, The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), with all the paraphernalia of institutionalism such as the church, the priest, the daily mass, the religious and cultural conventions of marriage, and Juliet's authoritarian parents. These are mere outward trappings of Christianity, and in no way do they indicate an interest on Shakespeare's part in Christian theology as Roy W. Battenhouse and others would wish us to believe.32

If one wishes to do so, he or she might explain Shakespeare's use of fate in Romeo and Juliet in terms of what Stephen Greenblatt calls, in a discussion of I Henry IV, the dramatist's use of “subversiveness,” but not necessarily in an exclusively political and social context.33 As I have suggested, fate in the play can be seen in a number of instances other than in the Prologue to Act I: the first street fight, where the Prince's doom of death for the next offenders will ironically affect Romeo, and the “star-cross'd” lovers' meeting and falling in love before learning that they are enemies.

Shakespeare shows that fate works not only through the feud but also through chance, human contingency, and accident. That fate works through chance occurrence is also suggested in a number of ways: for example, by having the illiterate servant ask Romeo to read Old Capulet's list of invited guests, by Romeo seeing Rosaline's name on it and attending the party, by Romeo later attempting unsuccessfully to avoid a fight with Tybalt, and by the miscarrying of Friar Lawrence's letter. Shakespeare, in the scene where Mercutio and Tybalt are killed, has woven together the workings of fate, fortune (chance), and human contingency. True, some philosophers and some literary critics are quick to assure us that if all things occur by the necessity of fate, then fate would exclude chance and human contingency. But neither Ptolemy nor Seneca contended that all things are controlled by fate to the point of excluding everything else. I have explained that Ptolemy believed “unchangeable destiny” governed the heavenly bodies and that Seneca claimed fate was, in some sense, unalterable. However, Ptolemy, as was also noted earlier, conceded that “earthly things” are controlled by “natural and mutable fate,” and Seneca agreed that some events in this world occur by chance without any conflict with fate. So, coming back to the duel scene, we can see that fate as a mysterious, cosmic force operating in external circumstance in connection with the feud forces Romeo into a fight with Tybalt. The hero tries to be a peacemaker, but Tybalt's insult to him is challenged by Mercutio, the latter getting himself killed in the circumstances which are now obviously beyond Romeo's control. So his attempt to avoid a fight is useless; he is involved in spite of his trying to avoid such involvement. He cries:

This day's black fate on moe days doth depend,
This but begins the woe others must end.

(III. i. 119-20)

In these fatal circumstances fortune (chance) aids fate by causing Mercutio's death (while Romeo stood between him and Tybalt) and by abandoning Romeo to irrational forces. The element of human contingency works in a number of ways, including Tybalt's refusal to accept Romeo's reason for not fighting, Mercutio's taking Romeo's part and thus fighting for his friend's honor, and Romeo's thinking “it all for the best” that he step between Mercutio and Tybalt. The chance killing of Mercutio by Tybalt is thus in harmony not only with fate but with the cosmic and social chain of events against Romeo. Now that Romeo fights Tybalt and kills him there is indeed a sense in which he is, as he says, “fortune's Fool” (III. i. 136). Now Fortune, who is not interested in morality or justice, has not only not given the good individual (Romeo as peacemaker) a break by allowing him to avoid a fight but also has aided fate in that Mercutio's chance death by Tybalt has brought Romeo into a fight at last. At this point Fortune turns her back on Romeo, using him as a plaything in that she abandons him to irrational forces. As the Chorus in Seneca's Hercules Furens puts it, “O Fortune, jealous of the brave, in allotting thy favours how unjust art thou unto the good!”34 In pseudo-Seneca's Octavia the Chorus connects fate and fortune (chance) as follows: “Our mortal race is ruled by fate, … each coming day … brings ever-shifting chances.”35 Here fate does not exclude chance but works through it. In the Chorus' lament in Seneca's Hippolytus we have the same ideas on fate and fortune (chance): “Fate without order rules the affairs of men, scatters her gifts with unseeing hand, fostering the worst …” (1: 399) and “How chance whirls round the affairs of men!”36 Fate is without order to the extent that it sometimes works through chance. Again, in the duel scene, where Mercutio meets his death by chance and human contingency, Fortune has been unfair to the brave Romeo, just as fate, a necessary cosmic and social chain of external events, has been against the lovers from the beginning. Here also fate works through chance. When the compulsion of external circumstances (including the chance killing of Mercutio) renders Romeo susceptible to irrational forces within himself, he exclaims:

Away to heaven, respective lenity,
And fire (-ey'd) fury be my conduct now!

(III. i. 123-24)

So in this duel scene where Tybalt is killed by Romeo, Shakespeare shows that there are pervading here, as elsewhere in the overall structure of the drama, the dooming presence of fate, fortune (chance), human contingency, and irrational forces involving Romeo in the violation of the Prince's law, a law which he has tried to avoid breaking.37

Another emphasis by the dramatist on the interaction of fate and fortune (chance) occurs just after Juliet calls on Fortune: “Be fickle, Fortune: / For then I hope thou wilt not keep him long, / But send him back” (III. v. 62-64)—where Old Capulet by chance insists that Juliet marry Paris, accelerating matters from Thursday to Wednesday. Those critics intent on condemning the lovers, and thus clearing God of any responsibility in their piteous destruction, must simply ignore this element outside the control of the lovers. Shakespeare also has Juliet protest the unfairness of her fate as follows:

Is there no pity sitting in the clouds
That sees into the bottom of my grief?

(III. v. 196-97)

This is not unlike the protests of characters in Seneca's plays. Megara, the wife of Hercules in Hercules Furens, says, “Unrighteous fortune seldom spares the highest worth”;38 and Jason, in Medea, like Juliet doubting the existence of pity in the clouds, seems momentarily to doubt the existence of justice: “O holy justice, if in heaven thou dwellest, I call thy divinity to witness.”39 And Oedipus in Seneca's Oedipus: “By fate are we driven; … all things move on in an appointed path. … To each his established life goes on, unmovable by any prayer.”40

Again, instead of making fate a force—as Kahn and others say—existing subjectively only in the minds of the lovers, Shakespeare shows objectively in the plot itself that the lovers' fate includes such chance occurrences as Friar John's failure to deliver Friar Lawrence's letter to Romeo—a failure which Friar Lawrence refers to as “unhappy fortune” (V. ii. 17) and as an “accident” (V. iii. 251)—Romeo's reception of the untimely message of Juliet's supposed death, Friar Lawrence's late arrival at the Capulet monument, Romeo's death, and Juliet's awaking only after Romeo's death. Upon seeing Romeo dead, Friar Lawrence exclaims, “Ah, what an unkind hour / Is guilty of this lamentable chance!” (V. iii. 145-46). Though as a Christian priest the Friar might apologize according to Christian options, his statement to Juliet—“A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents” (V. iii. 153-54)—would in the context of the play make some orthodox Catholics and especially most Protestants (Lutherans and Calvinists and some Church of England men like Jewel, Whitgift, William Fulke, and others) cringe because it could remind them of classical ideas of Ptolemy and Seneca; in Greenblatt's terms the cosmic implications of fate would be too subversive for comfort. It is no wonder that, unlike Shakespeare, the Christian critics blame the lovers rather than cast any reflection on God by reading fate as a cosmic force. Shakespeare apparently had no worries about his unorthodox implications—or apparent contradictions.

Critics—usually character-study critics—too easily assert or imply that if Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of fate, then fortune, action on the part of the characters, and accident are out of place.41 All these stipulations—which in fact Shakespeare's practice defies—may hold for philosophy and/or literary theory, but all we need to remember is that tragic drama is not philosophy. And where the latter is violated—as it is in Romeo and Juliet—we must jettison not the drama but the theory. Those critics who deny that Romeo and Juliet is a successful tragedy of fate do so on grounds foreign to the play itself; if we attend to the classical concepts of fortune and fate in the play, the tragedy can be seen as effective indeed in a somewhat similar manner as that of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. As Kenneth Muir noted in Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence (1972),

It may be suggested the fate of Oedipus depends even less on character than Romeo's does, and not many would question the greatness of Oedipus Rex.42

In the light of recent discussions which do not define the tragedy in the play (or in Kahn's separation of the feud from fate and banishing the latter) and in the light of the impasse of traditional criticism which denies that it is a tragedy, it will perhaps be permissible for me to summarize here what makes the tragedy. Romeo and Juliet has two young people of the utmost worth, dignity, and importance who are mainly victims of cosmic, natural, and social circumstances beyond their control. Their love and loyalty to each other endear them to the extent that we are conscious of the fact that they are nobler and more praiseworthy and hence more important than any other character in the drama; their attempts to live together on their own terms allow them to grow toward maturity and thus elevate their worth as human beings. Fate in collaboration with fortune (chance), human contingency, and accident upsets the timing of the events in their efforts to live together as husband and wife. The tragedy is that fate as cosmic and social circumstance works against them and does not allow them to prosper. Because they live and die on their own terms, they and their love triumph in death. They triumph spiritually in that they win even when they lose. But paradoxically this is their tragedy, that the timings of fate are so against them throughout their short career as lovers that they are doomed to die as the only means of destroying their parents' strife (and we have known this fact from the beginning). If we feel that the price which they had to pay was too much for the social gains that were accomplished—and surely this is what we do feel—then perhaps that very feeling bespeaks the power of the play as a tragedy. Only if we demand a priori that tragedy be of only one kind—tragedy of character—can we pretend that the workings of fate, fortune, and accident disqualify Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy.


  1. Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 47-66. Much of the research for this article was made possible by a sabbatical grant from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire School of Graduate Studies and University Research Committee during the Fall 1987. I wish to thank especially Dr. Ronald N. Satz, Dean, Graduate Studies, and Director, University Research, for this generous support of my studies on the tragedies of Shakespeare.

  2. David Carroll, “Narrative, Herterogeneity, and the Question of the Political: Bakhtin and Lyotard,” The Aims of Representation: Subiect/Text/History, ed. Murray Krieger (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 69-106, 69-70.

  3. Carroll, p. 70.

  4. Krieger, Poetic Presence and Illusion: Essays in Critical History and Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 139-68, 140.

  5. Krieger, Poetic Presence and Illusion, pp. 140-41.

  6. Krieger, Poetic Presence and Illusion, p. 141.

  7. Krieger, Poetic Presence and Illusion, p. 141.

  8. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. ix.

  9. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. 3-4.

  10. Madelon Gohlke, “‘I Wooed Thee with My Sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms,” The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lentz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 150-70, esp. 161, 163, 162, and 159.

  11. Shakespeare'sRough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, eds. Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1985), pp. 168-92, esp. 173 and 170.

  12. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), pp. 84, 85.

  13. Though Kahn herself gives a useful review of this controversy (84-85), that by Gordon Ross Smith, “The Balance of Themes in Romeo and Juliet,” is more complete in Essays on Shakespeare, ed. Gordon Ross Smith (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 15-66, but these accounts have been superseded by G. Blakemore Evans's treatment in his “Introduction” to the New Cambridge Shakespeare of Romeo and Juliet (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), treating the most vexing questions as follows:

    Is Romeo and Juliet in the usually accepted sense a successful tragedy or an experiment that fails to come off? Is the play a tragedy of Fate or a tragedy of character? Or is it both?

    (p. 13)

    As everyone recalls, there are many responses to each of these questions. To the first, there are those, like H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1971), who contend that it is unsuccessful, hence a failure as tragedy (mainly because of Shakespeare's stress on fate); in contrast to this view, there are those, like Franklin M. Dickey, “Not Wisely But Too Well”: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1957), and John F. Andrews, “The Catharsis of Romeo and Juliet,Contribute Dell' Instituto Di Filologia Moderna, Serie inglese (I. Milano: Catholic Univ., 1974), pp. 142-75, who think it is a successful tragedy. To the second question—whether it is a tragedy of fate or a tragedy of character—some like Andrews, again, argue that it is a tragedy of character. As G. Blakemore Evans, Kahn, and Gordon Smith remind us, the older view—taken by Boas (1896), E. K. Chambers (1929), E. E. Stoll (1937), and Bertrand Evans (1950 and 1979)—is that it is a tragedy of fate. One complicating factor is that many character-study critics link the tragedy up with Christian theology—another aspect which some critics of our time do not really accept and which no one has thus far attempted to refute. The emphasis on the Christian ideas of Providence, destiny, and fortune has been supported by Irving Ribner in “‘Then I Denie You Starres’: A Reading of Romeo and Juliet,Studies in English Renaissance Drama in Memory of Karl Julius Holzknecht, ed. Josephine W. Bennett, Oscar Cargill, and Vernon Hall, Jr. (Washington Square: New York Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 269-86, and John F. Andrews (1974) but, again rejected by Bertrand Evans (1950 and 1979), who does not really try to define any tradition other than the Christian view; he does reject traditional Christian ideas of Providence and fate and, in “Fate as Practiser: Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare's Tragic Practice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 22-51, suspects “that Fate is malign and aware rather than benign and unaware” (32). Unlike Bertrand Evans, I am interested in my paper in re-evaluating Romeo and Juliet in terms of classical ideas of fate and fortune. My purpose is to show that this aspect of the play, which many contemporary critics ignore, is important to an understanding of the tragedy's form and meaning.

  14. Kahn, Man's Estate, p. 84.

  15. Kahn, Man's Estate, p. 99.

  16. Kahn, Man's Estate, p. 99.

  17. See such background studies as Howard R. Patch's The Goddess Fortune in Medieval Literature (New York: Octagon Press, 1961; first prtd. 1927), p. 4, and Frederick Kiefer's Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1983), p. xvii, both showing the prevalence of Fortune and chance. Kiefer treats sixteenth-century “doubts and fears of a culture whose faith in providential design was at times precarious” (p. xvii). He devotes Chapter I, “Pagan Fortune in a Christian World,” to medieval and Renaissance popularity of Fortune, to “the efforts of Christians to come to terms with a pagan symbol of change and contingency,” p. 2.

  18. Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (Philadelphia: Clayton, Remsen and Haffelfinger, 1875), p. 130.

  19. Robbins, ed., Claudius Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos, 1940 (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press; London: Heinemann, 1964), pp. vii, citing F. Boll, Studien (1894) pp. 66-111, 131-63, and ix. This edition is used throughout.

  20. Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, I. 3.11, p. 23.

  21. Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, I. 3.11, p. 23.

  22. Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, I. 3.11, p. 23, italics added.

  23. Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, I. 3.11, p. 23.

  24. Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, I. 3.11, pp. 23 and 25.

  25. Seneca, Physical Science in the Time of Nero Being a Translation ofThe Quaestiones Naturalesof Seneca, trans. John Clarke, with Commentary and Notes by Archibald Geikie (London: Macmillan, 1910), VII. 28, p. 302.

  26. Seneca, Quaestiones Naturales, II. 32. p. 81.

  27. Seneca, “De Consolatione and Marciam,” Moral Essays, trans. John Basore, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press; London: Heinemann, 1965), II: pp. xviii, 2-3, p. 59; II: xviii, 3, p. 61.

  28. Seneca, Quaestiones Naturales, II. 36, p. 84.

  29. The arguments by E. B. Knobel, “Astronomy and Astrology,” Shakespeare's England: An Account of the Life and Manners of His Age (1916), 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950), 1: 444-61, and Carroll Camden, “Astrology in Shakespeare's Day,” Isis, 19 (1933), 26-73, are, in my estimation, the most useful. The article by Moriz Sondheim, “Shakespeare and the Astrology of His Time,” Journal of the Warburg Institute, 2 (1938-39), 243-59, which asserts that Romeo and Juliet is not a tragedy of fate in the sense that the influence of the stars is crucial, is offset by that of John W. Draper, “Shakespeare's Starcrossed Lovers,” Review of English Studies, 15 (1939), 16-34; but this latter work and that of James C. Smith, “Ptolemy and Shakespeare: The Astrological Influence on Romeo and Juliet,Selected Papers from the West Virginia Shakespeare and Renaissance Conference 7, 2 (1982), 66-70, do not make distinctions between Renaissance and medieval implications on the one hand and on the other hand those of classical writers like Ptolemy and Seneca.

  30. See also Kent's words in King Lear: “It is the stars / The stars above us govern our conditions” (IV. iii. 32-33). Though there are variously contrary views given characters in other plays (for example, Cassius in Julius Caeser [I. ii. 139-41]; Helena in All's Well That Ends Well [I. i. 216-19]; Prospero in The Tempest [I. ii. 178-84]; and Edmund in King Lear [I. ii. 118-33]), in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has the Chorus give premonitions of the ill workings of fate as seen in the stars. I quote throughout from Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  31. (New York: Octagon Press, 1966), p. 167.

  32. See Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 103, 128-29, and 150 on Romeo and Juliet. See also Ribner and John F. Andrews on theology in the play.

  33. Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 43.

  34. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies, trans. Frank Justus Miller, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press; London: Heinemann, 1960). l: p. 51.

  35. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies. 2: p. 485.

  36. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies. l: p. 399 and l: p. 411.

  37. The idea of Edward H. Cain, “Romeo and Juliet: A Reinterpretation,” Shakespeare Association Bulletin, 22 (1947), 163-92, that Romeo “perishes because of a tragic flaw or weakness in his character” (p. 190), is not exact, for this medieval and Renaissance scale of values cannot, as I attempt to show in my text, account for classical ideas of fate and fortune in the play; Shakespeare did not limit himself to the presentation of a tragic flaw in the lovers, as Cain himself admitted. Too many chance happenings and accidents occur in the course of the play so that not everything can be attributed to the weakness of the lovers.

  38. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies, l: p. 29.

  39. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies, l: p. 265.

  40. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies, l: pp. 515 and 517

  41. Those who judge the play a failure as tragedy include H. B. Charlton, G. B. Harrison, and Clifford Leech. In Shakespearian Tragedy (1948) Charlton wrote that “as a pattern of the idea of tragedy, it is a failure” (p. 61). Harrison complained in Shakespeare's Tragedies (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), about Shakespeare's use of “unlucky accident” or “sheer bad luck” (p. 48) and the immaturity and lack of “fullness” in the lovers—both maturity and fullness, he wrote, “tragedy requires” (p. 64). And Leech, in “The Moral Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,English Renaissance Drama: Essays in Honor of Madeleine Doran and Mark Eccles, eds. Standish Henning, Robert Kimbrough, Richard Knowles (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1976), concludes, “we cannot find that tragedy has fully emerged” and “(it) is above all the casualness of the play's cosmology that prevents us from seeing it as tragedy fully achieved” (p. 73).

  42. (London: Hutchinson Univ. Library, 1972), p. 35.

Stanley J. Kozikowski (essay date winter 1980)

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SOURCE: Kozikowski, Stanley J. “The Allegory of Love and Fortune: The Lottery in The Merchant of Venice.Renascence 32, no. 2 (winter 1980): 105-15.

[In the following essay, Kozikowski offers a reading of The Merchant of Venice that focuses on the play's lottery scenes as allegorical interludes depicting the rivalry of virtuous Love and capricious Fortune.]

Recent criticism of The Merchant of Venice has found the allegorical approach quite useful in accounting for the play's primary moments, its characters, and its themes.1 But even as these studies offer instructive and complementary readings, one memorable series of actions in the play—the lottery scenes—has not been related, as established Tudor allegory, to other aspects of the play. We may, in certain respects, understand this reluctance to assimilate. The lotteries seem to bear no obvious thematic relationship to the values of justice and mercy which serve to unify the play for many readers.2 These scenes, moreover, appear to be less indebted to established literary or dramatic conventions than do other episodes of the plot. And because so little attention has been paid to their analogues, the formal composition of the lotteries has been virtually neglected. It is inviting, however, to point out, by examining such overlooked dramatic structures, that Shakespeare's lottery scenes were indeed readily identifiable as Tudor allegory. We may examine the casket scenes in relation to equivalent motifs in sixteenth-century English drama, some of which were popular and no doubt well-known to Shakespeare. We may subsequently define the formal allegory of the lotteries and show in what respect its focus extends most significantly to the play's major concerns, and helps generate with extraordinary irony a telling perception, worthy of Shakespeare's subtle grasp of human generality, regarding the relationship between Jew and Christian. The lottery is thus given a powerful thematic resonance in The Merchant of Venice. And in our review of the dramatic heritage of these scenes, we find their features incorporated, as formal allegory, in earlier Tudor moralities and drama.

Shakespeare's lottery scenes, when read as allegorical interludes, closely resemble a patterned plot found in earlier Tudor drama. In this plot we observe the action of certain lovers to be controlled by personified determinants—Love and Fortune—who “contend” against each other and who “triumph” over each other. This rivalry between Love and Fortune for the control of human destiny appears in Gismond and Salerne (1567-68), The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1582), and in a play attributed to Kyd, Solimon and Perseda (c. 1589-92). The allegorical figures in these Love-Fortune plays are usually seen at choric intervals taking varying credit for the actions of participants in the main plot who usually seem oblivious to the higher conflict which supposedly determines their fates. A closely related motif is found in earlier, secular morality drama, where we find the competition taking place between Virtue and Fortune, in such plays as Impatient Poverty (1547-48), The Longer Thou Livest, the More Foole Thou Art (c. 1560-68), and The Contention Between Liberality and Prodigality (c. 1560-69), appearing later in Thomas Dekker's Old Fortunatus (1599). The figures of Virtue and Fortune in these plays point out the instructive difference between Humilitas, the first Christian virtue, and Fortuna, the proverbially untrustworthy object of secular desire. These semi-allegorical or “hybrid” plays3 illustrate their dualistic theme in interludes which, as in the Love-Fortune plays, provide a thematic perspective by which to view the ongoing events of the literal plots.

The lottery scenes in The Merchant of Venice likewise present a “contention” between Love and Fortune which leads to the “triumph” of virtuous love. In the former respect, the vying suitors embody those characteristics as seekers of love or fortune by which their fates are determined: Shakespeare's contention between Love and Fortune plays off fortune hunters against a man who discovers his love for a woman; and obscure to all suitors is the formal role which Portia is made to assume in the lotteries. In the presence of those who hazard more for fortune than for love, Portia behaves much like the Goddess Fortune. And to Bassanio, who hazards more for love, Portia emerges in her attractive humanity as a “maiden” in love. Portia, therefore, whether as Lady Fortune or as this modest young lady in love, represents the appropriate object of contending human desire and her lottery the means of resolving such contention, as best it may, to her advantage. Also, aside from its appearance in the moralities, the contention between Fortune and Virtue can be found in the indefinite but probable sources of the casket story itself, which illustrates that from the store of Fortune's gifts Covetise chooses wrongly and Virtue well.4 In The Merchant of Venice, these choices are made by Portia's presumptuous suitors and Bassanio respectively. The legend on the correct casket states, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”5 Those who choose “wrongly” are those who merely “desire” or who believe that they “deserve” Portia's fortunes of wealth, thereby ignoring her gift of love. Bassanio hazards to win as one who is led by humility; and by his loving virtue he wins the lady of the lottery, who comes forth in a disposition which exactly parallels his.

But when petitioned by worldly suitors bent only upon self-gain, Portia is delineated with the secular eminence, dispensatory manner, flattering deception, and guileful withholding of favor which typified the unpredictable Goddess Fortune herself. To feature this theme Shakespeare includes Portia's love among the attractions of the lottery to suggest that Fortune's influence need not be upon love directly, but upon gifts sought by those who falsely profess love to gain them. Those who seek to win profit or advantage by their love are indeed easily led by Fortune. And the object of such misguided, secular love, represented as the object of worldly “desire” and “desert,” is, fittingly, the lady Portia, whose name derives from portio, for “fate,” “final end,” as well as “wife's dowry.”6 Portia is first mentioned, invested with the radical meaning of Fortune, as the very center of secular attention: suitors from all over the world go to her remote yet accessible dwelling place to be made rich by her.7 And at the outset of the play Portia's fortunes are described as the basis of her attraction. Even Bassanio at first does “wind about” a way “How to get clear of all the debts I owe” (I.i.134)—“her name,” he soon adds, “is Portia”:

Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth;
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors. …


Bassanio in the forthcoming contention wishes to “hold a rival place” among the suitors of this woman of “worth,” who is “richly left,” “nothing undervalued,” and a “golden fleece” who can make one “fortunate” (161-76).

Although Portia is complexly woman, Shakespeare presents her in the conventional manner of Fortune's ambivalence before those who think that they “desire” or “deserve” fortune. In the well-known guise of Fortuna bifrons, she shows herself fair and yet proves foul to those who seek material advantage more than love. Also, by imitating Fortune's seeming dispensatory ways, Portia assumes that most representative activity of the Goddess—her responding to the petitions of worldly suitors with gifts favorable and unfavorable which she arbitrarily distributes. Analogously, this allegorical configuration—Fortune's dispensation of gifts by lottery—was a popular presentational image at the time of Shakespeare's play both on the public stage and at royal entertainments. This carefree, unpredictable worldly distributive posture was featured in works by Dekker, Chapman, Davies, and later by Jonson; and it very well could have influenced Shakespeare's dramatic conception of the lotteries, which could not have been written without it in mind so prevalently did it appear in drama. In Dekker's Old Fortunatus, Fortune herself runs a “deepe Lotterie,” offering six “gifts” to petitioners: “wisedome, strength, health, beautie, long life, and riches,”8 the greater part of which, as Dekker probably and therefore facetiously knew, were traditionally understood to be under the providence of Nature; thus it appears that however the suitor chooses from Fortune's obscure and dubious lottery here, he stands in some danger. Aside from the Dekker analogue, two other ceremonialized lotteries bear close thematic resemblances to Shakespeare's. A woman in the disguise of Fortune runs a lottery especially for courtiers in love at the end of Chapman's An Humourous Day's Mirth (1597). She appears among her suitors and distributes at random a large array of “prizes” and “posies” which are favorable and unfavorable.9 And in a court entertainment by Sir John Davies appropriately entitled A Lottery, Queen Elizabeth is herself celebrated as presiding over the lottery of Fortune, assuming the Goddess' prerogatives as she distributes mariners' gifts to those presumably anxious to attain royal favor. Davies' sophisticated lottery guards the Queen's generosity from any claim of entitlement; and the implication holds firm, as it had for centuries, that court preferment in any case need not proceed by merit.10 In any one of the three instances, the dramatist makes the point, by represented personification or personage, that worldly goods or “gifts” are distributed neither by claim nor reward, but are granted purely by whim of mystery, masquerade, or majesty. Relatedly, the unmerited, even frivolous, dispensatory act, so central to the comedy of Ben Jonson, is presented with the caprice of Fortune in mind in The Alchemist when Dapper is gulled into wearing Fortune's “petticoat” and a blindfold from her “smock” before he mindlessly relieves himself of certain goods sought by his tricksters. Adorned with Fortune's garment and blindfold, Dapper proves “fortunate,” perhaps, in being only the victim of comic deceit. Blinded like his fickle prototype, he gives indiscriminately, being urged to “Keep nothing that is transitory.”11 The assumed dispensatory role of Fortune dealing by lottery took on varied popular forms in the naturalistic art of Tudor drama.

Portia, in the proverbially deceitful and capricious guise of Fortune, presides over a lottery which proves adverse to those who desire or who think that they deserve gain or advancement. And in accord with the drama of contention between Fortune and Love or Virtue, the special favor or “gift” of Portia's love cannot be won by lovers of prosperity alone—for it “will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who shall rightly love” (I.ii.35-36). To those who wrongly love, those who seek to “win” or to “cozen” fortune by their professions of love, Portia proves to be as unfavorable as Fortune. Prior to the beginning of the lottery, Portia is, of course, presented as weary of the world's suits, itself a frequent complaint, in anti-Boethian fashion, of Fortune, as she, like Fortune, surveys that very greed and ambition which she attracts. While Portia “overnames” her petitioners, she describes a court train of secular vice and folly: Neapolitan frivolity, Palatine sourness, French vanity, English affectation, Scottish wrath, and German gluttony. Similar catalogues of vice-courtiers appear frequently in literary and dramatic portrayals of the Court of Fortune, a common medieval and Renaissance motif. And as she describes these suitors at length, Portia exhibits mockery, contempt, and derogation, qualities suggestive, in the special context in which she is placed, of Fortune's famed playful scorn while she withholds favor. Meanwhile, four more suitors await leave from her hall, and the press outside is unrelenting. Portia laments, “Whiles we shut the gates upon one wooer, another knocks at the door” (I.ii.147). Later, before Bassanio chooses, the Princes of Morocco and Aragon try to “win” and “cozen fortune” from Portia's lottery. The man of Morocco presents himself as deserving, and he swears that he has been loved by the way of chance (II.i.13-16). And in her recollection of other unworthy suitors, Portia praises Morocco with flattery as fair-seeming as that which was characteristic of Fortune:

Yourself, renowned Prince, then stood as fair
As any comer I have look'd on yet
For my affection.


Led on by what he construes to be genuine praise, this “comer” for Portia's “affection,” more a lover of her effects of fortune, thinks himself as worthy as Hercules, as one whose merit pleases the gods and who thus need not stoop to games of chance. He proudly regrets that if he must submit himself to such games, he may lose what a less worthy man may gain. The unconscious irony of his language of protest is as fetching as a Freudian slip:

And so may I, blind Fortune leading me,
Miss that which one unworthier may attain,
And die with grieving.


Morocco rejects the lead casket because “A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross” (II.vii.20). He is certain that he “deserves” Portia in all respects—“birth,” “fortunes,” “graces,” and “love.” And he again ironically identifies his choice, as it shall present itself to him, as the object of all worldly desire:

Why, that's the lady! All the world desires her.
From the four corners of the earth they come. …


Making his choice in effect the choice of the world, Morocco picks the gold casket. And hoping to find in Portia “an angel in a golden bed,” Morocco discovers that “All that glisters is not gold” (65). The fair prospect of Portia's lottery has proven foul for him. He, again ironically, receives a death's-head; for his self-promised recourse had been to “die with grieving.”

The Prince of Aragon, like his predecessor, strives to win fortune and not love, and he is led by the guile of Fortune in Portia to seek fair show. Portia tells him how everyone “comes to hazard for my worthless self” (II.ix.18), thereby inviting him to pay her a compliment while he makes his choice. Obligingly, and with precise ironic ignorance, he proclaims, “Fortune now / To my heart's hope!” and foregoes the lead casket (19-20). Proudly expecting “to cozen fortune” with “the stamp of merit” (38-39), an impossible task of course, Aragon chooses the silver, and peremptorily requests Portia to “unlock my fortunes” as if they were only a hoard of gems and money (52). He is instead given the portrait of a “fool's head” for trying to beguile Fortune by his dull plea of “merit.” Portia's love, like the gifts of Fortune, is not given to those who would “win” or “cozen” it by claims to worth; Portia's love-lottery has up to now run strictly in accord with this idea. Both Morocco and Aragon, who have sought treasure more than love, showed themselves to Portia as “deliberate fools” (80) at the risk of that very “Fortune” whom they invoke but cannot see before their very eyes.

In Venice, Bassanio makes his preparations for Belmont, and Launcelot Gobbo is delighted to follow his master's ventures. Excited by fair prospects, he appropriately exclaims: “Well, if Fortune be a woman, she's a good wench for this gear!” (II.ii.175-76). The manner by which “Fortune” proves to be a “woman” is revealed in the way Portia shows herself as a lady in love and the way she helps the man “who shall rightly love” to make the proper choice. For, once she views Bassanio and becomes led by the “nice direction” of her “maiden's eyes,” Portia longingly advises, “I could teach you / How to choose right” (III.ii.10-11). Convincingly, she now protests that her suitor must choose by chance but not by the merit of her approval; and she expresses her desire that Fortune, but not she herself, be cast aside by her latest suitor's choice:

                                                                                O, these naughty times
Put bars between the owners and their rights!
And so, though yours, not yours. Prove it so,
Let Fortune go to hell for it, not I.


Portia will now encourage, in her modest humanity, a merited claim to her love; whereas before, she had discouraged, in the guise of Fortune, those whose claims were unworthy. So Portia, to Bassanio's repeated protestations of love, tells him directly, “If you do love me, you will find me out” (41). Thus already Bassanio has learned more than a world of Fortune's admirers. And during his contemplation of the caskets, Portia again describes, or perhaps gently prescribes, his proper attitude of choice:

                                                                                                                                  Now he goes
With no less presence, but with much more love,
Than young Alcides when he did redeem
The virgin tribute paid by howling Troy
To the sea monster. I stand for sacrifice.


Morocco, we remember, had styled himself as an “Alcides” too worthy to be led by Fortune (II.i.32-38); Portia, desiring an expression of heroic generosity, openly expresses her wish that Bassanio may prove an “Alcides” who nobly hazarded all in order to rescue a Trojan King's daughter from a malign fate. From this hint follow the famous hints before Bassanio makes his choice.

The focus of Shakespeare's lottery scenes is thus traditional in theme and conventional in dramatic imagery. The motif of Fortune and Love and that of Fortune and Virtue as well as the Lottery of Fortune were quite visibly situated in Elizabethan drama. And Shakespeare's portrayal of Bassanio in his act of choice represented a mode of action comparably identifiable. While he makes his choice, Bassanio says nothing of “desire,” “desert,” nor gain of fortune. His lines suggest a mind not led by hope of profit nor advancement. His insight is fashioned neither by the glitter of “ornament” nor by the appeal of things which “promise aught.” He is, it is clear, fortified by that protection against the uncertainties and dangers of Fortune, the Christian remedium contra Fortunam—Humilitas. This virtue, from which all other virtues proceed, is, among other things, associated with that condition of “glad poverty” which typifies Bassanio. In the strength of such meekness and selflessness, that resource necessary to resist Fortune's blandishments, Bassanio truly can “give and hazard all he hath” for love. He thus hazards to give but not to gain; and he wins not the issue of a beguiling Fortune, but, as we may well expect, the unassuming lady Portia, now in disposition complementary to his own:

                                                                      But the full sum of me
Is sum of nothing, which, to term in gross,
Is an unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractis'd;
Happy in this, she is not yet so old
But she may learn.


Thus Portia significantly meets Bassanio as a humble maiden, having abandoned the imperious guise of Lady Fortune. In the presence of the suitor who rightly loves, Portia emerges, unaffectedly and modest, as an “unlesson'd girl” in love. Like the wonderfully matched figures on the facade of Chartres, Portia and Bassanio are placed in loving harmony by an art form that transcends naturalism. Thus, in summary, the lottery scenes in The Merchant of Venice illustrate the “contention” between Fortune and Love amidst Fortune's Lottery and the “triumph” of virtuous Love. The allegory conveys, with its well-known prescriptive distinction, the truth that Fortune deceives those who love “wrongly,” who love for gain or glory, who presume upon their proud need and merit. Fortune cannot influence those who love “rightly,” who love in the spirit of humility and its virtues.

Once we view the lottery as a formal allegory, we may better understand certain critical issues about which opinion has varied markedly. For instance, Portia clearly does not manipulate the lottery: she necessarily appears as Fortune to those who seek Fortune, and she comes forth as a modest “maiden” in love before her humble lover. In the allegorical logic of Shakespeare's interlude, those petitioners must be led by Fortune who seek Fortune while another is led by a humble love who unassumedly seeks love. Portia's hints, which are certainly presented as unfavorable and favorable suggestions, are the inevitable expressions of that formal role which she must play in the contention between Fortune and Love and in her comparable role in the Lottery of Fortune and Love. Moreover, these various hints have less to do with psychological realism than with the aesthetic integrity of allegorical themes, well-known to Elizabethan audiences, which echoed some key aspects of the probable sources of the casket story. And Portia's distributive manner in Belmont in part explains her treatment of petitioners of another kind in Venice. A pattern similar to that which we have been tracing obtains in the courtroom scene: Portia gives justice, to the letter, to one who rigorously seeks Justice; and she provides mercy to those whose hopes are for nothing else but Mercy. Portia's comprehensively dispensatory nature, wherein she assumes that capacity to provide exactly what is solicited, extending to the last Act as well, is thus central to her role in the play. The lottery's secular allegory, wherein Love and Fortune contend and Virtue triumphs, and the courtroom's otherworldly allegory, wherein Justice and Mercy contend and the Reconciliation of the Virtues is re-enacted, provide the play most pointedly its entire allegorical thesis. The naturalistic remainder of the play reflects, in part as we shall see, the moral complexity of the imperfect human condition.

Just as the received allegory helps to accentuate the formal pattern behind certain comparably structured actions in the play, it provides some dimension to the ramifying detail of The Merchant of Venice, which as recent studies have shown, much less rigorously makes distinction between the Old Law and Shylock and the New Law and the Christians. Humilitas, the Christian remedium contra Fortunam, so central to the play's interlude and to its informing tradition, is in the rest of the play spoken for most not by Bassanio nor by the other Christians but by Shylock. Coincident in dramatic timing with the lotteries, Shylock, forcefully yet unpretentiously, expresses the meaning of Humilitas in a Jew's life—which is any man's life—of misfortune:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug;
For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe.


Aside from the moral insight implicit in the verbal irony of Shylock's last line, a notable visual irony is evident in the congruence of “badge” and “suff'rance” with the red cross, which Venetian Jews may have worn,12 and the Humilitas which the Cross symbolizes. But later, painfully embittered and outraged, Shylock perverts the doctrine of Humilitas as an exemplification of an Imitatio, in a fashion which he believes that Christians themselves do: “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge” (III.i.71-74). Consequently, the remedium of the lottery in the interlude proves to be Shylock's initially proper and later misguided resource against adversity in the “real world,” as it were, of the play. And an equally significant and important irony is featured in the judgment scene: Portia, by her acclaimed wisdom of “Daniel,” provides succor to those in need of Justice and Mercy. Therefore, the remedium of the lottery is a Christian virtue best exemplified by the life of Shylock; and the remedium of the courtroom is a venerable Hebraic postulate of mind emulated by Portia. Shylock speaks eloquently, although unwarily, for Christian Humilitas as a Jew's comfort against tribulation, while Portia discovers, but doesn't knowingly identify, the saving grace of mercy which results from the sapience of Daniel. Hence, the allegorized values in the interlude are transformed by the literal complications of the play's “real world,” which illustrates with searing irony that both Jew and Christian “in their mutual blindness overlook the bond between them” (Fortin, 267). And, most importantly, both fail to recognize how each is saved by the underlying beliefs of the other—Antonio by the perceptive wisdom of the Old Law whose follower he would spurn, and Shylock by that humility which sustains him when he thinks it “the badge of all our tribe,” and which nearly destroys him when he regards it perversely as a “Christian example,” and which, in its overtly Christian form, remains his recourse as the play ends. Portia's famous question when she enters the courtroom is, given this truth, a marvel of unconscious irony, which reveals that from perfect knowledge comes that which makes an Antonio indistinct from a Shylock:

I am informed thoroughly of the cause.
Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?


Shylock demands and Christians resist one type of bond while the texture of their lives provides another. Also, lest we forget, Antonio and Shylock have both placed their fortunes expressly on ventures of brotherly love, and each of them suffers adversities. The Christian, no less in need of saving grace than Shylock, is saved by a Daniel-like judgment; and the Jew is ironically sentenced to a penalization which can only be remitted by a “humbleness” (IV.i.372) which has much to do with that quality of “sufferance” with which he had been long familiar. The secular and otherworldly allegories, distinct in themselves in The Merchant of Venice, proceed to the play's complexly emergent truths that Justice is as blind as Fortune and Mercy as mysterious as Love, that remedium of the world's afflictions and repose of the soul's pilgrimage.


  1. See Barbara K. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly, 13 (1962), 327-43; Alan Holaday, “Antonio and the Allegory of Salvation,” Shakespeare Studies, 4 (1968), 109-18; and Rene Fortin, “Launcelot and the Uses of Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,Studies in English Literature, 14 (1974), 259-70.

  2. Much criticism of the play can be so characterized. For a survey of the theme, see J. R. Brown's Arden edition of The Merchant of Venice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 1964), pp. l-liii.

  3. See the chapter entitled “The Hybrid Play” in Bernard Spivack's Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 251-53.

  4. Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1964), I, 445-551.

  5. The Merchant of Venice II.vii.9, in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. George Lyman Kittredge (Boston: Ginn, 1936). All citations are from this edition of the play.

  6. See, for instance, “portion” in the OED.

  7. Shakespeare's description of Portia as a distant lady of immense secular appeal whose wealth is sought at great risk on the seas is highly suggestive of Fortune in her classical locus. Early accounts of Fortune's settings tend to stress her remote, threatening dwelling places. Mentioned are her locations on a lofty mountain in the Anticlaudianus and the Roman de la Rose, and on an exotic island in Guilleville's Pelerinage de la Vie Humaine. Studies of Fortune are by Howard R. Patch, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 1927) and by Samuel C. Chew, The Pilgrimage of Life (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1962). Several studies have established relationships between Fortune and characters other than Portia in Shakespeare. In this regard, see Raymond Chapman, “The Wheel of Fortune in Shakespeare's History Plays,” Review of English Studies, 1 (1950), 1-7; Beatrice White, “Claudius and Fortune,” Anglia, 77 (1959), 204-207; Marilyn L. Williamson, “Fortune in Antony and Cleopatra,Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 67 (1968), 423-29; and James I. Wimsatt, “The Player-King on Friendship,” Modern Language Review, 65 (1970), 1-6.

  8. Old Fortunatus I.i.217, in Vol. I of The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1953).

  9. The Plays and Poems of George Chapman, ed. Thomas Marc Parrott (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1914), I, 94.

  10. Sir John Davies, The Complete Poems, ed. Rev. Alexander B. Grosart (London: Blackburn, 1876), II, 87-88.

  11. The Alchemist III.v.30, in Vol. V of Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937).

  12. The Merchant of Venice, ed. H. H. Furness (New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1888), p. 46, n. 114.

James L. O'Rourke (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: O'Rourke, James L. “The Subversive Metaphysics of Macbeth.Shakespeare Studies 21 (1993): 213-27.

[In the following essay, O'Rourke examines the conflict between divine omniscience and human free will in Macbeth and suggests that Shakespeare's drama ironically subverts both of these concepts.]

The persistence of the providential reading of Macbeth may be the best evidence for the continuing influence of A. C. Bradley on Shakespeare studies. Based on the introductions to Macbeth in standard classroom editions,1 Bradley's blend of metaphysical idealism and psychological realism which presents Macbeth as a drama about the purgation of the evil embodied in the figure of a murderer and the consequent restoration of a political and providential order is still the most common reading of the play presented to American students. This echoing of a Bradleyan line in Macbeth criticism would seem to have bypassed Harry Levin's attack, thirty years ago, on Bradley's approach to the tragedies. At that time, Levin characterized Bradley's metaphysical framework as an amalgam of Hegel and Aristotle,2 in which Bradley's usual description of a Shakespearean tragedy as a process leading from the temporary disruption of cosmic order to its restoration displaced the idea of catharsis from an account of the experience of a playgoer to a description of the world of the play. In this interpretation of Aristotle, the Poetics has become, as Stephen Booth puts it, “a sign of the covenant between literature and the ultimate values of the universe.”3

Interpretations of Macbeth which have departed from Bradleyan beliefs about the “ultimate values of the universe” have nonetheless generally remained faithful to Bradley's emphasis on character and action as the primary vehicles of the conceptual framework of the play. Bernard McElroy and E. A. J. Honigmann focus on the character of Macbeth and stress his capacity for conscience and his consequent suffering; Wilbur Sanders and Harry Berger, Jr. go past the level of individual characters to describe Duncan's Scotland as a troubled society; and Karl F. Zender seems to offer a challenge to at least the more extreme views that Macbeth offers “an optimistic view of life” when he contends that Young Siward's death represents a shift from an ameliorative to a pessimistic conception of the significance of human struggle.”4 But Zender reinscribes Young Siward's death within a Bradleyan universe when he frames it thus: “His death reminds us, in the midst of the triumph of natural and providential order, of its limitations” (425). This is consistent with Bradley's principle that tragedy depends upon a sense of “waste” within the structure of a cosmic order.5 Berger's and Sanders' critiques of Scottish society as depicted in Macbeth are not really, despite Berger's use of the word, “structuralist”; Berger has done more than what he calls “smok[ing] the edges of this structuralist approach with an existentialist emphasis” when he describes Macbeth as expressing the “realistic view that history is largely the work and burden of man” (Berger 3), a conclusion that is far more traditionally humanist than it is structuralist.

There is not much about the witches in character and action criticism which seeks to assess the depth of Macbeth's character or his responsibility for his fate. A more truly structuralist analysis of the play that concentrates on the image of the witches in Macbeth is Peter Stallybrass's “Macbeth and Witchcraft,” in which Stallybrass argues, I think justifiably, that the Weird Sisters of Macbeth embody all that stands in opposition to the political order not only of medieval Scotland but of Jacobean England. I agree entirely with Stallybrass that a reader should see as a “manoeuvre of power”6 the creation of a symbolic order which demonizes witches in order to justify a patriarchal polis, but I do not agree with Stallybrass that to see this is to disagree with Shakespeare. Stallybrass seems to believe that Shakespeare actually wrote the play that Bradley et al. describe, but that a modern reader should dissent from Shakespeare's conservatism. I would argue that in Macbeth Shakespeare wrote a play that is profoundly subversive of the Christian metaphysics that structured the symbolic order of his society. The subversion is in the poetry of Macbeth, and the pattern, as Paul de Man said of the structural intentionality of Derrida's reading of Rousseau, is too interesting not to be deliberate.7

A shift from critical analysis of character and action to a concentration on the language of the play can bring about a markedly different view of the determining forces of Macbeth. At one level, the problem is put very well by L. C. Knights, who, although he advocated a providential reading of the play, showed exactly what has to be ignored to come to that conclusion when he said of the “sound and fury” speech that “the poetry is so fine that we are almost bullied into accepting an essential ambiguity in the final statement of the play.”8 It seems an odd conception of poetic value to believe that “fine poetry” is to be resisted as one would a bully. But poetic language does not only figure as rhetorical persuasiveness in Macbeth; a poststructuralist conception of metaphor as the constitutive principle of metaphysics rather than as an ornament to meaning can demonstrate the close-knit integrity of the language of Macbeth, and can open up a reading of the play that goes beyond the quasi-naturalism of the Bradleyan universe of tragedy which, as Levin so succinctly put it, “presupposed that man is both the master of his fate and an object of supervision on the part of the gods, to a much greater extent than either science or theodicy would encourage us to believe.”9 The deconstruction of this providential view of Macbeth's metaphysics has taken several forms in recent studies of the play. D. H. Fawkner, while avowing a Derridean approach to Macbeth, has simply flipped the metaphysical coin and discovered that the witches create a “hyperontological zone” in which “vanishing” is “structurally ‘stronger’ than presence”; Stephen Booth and Marjorie Garber have found reasons to celebrate the play's undecidability; and Malcolm Evans has adopted the Derridean principle of supplementarity to insist that “if ‘nothing’ is identifiable with sin and chaos, it is also the ground of all creation.”10 But I would argue that all of these readings underestimate the centrality of the weird sisters to Macbeth. What the witches represent is precisely the opposite of undecidability; they are more than a simple principle of absence, and are even more than a supplement to the Creator of the Christian tradition. When Booth's especially close reading of the effects of iteration and wordplay in Macbeth leads him to the conclusion that “cause and effect do not work in Macbeth,11 he puts his finger on the metaphysic embodied by the weird sisters. If Stallybrass's observation that the weird sisters represent a challenge to the entire symbolic order of a traditional Western political system is pursued, then the stakes of Booth's observation become clear: the action of Macbeth is determined either by the Christian God who guarantees a traditional symbolic order and the Bradleyan/Aristotelian covenant, or by the weird sisters who replace that Creator in the position of omniscience and represent an acausal determinism.

Macbeth clearly has much to say about Christian metaphysics, and specifically with the central paradox of a metaphysic which asserts both the omniscience of a divinity possessed of a simultaneous vision of all eternity and the free will of mortal beings who exist within that vision. In the economy of Macbeth's metaphysical speculations, the “sound and fury” speech subverts both halves of that Christian paradox, and comes to be far more than an eloquent expression of Macbeth's despair. The imagery of the speech draws together many of the themes of the play's own subversive metaphysics, and the speech itself functions as an anagnorisis in which Macbeth crystallizes the terms of the conditions he addresses as “fate” or “time” in his asides and soliloquies throughout the play. A trope that anchors the metaphysics of the speech and of the play occurs in Macbeth's imagining of days stretching to “the last syllable of recorded time.” The notion that time should end on a “syllable” supplants the Christian notion of the Last Judgment, as this “syllable” recalls, and provides a tightly logical completion to, the opening of the Gospel according to John which says that “In the beginning was the Worde.”12 This wordplay about language completes a tropism which replaces the metaphysical governance of the word (logos) that gives order and purpose to the whole of creation with the prophecies of the witches, the “weyard sisters” who represent the blind determinism of Wyrd.

The subversive pun by which Wyrd supplants Worde anchors a metaphysics of linguistic determinacy that, in Macbeth, is a metaphysic devoid of allegorical reach—it “signifies nothing.” The seemingly curious word choices which occur in the “sound and fury” speech are precise expressions of Macbeth's realization of the structure of this closed and meaningless determinism. When he responds to the news of Lady Macbeth's death by saying, “There would have been a time for such a word” (5.5.18),13 “word” does not mean only “message,” and one understimates the degree of Macbeth's fatalism if the line is paraphrased to mean that there would have been a better time for such news.14 There is an old English proverb about the operation of Wyrd which says “After word comes weird”—as the OED glosses it, “The mention of a thing is followed by its occurrence.”15 When Macbeth refers to his wife's death as a “word” he collapses the distinction between “word” and “weird,” the saying of a thing and the thing itself. The irony here is that Macbeth has, for most of the play, attempted to live under the naturalistic assumption that he could race against time. Eliminating the space between imagining and doing seemed to him the necessary means of his own success; he had sought to “trammel up” consequences and overtake time by making the “firstlings of [his] heart … The firstlings of [his] hand” (4.1.147-48). As he contemplates attacking Macduff's castle he says “be it thought and done” (149), but he echoes himself in a way that subverts his attempt to impose his own form of closure on history. His promise that “This deed I'll do” (154) unintentionally parodies his earlier assertion that “I have done the deed” (2.2.14), where the emphatic past participle expressed the wish that the murder of Duncan “Might be the be-all and the end-all—here” (1.7.5). When “I have done the deed” turns into “This deed I'll do,” the iteration suggests an endlessly reopening chain of consequence.

In the “sound and fury” speech, time jeopardizes Macbeth not in its naturalistic speed but in its metaphysical scope; it “creeps in this petty pace,” but comes relentlessly to the be-alls and end-alls of death and last syllable which end life and history. As Macbeth no longer sees any possibility of outracing time, the depth of his fatalism can be measured in the contrast between the flatness of the lines, “She should have died hereafter: / There would have been a time for such a word,” and the eagerness which had informed his plans and desires to bring “Strange things … in head … to hand, / Which must be acted, ere they may be scann'd” (3.4.138-39), and “To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done … This deed I'll do, before the purpose cool” (4.1.149-54). By the time of the “sound and fury” speech, Macbeth is not inclined to think that there would have been a better time for Lady Macbeth to have died; he says, rather, that it doesn't really matter when an inevitability happens to occur. His collapse of “tomorrows” into “yesterdays” grounds his fatalism in a denial of the reality of “time” itself as it is seen within a mortal perspective, and his detachment depends upon his approximation to a perspective which is superior to temporality and is inhabited, in Macbeth, by the “weyard sisters.” Lady Macbeth had defined the power of this perspective early in the play when she said that Macbeth's letters had transported her “beyond / This ignorant present” (1.5.56-57) until she felt “The future in the instant” (58). Seeing the “future” as the present is, in a Christian metaphysic, an attribute of God, who sees all time as simultaneous. The subversive metaphysics of Macbeth depersonifies this perspective which sees all time, all tomorrows and yesterdays, as simultaneous—that is, it removes the figure of “God,” or the logos, from that position—but it does so without restoring freedom to human action. Even after replacing the figure of God with a trio of exaggeratedly fantastic figures that cannot inspire literal belief, Shakespeare binds all of the action of Macbeth to the vision of these figures. They do not cause events to occur, but neither can the action of the play be explained without reference to their prophecies. The most seemingly commonsense interpretive questions, such as whether the witches are autonomous and cause Macbeth to murder Duncan, or if they are simply manifestations of Macbeth's unconscious, are made unanswerable by a play that does not operate within the assumptions about causality and temporality implicit in the questions. Such questions do not capture the mode of the “existence” of the Weyard Sisters, because these figures do not exist within the assumptions of a language which presumes causality. As Wyrd replaces Worde, the witches embody a literally nonexistent condition; what they represent defies the language, because it escapes the foundational categories of metaphysics of presence; “Wyrd,” as Derrida says of “différance,” is neither active nor passive, present nor absent, sensible nor intelligible.16

Macbeth thus engages the central problem of a Christian metaphysic, the conflict between divine omniscience and human free will, and emerges with the gloomiest of verdicts, as neither Divine Providence nor human volition can account for the action of the play. The idea of free will is dissipated in the failure of naturalistic questions to produce a causal chain that runs from motivation to action to consequence. The inadequacy of such questions shows through the prose of the foremost of Shakespeare's character-and-action interpreters when Bradley describes Macbeth's feelings at the murder of Duncan: “The deed is done in horror and without the faintest desire or sense of glory—done, one may almost say, as if it were an appalling duty; and, the instant it is finished, its futility is revealed to Macbeth as clearly as its vileness had been revealed beforehand.”17 It was, however, the futility of the act which Macbeth had noted well before it took place. He wished that “th' assassination could trammel up the consequence,” and “be the be-all and end-all here” (1.7.2-5), but he finally came to acknowledge the inevitability of retribution, saying:

                                                                                                    in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th'inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends th'ingredients of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips.


Macbeth says that he has no desire to kill Duncan (“I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent,” [1.7.25-26]). He sees that the prophecies mean that there is no necessity for him to do anything in order to become king; when he says “If Chance will have me King, why, Chance may crown me, / Without my stir” just after the meeting with the Witches [1.3.143-44], this suggests that the prophecies, rather than inciting Macbeth towards the killing of Duncan, should have led him to view Malcolm's nomination as the royal heir with an equanimity born of the certainty of his own eventual accession. And he shows no sense of accomplishment even immediately after he has performed the murder: “Wake Duncan with thy knocking: I would thou couldst” (2.2.73) he says, only minutes afterwards.

Why, then, does Macbeth kill Duncan? Bradley's description of Macbeth's motivation toward the murder is that it is “as if … an appalling duty.” It is, Bradley sees, more accurately described as a compulsion than as a decision, and Bradley's attempt at a quantification of what drives Macbeth to the act of regicide, that “neither his ambition nor yet the prophecy of the Witches would ever without the aid of Lady Macbeth have overcome … [Macbeth's] resistance”18 to the idea of killing Duncan will, to a modern ear, too easily recall “The woman gave me of the tree, and I did eat,” to sound like a balanced assessment of blame. Macbeth's action is not entirely explicable in psychological terms, and the terms of any explanation are greatly complicated by the means of representation, in structure and language, of the murder itself. A significant feature of the representation of Duncan's murder is that it takes place offstage. This is a departure from the Shakespearean norm, and even from the norm in Macbeth, where Banquo, Macduff's son and Young Siward are murdered onstage, and Macduff exhibits the severed head of Macbeth. When this unseen murder is placed between Macbeth's wish that “I go, and it is done” (not “and I do it”) and his emphatic assertion just after the killing that “I have done the deed,” where the rhetorical finality expresses his desire to send the deed to a safely completed, “trammelled up” past, the psychological dimension of the dramatic absence of the murder becomes clear; the play is representing Macbeth's avoidance of any thought of the act.

A thoroughly naturalistic vocabulary would offer, then, “repression” as the explanation for why Macbeth never discloses an adequate motivation for the killing of Duncan. One would say that Macbeth never allows himself to acknowledge that he has, of his own free will, committed this murder. But the imagery of the play suggests that there is something other than a personal unconscious below the level of autonomous will, and it uses the vehicle of dreams as the means of access to that world. When Macbeth contemplates the assassination of Duncan, he says “Stars, hide your fires! / Let not light see my black and deep desires” (1.4.50-51). This image of extinguished stars is recalled and given a domestic cast which counterpoints the impending horror of the murder when Banquo says to Fleance, “There's husbandry in heaven; / Their candles are all out” (2.7.4-5), but the imagery takes on a more ominous tone as Banquo goes on to say

A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
And yet I would not sleep: merciful Powers,
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose!


He gives definition to these “cursed thoughts” moments later when he meets Macbeth and says, “I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters” (2.1.20). Macbeth, on his way to murder the sleeping Duncan, then sees the bloody dagger and draws the conclusion that

                                        Now o'er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's off'rings …


This surreal “dream” world finally swallows Lady Macbeth; she had sought to live entirely on a naturalistic plane, only borrowing from the witches the expediency of a “fair is foul” morality. She ends, however, in a madness which cannot distinguish a “real” world from one of sleep and dreams. Macbeth's image of life as a player is a transformation of this experience of irreality. As he lives with the consequences of a murder which he consciously disavowed and then performed as if in absentia, his guilt is like that experienced in dreams: retribution is relentless and its means exceed the scale of realism (as Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane) but the actual transgression which inspires this retribution has only a shadowy, ambiguous existence. In Macbeth's metaphor, he is playing the role of the regicide, coping with the consequences of that “even-handed justice” which returns his “bloody instructions” upon himself, but he is no more responsible for the action of this world than the self in a dream, or an actor for the drama in which he exists.

The larger context, the unknown which is not comprehended by the individual “player,” is a metaphysical order rather than a personal unconscious in Macbeth. In the “sound and fury” speech, Macbeth surrenders the naturalistic assumptions that had constituted his belief that time's challenge resided in its fleetness, and that his own success would depend upon overtaking events. He speaks of the two natural divisions in time as they appear to a mortal consciousness—a day and a life—and he imagines the larger frame of history, or “recorded time.” Just as he sees that tomorrows end by becoming yesterdays, he describes life and history from their endpoints of “dusty death” and “last syllable.” But any perception which is limited to temporal terms, even one running from first Worde to last syllable, is only ignorance in relation to the perspective of the weyard sisters, who see that “tale” which tells all of history at the border where it meets the “nothing” that is an eternity beyond that last syllable. They themselves are only a literary device, a personification of such a perspective, and when Macbeth describes this perspective without personifying it, the place occupied by God in a Christian metaphysic is left empty. But the very possibility of an atemporal vision to which all time would be simultaneous abrogates causality and choice, and binds all human action to a single story.

Much of Macbeth is designed to give an audience the experience of living through such a predetermined tale. Macbeth's repeated professions of confidence in his own security “till Birnam wood come to Dunsinane” have the effect of assuring an audience that this realistically unlikely event will occur. The irony is intensified by the rapid alternation, in the later part of the play, of short scenes of Macbeth in Dunsinane with those of the forces attacking the castle; from both sides the references to Birnam and Dunsinane are so regular as to become almost incantatory. Angus, with the rebellious Scots, says of the English forces, “Near Birnam wood / Shall we well meet them” (5.2.5-6); Caithness informs him that “Great Dunsinane he [Macbeth] strongly fortifies” (12), and Lennox closes the scene by saying “Make we our march towards Birnam” (31). Macbeth then opens the following scene by saying

Bring me no more reports; let them fly all:
Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane
I cannot taint with fear


and closes it with “I will not be afraid of death and bane, / Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane” (59-60). When Siward then asks at the outset of scene 4 “What wood is this before us?”, the answer is entirely predictable: “The wood of Birnam” (3). The realistic rationale behind Malcolm's order to “Let every soldier hew him down a bough / And bear't before him” (5.4.4-5)—that this will disguise their numbers—has already been dispensed with; Macbeth has just been warned that there are ten thousand soldiers in the English force moving toward the castle (5.3.15.) The fact that Birnam wood will move toward Dunsinane is locked into place by the witches' prophecies, but its explanation in realistic terms is, dramatically, an afterthought.

Macbeth's expressions of confidence in his own security create a dramatic irony that Bradley refers to as a “Sophoclean irony,” in which, as Bradley puts it, “a speaker is made to use words bearing to the audience, in addition to his own meaning, a further and ominous sense, hidden from himself and, usually, from the other persons on the stage.”19 While broad structures of foreshadowing such as that employed with Birnam wood make this kind of irony available to an audience seeing the play for the first time, a more detailed sense of such irony increases with an audience's familiarity with the story. Lady Macbeth's statement that “A little water clears us of this deed” takes its resonance, for a knowledgeable audience, from her later obsessive hand washing. The exchange between Macbeth and Banquo in which Macbeth urges him to “Fail not our feast” and Banquo promises “My Lord, I will not” (3.1.27-28) is grimly amusing to those who know that Banquo will keep this promise despite the impediment of having been slain in the meantime. The better an audience knows the story, the more capable they become of escaping the illusion of suspense in an “ignorant present” and approximating the perspective of the witches. The ability to see the playing out of a tale from which there is no possibility of deviation erodes any sense of morality; if there is no choice, there is no responsibility, and if there is no responsibility, there is no point to moral distinctions. As the sense of irony increases, partiality declines, and the foreshadowing of Banquo's death, although he is a “good” character, is more a source of black humor than of terror.

The play seems to begin and end happily, in each case with the victory of the “good” army, and its conclusion has encouraged traditional interpreters to overlook suggestions of cyclicity and to describe Macbeth as embodying a traditionally Christian story of the “temporary triumph of evil” but the ultimate restoration of “virtue and justice.”20 But the characteristic wordplay of pun and echo in the play's final scene subverts the optimistic interpretation of its events, and reinscribes the story of the dominion of Wyrd, in which, as the witches say, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” To their unearthly perspective, at the border where the entire tale of history drops into “nothing,” all of history is a zero-sum game. This informs the detachment behind their initial plan to meet again “when the battle's lost and won” (1.1.4). To them, since the entire story is zero-sum, so are the individual events, or “words,” and the play's language does much to reinforce this perspective. As we enter one of the camps to which it does matter who wins the battle, the supposedly “good” camp, moral distinctions seem nonetheless slippery. The first report of the battle is balanced, as the sergeant compares the two armies to “two spent swimmers, that do cling together / And choke their art” (1.2.8-9). The first character to be distinguished is “the merciless Macdonwald” (9), and this sounds like a condemnation, but then he is called “worthy to be a rebel” (10), and the usually positive connotation of “worthy” suggests for a moment that the sergeant may be praising Macdonwald for his valor. But then we find that “worthy” does not here mean “commendable” but only “appropriate,” for, the sergeant says, “to that [name of ‘rebel’] / The multiplying villainies of nature / Do swarm upon him” (10-12). His opposite is then named as “brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name)” (16), but so was Macdonwald worthy of his name, and the distinction between “brave” and “merciless” is difficult to maintain throughout the description of Macbeth's conduct on the battlefield:

Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smok'd with bloody execution,
Like Valour's minion, carv'd out his passage,
Till he fac'd the slave;
which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam'd him from the nave to th' chops
And fix'd his head upon our battlements.


Duncan complicates the matter even further when he uses that ambiguous word just applied to Macdonwald in praise of Macbeth, saying, “O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!” (24). These words echo again in the often-noted irony in which Duncan says of the executed traitor Cawdor, “There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face: / He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust” (1.4.11-14), and then turns to greet Macbeth; his words of greeting are “O worthiest cousin!” (14).

The ironic perspective invites us to compare Macbeth with a rebel, and, in this case, one who has just been praised for the manner in which he faces death: first, because he repents his crimes (“frankly he confess'd his treasons, / Implor'd your Highness' pardon, and set forth / A deep repentance” [1.4.5-7]), and secondly because of his bravery, manifested in his ability to “throw away the dearest thing he ow'd / As 'twere a careless trifle” (10-11). When Macbeth comes to face his own death in the play's final scene, he expresses, first, remorse, and then courage; he is at first reluctant to fight with Macduff because of having already shed too much of Macduff's blood; he says “get thee back, my soul is too much charg'd / With blood of thine already” (5.7.5-6), and then, after he learns of Macduff's unnatural birth and recognizes him as the inevitable agent of his own death, he rejects the terms of surrender and accepts that inevitable death, saying:

                                                                                                                        I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet,
And to be baited with the rabble's curse.
Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou oppos'd, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last: before my body
I throw my warlike shield: lay on, Macduff;
And damn'd be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!”


The subsequent valorization of Young Siward's courage in the play's closing scene serves further to blur the distinction between the forces of good and those of evil. The “good” characters attempt to enforce this distinction as they repeatedly refer to Macbeth in demonic terms just before his death. When young Siward confronts Macbeth, he says that he will not be afraid to hear his opponent's name “though thou call'st thyself a hotter name / Than any is in hell” (5.7.6-7). Then, when told that he faces Macbeth, he says, “The devil himself could not pronounce a title / More hateful to mine ear” (8-9). Macduff calls Macbeth “Hell-hound” (5.8.3) and bids him relinquish “the angel”—meaning a fallen angel, a devil—“whom thou still hast serv'd” (14). While Macduff is dueling with Macbeth offstage, the onstage action consists of young Siward's death being reported; the proof given that “like a man he died” (5.5.9) is that he “Had … his hurts before” (12). This is obviously the way in which Macbeth is dying even as they speak, and if the contrast between “Hell-hound” and “man” isn't pointed enough, Siward says that his son's wounds, gotten “on the front” (13) in battle prove him to be “God's soldier” (13) and that there could not be a “fairer death” (15).

The echo of “fair” in this phrase is the subtlest and most ominous reminder of the spirits to whom “fair is foul and foul is fair”; Siward's belief, that there could be “none fairer” than his son's death, recalls Macbeth's early line “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.” Other jogs to the memory at the play's close are the “Hails” with which Malcolm is greeted, recalling the witches' greeting of Macbeth, and Malcolm's reiteration of his father's metaphor of planting, last used when Duncan thought that, having suppressed a rebellion, he had ushered in a era of peace and stability. These verbal repetitions are a device used in the early scenes of the play, where the characters repeat the witches' words (as, “When the battle's lost and won” comes back as “What he has lost, noble Macbeth has won,” and “Fair is foul and foul is fair” returns as Macbeth's “So fair and foul a day I have not seen”) and represent a determinism without temporal development or causality. The absurdity of a world governed by Wyrd, as is the dramatic universe of Macbeth, does not depend upon the degradation of reality into unassimilable pieces; when Macbeth finds his experience to be surreal, it is because it seems too much like the experience of an actor playing a part in a prescribed story, where the pieces fit together so perfectly that they form a matrix of absolute, and unalterable, interdependence. This sense of internal coherence is given substantive, auditory presence through the device of iteration, while the failure of the play to provide fully formed psychological or philosophical answers to the questions it generates about its own nature makes it impossible to explain the whole through contexts of signification which exist beyond its borders. In Macbeth's words, this world “signifies nothing” beyond itself.

The explanations that reside within the play's own verbal context do not depend on causality; the witches do not “cause” the characters to repeat their words, and neither do they “cause” Macbeth to think of killing Duncan or cause any of the later action of the play. The determinism of “after word comes weird” operates without causality, because its agent does not really exist; the weyard sisters remain a hypothetical, rather than a reified, personification of the perspective which transcends time and sees past, present and future as simultaneous. As the play's conclusion, the time is not truly free, though it may look so from within the “ignorant present.” In truth, the concluding action of the play remains within the ironic command of the representatives of Wyrd. They had provided two prophecies, one that told of the accession of a tyrant and a second that seemed, since it told of his displacement, to promise a liberation. But interpreters who have agreed with Macduff that at the conclusion of the play “the time is free” have underestimated the ability of the weyard sisters to speak in a double sense. The witches have told a literal truth, but through it they have inspired in interpreters, as in Macbeth, a false hope. The fact that they foretold Macbeth's inability to perpetuate his line places even the final action of the play within their vision, and makes the victory of Malcolm's forces just another word in the playing out of the story that the Weyard Sisters, if they really existed, would know comes in the long run to nothing.


  1. Frank Kermode, in the introduction to Macbeth in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974); Sylvan Barnet, ed., Macbeth (New York: New American Library, 1963) and Kenneth Muir, ed., The New Arden Shakespeare: Macbeth (London: Methuen, 1951) all give the play a fairly uncomplicated providential reading. There is an interesting change in emphasis away from the providential reading in the introduction to Macbeth in the The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992; formerly published by Scott, Foresman and Co., 3d edition 1980), possibly due to the addition of Jean E. Howard to the editorial advisory board for this play.

  2. Harry Levin, “The Tragic Ethos” in The Question of “Hamlet” (New York: Viking Press, 1961), p. 134.

  3. Stephen Booth, ”King Lear,” “Macbeth,” Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 83.

  4. Bernard McElroy, “Macbeth: The Torture of His Mind” in Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 206-37; E. A. J. Honigmann, “Macbeth: The Murderer as Victim,” in Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies: The Dramatist's Manipulation of Response (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), pp. 126-49; Wilbur Sanders, “Macbeth: What's Done, Is Done” in Wilbur Sanders and Howard Jacobson, Shakespeare's Magnanimity: Four Tragic Heroes, Their Friends and Families (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 57-94; Harry Berger, Jr., “The Early Scenes of Macbeth: A Preface To a New Interpretation,” ELH 47 (1980), pp. 1-31 and “Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth,Genre 15 (1982): 49-79; Karl F. Zender, “The Death of Young Siward: Providential Order and Tragic Loss in Macbeth,Texas Studies in Language and Literature 17 (1975), pp. 415-25.

  5. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904; New York: Fawcett World Library, 1966), pp. 40-41.

  6. Peter Stallybrass, “Macbeth and Witchcraft,” in John Russell Brown, ed., Focus on “Macbeth” (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), pp. 189-210. Some recent un-Bradleyan studies of the symbolism of witchcraft in Macbeth are those of Dennis Biggins, “Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence in Macbeth,Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975), pp. 255-77; Luisa Guj, “Macbeth and the Seeds of Time,” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986), pp. 175-89, and Harry Berger, Jr.'s “Text Against Performance in Macbeth.” While Biggins and Guj never seriously challenge the assumed Christian framework of the play, Berger sees a critique of a Christian ideology that valorizes machismo as it demonizes women. While I find Berger's essay acute at the level of social critique, I do not see why it is necessary, as Berger argues, to dissociate that critique from Shakespeare or from the dramatic structure of the play. Even Berger seems to have accepted, at least implicitly, Bradley's contention that Shakespeare was uninterested in or incapable of thinking in metaphysical terms.

  7. Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Blindness,” in Blindness and Insight, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 140.

  8. L. C. Knights, Explorations (London: Chatto & Windus, 1951), p. 36.

  9. Levin, “The Tragic Ethos,” pp. 133-34.

  10. D. H. Fawkner, Deconstructing “Macbeth” (London: Associated University Presses, 1990), p. 123; Booth, “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” Indefinition and Tragedy, pp. 114-15; Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 118; and Malcolm Evans, Signifying Nothing (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986), p. 117.

  11. Booth, “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” p. 94.

  12. “In the beginning was the Worde, and the Worde was with God, and that Worde was God” (John 1:1, Geneva Bible, 1560).

  13. Quotations from the play are from The New Arden Shakespeare: Macbeth, ed. Kenneth Muir (New York: Random House, 1962).

  14. I am presuming that “should” in this case means “would.” This is a common locution in Shakespeare, which occurs at least eleven other times in Macbeth (2.3.2; 3.1.4; 3.1.5; 3.1.20; 3.6.19; 3.6.20; 4.2.61; 4.3.79; 4.3.82; 4.3.97; 5.3.62).

  15. Under “weird,” this is meaning 4a in the Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 12, p. 273.

  16. Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” in Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 1-27.

  17. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 297.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid., p. 281.

  20. Kermode, introduction to Macbeth, p. 1307.

John F. Andrews (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Andrews, John F. “Falling in Love: The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.” In Classical, Renaissance, and Postmodernist Acts of the Imagination: Essays Commemorating O. B. Hardison, Jr., edited by Arthur F. Kinney, pp. 177-94. Cranbury, N. J.: Associated University Presses, 1996.

[In the following essay, Andrews recognizes the profound influence of “Fortune, Fate, and the Stars” in Romeo and Juliet, but nevertheless contends that the deaths of these young lovers are the result of choice, causality, divine will.]

What happens in Romeo and Juliet?1 What did a dramatist of the 1590s want the “judicious” members of his contemporary audiences to see and hear, and how did he expect them to feel, as they attended the play2 a later age would laud as the most lyrical of all love tragedies? Before I hazard a response to what is admittedly an unanswerable question, I should make it clear that what I'm really posing is a query about the “action”3 of Shakespeare's drama, and more specifically about the effect such an action might have been intended to have on a receptive Elizabethan playgoer.4

O. B. Hardison emphasizes in the commentary that accompanies Leon Golden's 1968 translation of Aristotle's Poetics,5 there is much to be said for interpreting the earliest technical term for tragic effect, catharsis, as a word that means “clarification,” and for conceiving of the experience it describes as one that takes place, not in the characters of a dramatic work, but in the audience that participates vicariously in those characters' thoughts, emotions, and interchanges. Hardison reminds us that Aristotle defines tragedy as that category of imitation (mimesis) which produces pleasure through a cogent representation of fearful and pitiable incidents. He and Golden stress the passage in which the great philosopher observes that realistic renderings of even the most displeasing subjects delight the viewer by assisting perception and eliciting insight. And they infer that when the father of dramatic theory speaks of the purgation that results from a tragedy, he is focusing primarily on the learning any coherently constructed work of art fosters: the sorting out, the clearing away of confusion or temporary misapprehension, that occurs as a responsive spectator notices, and appreciates, an aesthetically satisfying pattern of logical connections. When Aristotle refers to the catharsis that derives from a well-devised imitation of fearful and pitiable incidents, then, Hardison and Golden deduce that he is probably thinking of the enlightenment—the sense of mental relief and psychic release—that a member of the audience enjoys when he or she is able to make sense of a sequence of happenings that initially strike an onlooker as disparate and disorderly.

When we bring this concept of catharsis to bear upon the various species of tragedy, we discover that in some instances the intellectual, emotional, and ethical clarification attained by an attentive theatergoer parallels the hard-earned wisdom of a character who has arrived at self-knowledge through a siege of suffering. In tragic actions which feature this kind of recognition (anagnorisis) the central figure is divested of any impurities of mind or heart that impede “clearer Reason” (Tempest 5.1.68), and he or she acquires a degree of awareness that approximates the comprehension a perceptive member of the audience obtains by tracing and assessing the character's fortunes.6

In some instances the clarity a tragic figure realizes is a judgment that amounts to self-condemnation, as happens in Richard III and Macbeth. In these dramatic sequences the protagonists acknowledge their own guilt and wretchedness in ways an audience can endorse. In other instances the down-cast hero goes beyond an accurate mental evaluation of himself to a remorse that penetrates the conscience, as with the title characters of Othello and King Lear. Here the protagonists feel sorrow for what they perceive themselves to have done, and in the second case if not the first the audience may be led to conclude that the hero has gone a step further—from remorse to repentance, to a resolve to do whatever is required to make amends for the pain he has inflicted on others and cleanse his own soul.

In rare instances a tragic protagonist proceeds all the way to a complete reconciliation with himself, with those he has injured, and with the Heavens. In these sequences the protagonist arrives at a sense of “at-one-ment” that signifies redemption. In dramatic actions in which this kind of conversion occurs the central figure wins deliverance through an epiphany that transports him or her past the point where even the most sage of witnesses can hope to follow. In Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, for example, or in Milton's Samson Agonistes, the central character is granted a culminating vision in which death is swallowed up in a kind of victory. The hero completes his mission nobly, and as he expires he crosses the threshold to a mysterious but presumably more exalted realm on the unseen side of this world's veil of tears. Here the clarification that takes place in the protagonist surpasses the apprehension of the viewer, and the catharsis that issues in the well-tuned play-goer is akin to ecstatic rapture: a “calm of mind”7 that accompanies the “wonder”8 evoked by powers that move us to awe.

In most tragic actions the audience's catharsis is something that can be more aptly described as a sense of “woe” or “pity”9 for a character whose grasp on reality is shown to be in some way defective. As we watch a misguided protagonist come to grief under the lamentable circumstances that tragedies usually depict, we feel a wrenching disparity between our own observations and those of the focal figure. If we receive the kind of catharsis the usual tragedy is designed to provide, in other words, we emerge with an understanding that is both broader and more lucid than the impaired perception of the lost hero or heroine.

So what do we find when we turn to Romeo and Juliet? Do we sense that the protagonists share our view of what undoes them? Do we feel that in the end they transcend our vantage to claim a better world elsewhere? Or do we finally conclude that they fail in some manner, and lack the insight to assess their failure with the acuity an alert audience acquires by contemplating their “misadventur'd piteous Overthrows” (Prologue.7)?

Adherents can be found for all of these interpretations and more. Many accept the title characters at their own estimate, perceiving them as helpless pawns of conditions they have no means of countering. Some react to them with admiration, even reverence, canonizing them as pure “Sacrifices” of their families' “Enmity” (5.3.304). And a few blame them for intemperance and hold them responsible not only for their own tragedies but for the untimely deaths of several other characters.

Perhaps the best way to enter the world of the play is to take note of its cosmic imagery, its all-pervasive references to Fortune, Fate, and the Stars. If we hope to recapture something of the experience Romeo and Juliet provided its original audience, we need to come away from the tragedy with a conception of what it would have meant in Shakespeare's time to be a victim of “fatal Loins,” to feel like “Fortune's Fool,” and to seize upon the extremest of measures to “shake the Yoke of inauspicious Stars” (Prologue.5, 3.1.144, 5.3.111).

The most important locus for medieval and Renaissance thinking about Fortune and Fate was Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, a Latin dialogue that had probably been written in a.d. 524. Chaucer had used the Consolation extensively in the fourteenth century, and it remained so popular in the late sixteenth century that it was translated into Elizabethan English by no less a personage than the Queen herself. When Shakespeare alluded to the Consolation, then, he would no doubt have assumed that any literate member of his audience would be nearly as familiar with this masterwork as with the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

Any playgoer who had read Boethius would have known that the Consolation10 involves a conversation between Lady Philosophy and a statesman who has fallen into disfavor and now awaits death. The imprisoned political leader is the author himself, and he calls upon a personification of Wisdom to explain why Fortune has treated him so cruelly. During the exchanges that ensue, Lady Philosophy points out that “Fortune” is properly to be regarded as a fictional abstraction, a symbolic embodiment of the role of mutability in human affairs. To those who view her aright, Dame Fortune is nothing more than a convenient name for the fickle and seemingly irrational “Goddess” who bestows and withdraws such worldly gifts as riches, honors, political office, fame, and pleasure. Lady Philosophy acknowledges that many people mistakenly believe that happiness is to be found in the possession of goods that are subject to Fortune's caprices. But she insists that those who examine their lives carefully will eventually realize that the only felicity which lasts and is free from anxiety is that which is fixed on a supreme good higher than, and unaffected by, the vicissitudes of Fortune. Lady Philosophy doesn't deny that Misfortune is painful, but she insists that if we take it in the right spirit it provides a salutary reminder that everything in this life is fleeting. In the process it encourages us to focus our sights on Heaven, where, according to an even more authoritative spiritual guide, “neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (Matthew 6:20).11

Many writers used the terms “Fortune” and “Fate” interchangeably, but Boethius drew a subtle distinction between them. For him Fortune was a name for mutability itself, for what we now refer to as blind chance. Fate, on the other hand, was his term for a higher authority that presided over Fortune's seeming arbitrariness. For Boethius, and for subsequent Christian philosophers, Fate (or Destiny, as it was often called) was actually a pagan disguise for Providence, and the author of the Consolation saw it as a cosmic principle that was ultimately benign, though forever shrouded in obscurity.

Boethius was valued in Renaissance England for the way he had adapted Christianity to a quasi-Stoic frame of reference. In similar fashion, Saint Augustine was revered for the way he'd made Christianity fit a quasi-Platonic framework two centuries earlier. Augustine's treatise On Christian Doctrine12 and his monumental discourse on the City of Gold were both familiar to educated Elizabethans, and Shakespeare's contemporaries would have seen the author of these two works as a theologian whose writings were fully compatible with Boethius's philosophy. Boethius's dichotomy between those pursuits directed the Supreme Good (which is immutable) and those directed to all lesser goods (which are mutable) would have been accepted, then, as merely another means of expressing Augustine's distinction between those pursuits that lead to the supreme felicity of the City of God (Jerusalem) and those that leave one mired in the confusion and frustration of the City of Man (Babylon).

According to Augustine, all movement of the soul is prompted by the will, and that which moves the will is love. Love, then, is the basic motivating force in human behavior, and it falls into two categories: (a) Sacred Love, or caritas (charity), which urges the will in the direction of eternal life, and (b) Profane Love, or cupiditas (cupidity), which pulls the will in the direction of temporal life. From Augustine's viewpoint, the sole purpose of religion and ethics is to teach believers what things are to be loved and enjoyed in and of themselves and what things are to be employed in the service of true (sacred) love. In his system the proper relation to things (loving and enjoying only the things of God, and using the things of this world solely in obedience to God) is caritas; the improper relation of things (loving and enjoying the things of this world, and abusing the things of God for the sake of temporal things) is cupiditas.

The cohesion between Augustine's theology and Boethius's philosophy becomes evident as soon we note that only those things which are temporal are subject to Fortune. To be under the sway of Fortune, then—to seek happiness by setting one's heart on those goods that are subject to Fortune's bestowal and removal—is to be guilty of cupiditas (misplaced or inordinate love). On the other hand, to rise above Fortune's sphere by aspiring to the immutable Supreme Good—to seek happiness through union with that which lies beyond the realm of Fortune—is to live in accordance with caritas (well-placed and duly ordered love).

But what about the stars? How did they relate to Boethian and Augustinian thought? According to most medieval and Renaissance thinkers, “the Stars” (the Sun, the Moon, the Planets, and the constellations of the Zodiac) exercised a degree of influence on Earth, and this influence conditioned the general and particular destinies of human beings. But it was commonly believed that the Stars could directly affect only the material and corporeal levels of existence. Since will and reason were regarded as spiritual rather than physical (material or corporeal) in nature, it followed that these faculties of the human soul could not be influenced directly by the Stars. Will and reason could be affected by the lower parts of the soul (the senses and the passions), however, if they did not maintain proper control over these earth-bound dominions; and the lower nature (since it was corporeal in composition) could, in turn, be influenced by the stars. If the will or the reason allowed themselves to be usurped by the senses or the passions, then, they became subject to indirect astrological influence and thus to Fortune.13

Let me sum up. As I have observed, Fortune, Fate, and the Stars were perceived in Shakespeare's time as interwoven concepts, and all three were integral to a system of ethics that drew heavily on the writings of Boethius and Augustine. Through these concepts, errant behavior could be depicted by any of several interchangeable means of expression: as unfortunate behavior caused by the influence of the Stars; as irrational behavior caused by the whims of Fortune; as improper and intemperate behavior caused by reason or will's subjection to the senses or the passions; or as disobedient, sinful behavior caused by misplaced or inordinate love. For an alert Elizabethan, the name one applied to wrongheaded behavior was of little moment; the only thing that mattered was that sooner or later a person recognize it as a course that would result in disaster if it continued unchecked.

We should now be in a position to return to the questions posed at the outset. What “happens” in Romeo and Juliet? Do the lovers succumb to forces beyond their control? Do they somehow triumph over the circumstances arrayed against them and emerge as martyrs, as unblemished agents of redemption? Or do they “fall in love” in some ethical and theological sense that would have been meaningful to an audience familiar with Augustine and Boethius?

Suppose we begin our scrutiny of the action by reviewing some of the perspectives the play offers on the protagonists' romantic attachment. The Chorus who speaks the Prologue to Act 2 describes Romeo's sudden infatuation with Juliet as “Young Affection” gaping to be the “Heir” of “Old Desire” (lines 1-2); he goes on to suggest that the only reason Juliet has replaced Rosaline in Romeo's heart is that this time Romeo's feelings are requited (line 5). From the Chorus's point of view, then, what draws Romeo to Juliet is no different in kind from what attracted him to Rosaline. The young hero is simply shifting his attention to a more receptive subject as he responds to the erotic spurring implicit in his name.14

Friar Lawrence's initial response to Romeo's news about “the fair Daughter of rich Capulet” (2.2.58) echoes the Chorus's sentiments:

Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? Young Men's Love then lies
Not truly in their Hearts but in their Eyes.


In a way that recalls Mercutio, who refers to his friend as “Humours, Madman, Passion, Lover” (2.1.7), and Benvolio, who comments that “Blind is his Love, and best befits the Dark” (2.1.32), Friar Lawrence appears to feel that, notwithstanding its intensity, Romeo's zeal for Juliet is as likely to be a manifestation of “Rude Will” as of “Grace” (2.2.28). Hence the old man's admonition to “love moderately” (2.5.14).

Despite his solemn advice, however, the Friar does nothing to impede the “wanton Blood” (2.4.71) that he and Juliet's Nurse both see in their eager charges. Before he even speaks with Romeo's betrothed, Friar Lawrence agrees to channel the youths' ardor into a clandestine marriage. With the Church's sanction, then, they consummate their vows within twenty-four hours of their initial encounter. So much for moving “Wisely and slow” (2.2.94).15

There can be no question that what draws Romeo and Juliet to each other at the outset is physical attraction. But would it be just to assert that their union is based on nothing more elevated than erotic desires? I think not. The poetry with which they declare their feelings makes it well nigh impossible for us to conceive of any situation in which the protagonists could ever again be severed, let alone drift apart. After all, to preserve herself for the husband to whom she has plighted troth, Juliet defies and deceives her parents, evades a match that would advance both her own fortunes and her family's, dismisses the Nurse when the old retainer's pragmatism becomes the voice of “Auncient Damnation” (3.5.235), and drinks a potion she fears may be lethal. Meanwhile, for his part Romeo proves more than willing to “give and hazard all” (Merchant of Venice 2.7.16) to uphold his pledge to Juliet. As we see the lovers increasingly isolated by events and, more important, by the folly of their elders and the insensitivity of even their closest confidants, we cannot help responding with sympathy for their predicament and admiration for the courage their consecration to each other inspires. By the end of the play it is patent that no one in their society really understands them; they're left completely alone in a world that seems at best indifferent, at worst hostile. In soul-trying times their loyalty to each other is severely tested, and it never falters.

But if the tie that binds Romeo and Juliet is the most precious treasure the setting of Shakespeare's tragedy affords, does it follow that we are meant to regard the lovers' “extreme Sweet” (2.Chorus.14) as a delicacy that supersedes all other treasures? Are we to join our hearts and minds with the protagonists' fathers and erect statues of “pure Gold” (5.3.301) to honor the title characters' fidelity to each other and to love?

Perhaps so, but I find it difficult to locate a lot to celebrate in the events with which the play concludes. Old Capulet and Old Mountague clasp hands at long last, and if only by default a feud that has wrought untold devastation appears to be history. But at what cost? According to the city's sovereign, the only thing that remains when all is said and done is “A glooming Peace”—that and the Prince's haunting pronouncement that “All are punish'd” (5.3.307, 297).

So what are we to make of the mood with which the final scene draws to a close? Is it possible that Shakespeare expected his audience to include the lovers themselves in the Prince's stern accounting of Verona's “Woe” (5.3.311)? Can it be that a relationship so rare it has become proverbial, a bond that appears indissoluble, was meant to be viewed as in some way wrong? The answer, I submit, is yes. I think it more than likely that the playwright intended to have his earliest theatergoers see Romeo and Juliet as protagonists whose tragic flaw derives from the same source as their strength and beauty: the very fact that their devotion to each other is so all-consuming that it eliminates everything else from consideration.16

At their first greeting Romeo bows before Juliet as if she were a “holy Shrine” and he a “Pilgrim”; Juliet accepts this description of their venue and grants Romeo's “Pray'r” “lest Faith turn to Despair” (1.4.209, 212, 217, 219). In the Balcony Scene, the next time the protagonists meet, Romeo describes Juliet successively as “the Sun,” “bright Angel,” and “dear Saint,” and he tells her “Call me but Love, and I'll be new baptiz'd” (2.1.45, 68, 97, 92). Juliet responds in kind and declares Romeo's “gracious Self” to be “the God of my Idolatry” (2.1.155, 156). What this imagery implies is that Romeo and Juliet are forswearing an old creed in favor of a new; their professions, accordingly, are to be understood as the religious vows of converts to a faith that differs from that of their fathers.

In act 3, having just learned of his banishment, Romeo says “'Tis Torture and not Mercy! Heav'n is here / Where Juliet lives” (3.3.29-30). To be exiled from Juliet's presence is, for Romeo, to be condemned to outer darkness. A few hours later, as the lovers are saying farewell on the morning that ends their one night together, their aubade suggests that their lives are now fundamentally “out of Tune” (3.5.27) with the lark, the daylight, and other manifestations of a harmonious natural order. It is thus apropos that after Romeo's departure Juliet asks, “Is there no Pity sitting in the Clouds / That sees into the Bottom of my Grief?” (3.5.198-99). Shortly thereafter she cries “Alack, alack, that Heaven should practice Stratagems / Upon so soft a Subject as my self” (3.5.211-12).

These and numerous other passages demonstrate that the relationship between Romeo and Juliet is a species, however refined, of cupiditas—a form of pseudo-worship in which one's deity is a creature rather than the Creator. Each lover views the other as the Supreme Good. Each accords the other a degree of adoration that Augustine (and innumerable later theologians) had defined as properly directed only to God. Their love becomes a universe unto itself, and when they are deprived of it each of the protagonists concludes that there is nothing left to live for.

But of course if Romeo and Juliet fall victim to idolatry, it is because they also succumb to passion. By indulging the senses and emotions, they allow first the concupiscible (pleasure-driven) and later the irascible (wrath-driven) divisions of the lower, sensible soul to gain hegemony over the rational soul (the reason).

At the beginning Romeo is subject to the melancholy of a frustrated suitor. He keeps to himself, and when he is sighted by even his closest friend he slips into a “Grove of Sycamour” (1.1.124). Romeo is himself a “sick-amour,” a youth afflicted with love-sickness, and his father observes that

Black and portendous must this Humour prove
Unless good Counsel may the Cause remove.


Romeo's reason emits warnings, both in the dream to which he several times refers in 1.4 and in the misgivings he expresses at the end of that scene (1.4.106-11), but the protagonist allows Mercutio's set-piece about Queen Mab to convince him, against his better judgment, to put his fear of “Consequence” out of mind. As the title character consents to attend the Capulet ball, his pivotal comment makes it obvious that what his intellect tells him is being suppressed by an act of will: “he that hath the Stirrage of my Course / Direct my Suit” (1.4.112-13).17

From this point on the hero plunges headlong into action. At his first glimpse of Juliet his senses are so entranced that he is oblivious to the threat posed by Tybalt. Later, in the Balcony Scene, it is Juliet, not Romeo, who expresses apprehensions; he declares “thy Kinsmen are no Stop to me” (2.1.111) and defines himself as a bold mariner (2.1.124-26). Disregarding her instinctive caution, Juliet allows herself to be seduced by such bravado and agrees, against her better judgment, to become the partner of her suitor's rash ventures.

Up to this juncture the concupiscible passions have dominated the behavior of both lovers. Following Romeo and Juliet's hasty marriage, however, the irascible passions begin asserting themselves. Almost as soon as he departs from his wedding Romeo comes upon an incipient quarrel between Mercutio and Tybalt. The fresh bridegroom is not yet ready to reveal his new kinship with the Capulets, and as a result his conciliatory reply to a challenge Tybalt thrusts at him is misinterpreted by Mercutio as an expression of “calm, dishonorable, vile Submission” (3.1.76). Romeo's hotheaded friend steps in to defend the honor he assumes a lethargic and cowardly Mountague is incapable of maintaining for himself. In an urgent attempt to prevent needless conflict, Romeo lunges between the two duelers. Unfortunately the protagonist's efforts at peacemaking prove fatal to Mercutio, and Romeo's ally dies cursing the house of Mountague as vehemently as he had earlier scorned the Capulets.

To this moment in the scene Romeo has “thought all for the best” (3.1.111) For the first time in the play, he has acted with judgment, restraint, and genuine valor. But now he finds himself in an unaccustomed position. By turning the other cheek and trying to comport himself as an honorable gentleman, he has unwittingly made himself appear dishonorable and contributed to a calamity. After a too-brief pause for reflection, he reacts to the “Plague” in his ears by accepting Mercutio's erroneous judgment on measured behavior that the audience will have recognized as anything but “Effeminate” (3.1.113, 121). Casting aside his momentary self-control and rationality, and yielding to an idolatrous concern for the kind of male “Reputation” that demands vengeance,18 Romeo spurns “respective Lenity” to make room for “Fire-ey'd Fury” (3.1.118, 130-31). He disregards the Prince's prohibition against further bloodshed and takes the enactment of “Justice” into his own hands (3.1.187-88).19

The slaying of Tybalt functions as the turning point in the action. Before this development there has been at least a possibility of success for Romeo and Juliet. Capulet and Mountague have both shown a willingness to end the feud, and there has thus been some basis for the Friar's optimism that the marriage of a Capulet to a Mountague might bridge the way to a more harmonious future. With the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, however, the hostility between the two factions is rekindled, and the Prince can see only one way to prevent further carnage: by removing Romeo from “fair Verona” before more “Civil Blood” makes more “Civil Hands unclean” (Prologue.2-4).

By the time Romeo arrives at the Friar's cell in 3.3 he is practically beside himself. Upon learning that he has been banished, he falls to the ground, his abject posture symbolizing the topsy-turvy state of a soul no longer led by reason. In this condition he draws a dagger, and only the Friar's intervention forestalls an instant suicide:

                                                                      Hold thy desperate Hand.
Art thou a Man? Thy Form cries out thou art.
Thy Tears are Womanish; thy wild Acts
Denote the unreasonable Fury of a Beast.
.....Hast thou slain Tybalt? Wilt thou slay thy Self?
And slay thy Lady that in thy Life lies
By doing damned Hate upon thy Self?


The answer to the Friar's last two questions will turn out to be affirmative. And the questions and answers that precede them explain why.

In 4.1 Juliet comes to the Friar's cell, like Romeo with a knife, and like Romeo determined to take her own life. Seeing in her “the strength of Will to slay [her] self” (line 72), the Friar suggests a less desperate remedy for her difficulties. He then gives her a potion that will suspend her bodily functions for enough time to allow her to be mourned and buried. Meanwhile he sends a message to Juliet's husband. Due to unforeseen difficulties Romeo fails to receive it, and a day later he has no way of knowing that there is literal truth in his servingman's euphemistic report that the heroine is “well” and “sleeps in Capel's Monument” (5.1.17-18).

Now the protagonist descends into an even deeper depression. Purchasing poison from an apothecary whose appearance resembles that of Despair in Spenser's Faerie Queene,20 he makes his way to Juliet's tomb. Upon his arrival, as he dismisses his man Balthasar, Romeo depicts himself in language that summons up memories of the Friar's rebuke in 3.3.107-17:

The Time and my Intents are savage wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty Tigers or the roaring Sea.


The pertinence of these words is almost immediately borne out when the desperate title character is provoked by an uncomprehending Paris and kills him. Moments later Romeo's portrayal of his “Intents” is illustrated yet again when he downs the liquid he has brought with him to the cemetery:

Come, bitter Conduct, come unsavory Guide,
Thou desperate Pilot, now at once run on
The dashing Rocks thy seasick, weary Bark.


Within seconds Juliet awakens to find her dead husband, and his example inspires her to plunge his dagger into her own breast. Thus does Romeo “slay” his “Lady” by “doing damned Hate” upon himself (3.3.116-17). And thus does Shakespeare emblematize the fatal consummation of a union forged in unregimented idealism.

We should now be in a position to return to the roles of Fortune, Fate, and the Stars in Romeo and Juliet. As we have observed, the protagonists are prompted by their concupiscible passions into an idolatrous relationship that makes them vulnerable to forces beyond their ken. As chance would have it, these forces combine to unleash the irascible passions that destroy Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, and eventually Romeo and Juliet themselves. To put it another way, by forfeiting rational governance over their own behavior, the lovers subject themselves to the waywardness of happenstance. They become Fortune's fools (3.1.143). In a sense that they don't recognize, they become “fated.”

In the process, by reducing themselves to menial servants of emotional and astral influences that would have had no power to manipulate them if they had kept their souls under the guidance of reason, they become “Star-cross'd” (Prologue.6). Ironically and sadly, at no point in the action are the “Stars” more securely in command than at the moment when a tragically misled Romeo commits a mortal sin in a futile effort to “shake” their “Yoke” from his “World-wearied Flesh” (5.3.113-14).

It should not escape our notice, of course, that most of the play's other characters are also culpable victims of Fortune, Fate, and the Stars. The Capulets have sought to rise in worldly status, using their daughter as an unwilling instrument to that end, and that is one of the reasons we cannot bring ourselves to blame Juliet for disobeying her unfeeling parents. It seems altogether apt that the Capulets' “ordained Festival” turns to “black Funeral”; they learn by bitter trial that on the Wheel of Fortune “all things change them to the contrary” (4.3.170-71, 176). Meanwhile Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris all submit in their own ways to Fortune's turns and suffer the consequences.

Even the sententious Friar can be seen as Fortune's plaything. For a man of the cloth he seems inordinately preoccupied with his worldly standing (hence his well-intended but ill-advised efforts to use unauthorized means to end the city's feuding, and hence his frantic scurrying about to cover his traces and avoid being caught at the graveyard in Act 5), and all of his error-prone judgments and makeshift expedients presuppose an improvident reliance on Fortune's notoriously unreliable cooperation.

In many respects the play's society as a whole is shown to be at the mercy of Fortune, Fate, and the Stars. The setting for Shakespeare's tragedy is, after all, a microcosm of postlapsarian humanity. And in this context the fates of Romeo and Juliet turn out to be a “Scourge” (5.3.294), a divine judgment, in senses that exceed the meaning intended by the Prince.

But how should all of this affect an audience experiencing the drama? Ultimately, like most of Shakespeare's tragedies, Romeo and Juliet appears designed to leave us with an enhanced appreciation of what it means, in Christian terms, to be human. If we've profited as we ought to from the action, we will know the protagonists better than they know themselves. And we will understand—alas, in a way that they do not—what brought their story to its grievous denouement.

And how will we appraise the “Death-mark'd Love” (Prologue.9) of these beautiful and pitiable youths? If we have attended to what we have seen and heard, our sentiments will echo the humility and compassion implicit in a sixteenth-century cleric's prayer of thanksgiving. As he witnessed a small company of wrongdoers being carted off to their dooms, he said “But for the grace of God, there goes John Bradford.”21


  1. I realize, of course, that “What happens in Romeo and Juliet” varies each time the tragedy is performed; this was no less true of productions in the playwright's own lifetime than of those that have occurred in “After-hours” (2.5.2). For a provocative discussion of the impossibility—if not indeed the undesirability—of “definitive” realizations of a dramatic script, see Jonathan Miller's Subsequent Performances (New York: Viking, 1986). For a thoughtful application of Miller's principles to recent interpretations of Shakespeare's most famous love-drama, see Barbara Hodgdon's “Absent Bodies, Present Voices: Performance Work and the Close of Romeo and Juliet's Golden Story,” in Theatre Journal 41 (1989): 341-59. Hodgson's article can also be found in my collection “Romeo and Juliet”: Critical Essays (New York: Garland, 1993), as can an earlier version of the present essay.

  2. I am acutely conscious of oversimplification when I refer to “the play” as if there were a single rendering of Romeo and Juliet (or of any of Shakespeare's works) that can answer to such a term. What a given person sees or hears on a particular occasion depends not only on the sensibility he or she brings to the encounter but also on what text of the drama is presented and how that text is treated by those who present it.

    In 1597 and 1599, respectively, two versions of Romeo and Juliet appeared in quarto printings. The later version is less crude and appears to be more directly related to an authorial manuscript than the earlier; it advertises itself as “Newly corrected, augmented, and amended,” and (appropriately, in my view) it constitutes the control text for modern editions of the title. Because the Second Quarto is itself flawed in places, however, it too is usually “corrected, augmented, and amended” by modern editors, frequently with material spliced in from the comparatively corrupt First Quarto and less frequently with material drawn from the derivative later quartos—Q3 (1609), Q4 (undated but evidently issued around 1622), and Q5 (1637)—and from the 1623 First Folio (whose Romeo and Juliet appears to have been set from the Third Quarto). An inevitable consequence of the plethora of options afforded the post-Elizabethan editor, director, and commentator is that no two Romeo and Juliets are exactly the same.

    In this essay all quotations from the plays and poems are referenced to the text in The Everyman Shakespeare (London: J. M. Dent, 1993), an annotated edition I have recently completed for the Orion Group. Other Shakespearean quotations derive either from the Everyman set or from its predecessor, The Guild Shakespeare (New York: Guild America Books, 1989-92), an edition produced for the Doubleday Book & Music Clubs. The Everyman text retains a number of features from the early printing that are altered in most of today's editions, and one consequence is that some of the line references in Romeo and Juliet will seem unfamiliar. Everyman treats as a single scene, 1.4, what modern editions usually render as two, 1.4 and 1.5; in similar fashion Everyman's 2.1 combines the usual 2.1 and 2.2, and Everyman's 4.3 combines the usual 4.3, 4.4, and 4.5.

  3. For Shakespeare's own use of the words “judicious” and “action,” see Hamlet 3.2.1-52.

  4. I would underscore the word “might” in this sentence. We have very little information about how Elizabethan playgoers responded to Shakespeare's tragedies, and much of what we do have is subject to debate.

  5. See Aristotle's Poetics: A Translation and Commentary for Students of Literature (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968), particularly 115-20. My thinking on catharsis in Shakespeare has also been richly informed by Hardison's “Three Types of Renaissance Catharsis” in Renaissance Drama, n.s., 2 (1969): 3-22, and by the writings of the late Virgil K. Whitaker, especially in The Mirror Up to Nature (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1965), and Roy Battenhouse, above all in Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969).

  6. The situation I describe here is the norm for Shakespearean comedy and romance, where catharsis (“dis-illusionment”) must occur in the central characters to bring about the resolution that constitutes a happy ending. I've written in more detail about the relationships between tragedy and comedy in “Ethical and Theological Questions in Shakespeare,” in William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence, ed. John F. Andrews (New York: Scribners, 1985), vol. 2. For further comment on the relationship between “disillusionment” and catharsis in Shakespearean tragedy, see the Editor's Introduction to Antony and Cleopatra in The Everyman Shakespeare (London: J. M. Dent, 1993).

  7. Samson Agonistes, line 1758.

  8. Hamlet 5.2.375. Among Shakespeare's tragedies, the only one that strikes me as approaching this kind of denouement is King Lear, where (depending on how the final moments of the play are staged) a long-suffering protagonist can be construed either as dying in despair or as departing from “this tough World” with a glimmer of faith and hope that promises to “redeem all Sorrows” (5.3.311, 264). Some see Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra as tragedies that also carry us to the verge of “divine comedy.” I can find some basis for this reading of the Prince of Denmark's final moments, but up to the point where Hamlet and Laertes exchange forgiveness I see little reason to take at face value the allusions to Providence that are usually interpreted as indicating a “sweet Prince” with his heart in the right place. In Antony and Cleopatra I discern no textual warrant for the view that an audience is to be persuaded by the protagonists' grandiloquent assessments of themselves or by the “New Heaven, New Earth” they claim to win by disavowing the “dungy” clay kingdoms they cede at last to Caesar (1.1.17, 35). I discuss Milton's appropriation of tragic form in “‘Dearly Bought Revenge’: “Samson Agonistes, Hamlet, and Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy,” Milton Studies 11 (1979): 81-108. For a fascinating new analysis of the different types of Christian tragedy, I recommend Sherman H. Hawkins's “Religious Patterning in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies,” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 50 (June 1991): 151-88.

  9. See Hamlet 5.2.375, and King Lear 5.3.231-32.

  10. The edition of The Consolation of Philosophy that I have used is the translation and commentary by Richard Green (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1962).

  11. Friar Lawrence invokes “Philosophy” in 3.3.55-56 of Romeo and Juliet when he explains to a desperate Romeo that he should welcome “Adversity's sweet Milk.” Both here and later in the play (see 4.3.151-69), the Friar calls attention to Lady Philosophy's teaching that “bad” fortune is actually better for us than what we incorrectly think of as good fortune. In As You Like It, 2.1.1-17, Duke Senior sounds a Boethian note when he observes that “Sweet are the Uses of Adversity.” And in King Lear, 4.1.19-21, Gloster speaks similarly when he says that “Full oft 'tis seen / Our Means secure us, and our mere Defects / Prove our Commodities.”

  12. I am indebted to the translation and commentary by D. W. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1958). Robertson also discusses On Christian Doctrine extensively in A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962).

  13. For a detailed exposition of the relationship between astrology and medieval and Renaissance psychology, see Walter Clyde Curry's “Destiny in Troilus and Criseyde” in Chaucer and the Medieval Sciences (New York: Oxford University Press, 1926). Also see John W. Draper, “Shakespeare's Star-Crossed Lovers,” Review of English Studies 15 (1939): 16-34; Douglas L. Peterson, “Romeo and Juliet and the Art of Moral Navigation,” in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, ed. Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield (Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1966), 33-46, and James L. Calderwood, “Romeo and Juliet: A Formal Dwelling,” in Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971).

  14. Romeo's surname in all the original texts is spelled “Mountague.” Given Shakespeare's wordplay on “ague” (fever) in “Sir Andrew Ague-cheek” (as the name of the foolish suitor is rendered in the First Folio text of Twelfth Night), it seems reasonable to assume that the playwright was fully aware of the symbolic potential in “Mount-ague,” a word that related not only to the erotic drives of both lovers but also to the aspirations of the Capulets and to the celestial imagery of much of the play's language. See Love's Labor's Lost 4.1.1-4, for related play on “Mounting,” and compare the aptness of such additional Shakespearean names as Launcelet (“small lance”) in The Merchant of Venice and Fortinbrasse (a rendering of the French Fortinbras—“strong in arms”—that picks up on “Brazen” and “Mettle” when the name is introduced in 1.1.65-102) in the Second Quarto of Hamlet. In 5.3.159 of All's Well That Ends Well, we learn that Diana, the maiden Bertram believes himself to have mounted, derives from “the ancient Capilet,” an Italian family whose surname can be translated “small horse.” In Twelfth Night, III.4.310-11, Sir Andrew Ague-cheek surrenders his horse, “Grey Capilet,” to avoid a duel with the fierce “Cesario.” What's in a name, then? Quite a lot, particularly if we disregard modern editors' “corrections” of Shakespeare's spelling and retain the designations the playwright himself provided. See The Guild Shakespeare, 16:468, for a note on “Doctor Buts” and other symbolic nomenclature in Henry VIII.

  15. See James C. Bryant, “The Problematic Friar in Romeo and Juliet,English Studies 55 (1974): 340-50, for background that might have been pertinent to an Elizabethan audience's perception of the Friar and his role in the events that lead to tragedy.

  16. A. C. Bradley is seldom recalled nowadays, but one of the wisest and most memorable observations ever uttered about Shakespearean tragedy is his remark that “In the circumstances where we see the hero placed, his tragic trait, which is also his greatness, is fatal to him.” In my view, Romeo and Juliet illustrate both this and another of Bradley's generalizations about Shakespeare's tragic protagonists: “In almost all we observe a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in some particular direction; a total incapacity, in certain circumstances, of resisting the force which draws in this direction; a fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion, or habit of mind.” See Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillon & Co., 1904), 26-27.

  17. Here I retain the Second Quarto spelling “Stirrage,” which plays on “stir” (compare 1.1.9, where Gregory observes that “To move is to stir”) and reminds us that Romeo's “Steerage” will prove that “Love” can be considerably more “rough” (1.4.27) than the jesting Mercutio suspects. Romeo's nautical imagery anticipates what he will say to Juliet in 2.1.124-26 (“I am no Pylat, yet wert thou as far / As that vast Shore wash'd with the farthest Sea, / I should adventure for such Marchandise”) and what he will say just before he expires in 5.3.118-22. The Pylat spelling in 2.1.124 may be an authorial allusion to Pontius Pilate; if so, it casts an ironic light on the sacrificial imagery in Capulet's benediction at 5.3.305-6.

  18. We sometimes forget that an excessive love of “Reputation” was regarded as a form of idolatry in the Renaissance. For a consideration of this theme in another Shakespearean love tragedy, see David L. Jeffrey and J. Patrick Grant's “Reputation in Othello” in Shakespeare Studies 6 (1970): 197-208. Meanwhile, for perceptive observations about the part gender plays in male codes of behavior, see Coppèlia Kahn's “Coming of Age in Verona,” Modern Language Studies 8 (1977-78): 5-22; Marianne Novy's Love's Argument (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); Edward Snow's “Language and Sexual Difference in Romeo and Juliet,” in Shakespeare's Rough Magic, ed. Peter Erickson and Coppèlia Kahn (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985); and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

  19. In doing so, of course, he disregards the teaching Elizabethans would have been familiar with from the homily Of Obedience (1547) and the later homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion (1574), both of which drew on the Apostle Paul's Epistle to the Romans (12:17-13:7) to remind subjects that they should “Recompense to no man evil for evil,” instead leaving to God and his ordained “powers that be” the judging and punishing of crimes. The popularity of revenge tragedy in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater was an implicit acknowledgment that men who prized their honor (their self-respect and their social standing) frequently found it difficult, if not impossible, to submit themselves to passive, long-suffering forbearance, even though they recognized that the code duello was explicitly condemned by the Lord they claimed to worship (see the Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthew 5:38-44). For a fuller discussion of the ethical, social, and political tensions that resulted from the disparity between supposedly “masculine” and “feminine” approaches to the resolution of conflict, see Fredson Bowers's Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940), and Eleanor Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge, rev. ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971).

  20. See 1.9.27-54 of Faerie Queene. I owe this observation to Professor Joan Hartwig of the University of Kentucky, who shared it with me in 1971 when we were fellow faculty members at Florida State University.

  21. The earliest version of this essay, “The Catharsis of Romeo and Juliet,” appeared in Contributi dell'Istituto di Filologia Moderna (Milan: Università Cattolica, 1974), 142-75. I grateful to the editor of that volume, Professor Sergio Rossi of the University of Turin, for permission to publish a revision of the original article. I also wish to acknowledge the degree to which my thinking about Romeo and Juliet has benefited from the writings of others not previously cited in these notes, among them Ralph Berry, “The Sonnet World of Verona,” in The Shakespearean Metaphor (London: Macmillan, 1978); James Black, “The Visual Artistry of Romeo and Juliet,Studies in English Literature 15 (1975): 245-56; Franklin M. Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1957); Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, vol. 4 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946); Jack J. Jorgens, “Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet,” in his Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977); Harry Levin, “Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960): 3-11; M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen, 1957); Thomas E. Moisan, “Rhetoric and the Rehearsal of Death: The ‘Lamentations’ Scene in Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 389-404; Norman Rabkin, “Eros and Death” in Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967); Susan Snyder. “Romeo and Juliet: Comedy and Tragedy,” Essays in Criticism 20 (1970): 391-402; and Stanley Wells, “Juliet's Nurse: The Uses of Inconsequentiality,” in Shakespeare's Styles, ed. Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank, and G. K. Hunter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

Further Reading

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Colley, John Scott. “Drama, Fortune, and Providence in Hamlet.College Literature 5, no. 1 (winter 1978): 48-56.

Discusses Hamlet's inability to distinguish between blind fortune and divine providence.

Gervais, David. “Shakespeare and Racine: On Reading Macbeth and Britannicus.Cambridge Quarterly 23, no. 1 (1994): 1-19.

Comments on Shakespeare's balance of prophetic fate and surprise in fashioning the tragic events of Macbeth.

Gooder, Jean. “‘Fixt Fate’ and ‘Free Will’ in Phèdre and Macbeth.Cambridge Quarterly 28, no. 3 (1999): 214-31.

Compares the struggle between self-determinism and fatalism in Shakespeare's Macbeth and Racine's Phèdre.

Jorgensen, Paul A. “A Formative Shakespearean Legacy: Elizabethan Views of God, Fortune, and War.” PMLA 90, no. 2 (March 1975): 222-33.

Contends that the plays of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy demonstrate crucial developments in the dramatist's representation of the relationship between fortune and God in historical, political, and military affairs.

Kiefer, Frederick. “Fortune and Nature in Sejanus and King Lear.” In Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy, pp. 270-302. San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1983.

Concentrates on the “intractable, capricious, malign” depiction of Fortune manifested in the natural world of King Lear and in Ben Jonson's Sejanus His Fall.

Lucking, David. “Uncomfortable Time in Romeo and Juliet.English Studies 82, no. 2 (April 2001): 115-26.

Views Romeo and Juliet as less a tragedy of misfortune or fate than an attempt to transcend time through drama.

Mallette, Richard. “From Gyves to Graces: Hamlet and Free Will.” JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology 93, no. 3 (July 1994): 336-55.

Traces Hamlet's journey from Calvinistic determinism to a tragic acceptance of his own free will.

Milne, Joseph. “Hamlet: The Conflict between Fate and Grace.” Hamlet Studies (New Delhi) 18, nos. 1-2 (summer-winter 1996): 29-48.

Uses the example of Hamlet to interpret Shakespearean fate as a form of sin that leads to tragedy, but may be overcome by the regenerative powers of transcendent grace.

Pannu, D. S. “‘Deep Plots’: Chance and Providence in Hamlet.Hamlet Studies (New Delhi) 15, nos. 1-2 (summer-winter 1993): 100-06.

Uncovers the workings of divine providence masked as enigmatic fortune in the revenge tragedy of Hamlet.

Paris, Bernard J. “Bargains with Fate: The Case of Macbeth.American Journal of Psychoanalysis 42, no. 1 (spring 1982): 7-20.

Horneyian psychoanalytic study of Shakespeare's Macbeth that focuses on the Scottish king's violation of preexisting “perfectionistic” and “arrogant-vindictive” bargains with fate that ultimately precipitate his existential despair and self-destruction.

Scolnicov, Hanna. “‘The Mystery of Things’: The Role of Fortune in King Lear.Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 14, no. 4 (December 1981): 191-203.

Claims that, in view of the irrational and inscrutable causality of King Lear, “the metaphysical mechanism which moves the Lear universe is the Goddess Fortune with her wheel.”

Shaw, John. “Fortune and Nature in As You Like It.Shakespeare Quarterly 6, no. 1 (winter 1955): 45-50.

Remarks on Shakespeare's use of the traditional Renaissance rivalry between the gifts of Nature (such as nobility, strength, wisdom, and virtue) and the transient gifts of Fortune, as illustrated by the characters and comic plot of As You Like It.

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Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare