O Fortuna!

Today, June 24rth, is the ancient Roman festival of Fortuna, the goddess of luck and worldly fortunes. I’ve chosen to use this opportunity to explain a little bit about the concept of Fortune, which Shakespeare uses frequently in his tragedies. But first, a short musical interlude:

Does this song sound familiar? You’ve probably heard it underscored in hundreds of commercials, TV shows, maybe even in concerts, it’s a song composed by composer Carl Orff called “O Fortuna.”

The Roman goddess Fortuna
The Roman goddess Fortuna with her wheel and orb.

In Roman mythology, Fortuna was the goddess of luck, wealth, and fertility. If you listen to the lyrics of the song above, you can see that for centuries, people chose to represent Fortune as a fickle, changeable, and irresponsible goddess. Unfortunately, one of the reasons she’s personified as a woman is the long-held prejudice that women are weak, have frequent changes of mind and mood, and can’t commit to one person, (a view of women that I and Shakespeare believe to not be true). However, based on his writing he does seem to think Fortune fits these characteristics:

“I am Fortune’s fool” –Romeo and Juliet

O fortune, fortune! all men call thee fickle:                If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him.   That is renown’d for faith? Be fickle, fortune; For then, I hope, thou wilt not keep him long, But send him back. –Romeo and Juliet

“When Fortune means to men most good,           She looks upon them with a threatening eye.” King John

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! -Hamlet

In Dante’s Inferno, Fortuna lives in the Underworld with Plutus the god of gold, helping to distribute the god’s wealth to people above ground. In the Middle ages she was an explanation for why some people have good luck, some have bad, and why luck frequently changes.

The Wheel of Fortune. 

Fortuna’s most recognizable symbol is her wheel; the symbol of how luck can change; just when you think your life is perfect, the wheel turns and you find yourself on the bottom. Frequently in tragedy when things go wrong, the characters blame Fortune, such as when the Lord of Kent finds himself put in the stocks like a common thief and gripes: “Fortune good night, smile once more, turn thy wheel,” King Lear, Act II, Scene ii. And yes, the real game show was partially inspired by the goddess’ most famous symbol.

Fortuna In Tragedies

Shakespeare mentions fortune over 500 times in his plays and frequently in his tragedies. Characters in Shakespearean tragedy frequently single out Fortuna as the cause of their unhappiness and curse her as a liar and a strumpet. In a Christian society, it was a lot more appealing to blame a pagan goddess than a loving, Christian god, (which would probably be considered blasphemous). Now you see why she has become a popular scapegoat for misfortune in tragedy. At the same time, all tragedy raises questions about the nature of free will; how much of bad fortune is the result of fate, and how much is a direct result of the character’s bad choices? Edmund in King Lear laughs at the notion of any kind of fate, and accuses all of humanity of shirking responsibility in this speech:

EDMUND

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! (King Lear, Act I, Scene ii).

At the same time, the audience also knows that Edmund was cursed by Fortune from the beginning, since he is the illegitimate child of the Duke of Gloucester, which might prove exactly the opposite point of his speech. He may act like he is absolute in his free will, but his behavior and his violent end suggests otherwise. So when characters curse Fortune or Fortuna in Shakespeare’s plays, take a look at the language they use to characterize this abstract concept. The way we think about luck or fate helps shape our perspective of our own lives, and therefore how playwrights depict this mysterious goddess helps us see the possibilities of human choice, and maybe help us make better choices than the tragic men who slander her in these plays!

For more insight into this topic: Click here to listen to my podcast about this week’s post:
https://www.buzzsprout.com/45002/284936-the-shakespearean-student-episode-6-o-fortuna

For Further Reading:

  1. Brittanica.com: Fortuna: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Fortuna-Roman-goddess
  2. Internet Shakespeare Editions: Fortuna in Medieval Drama: http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/drama/early%20tragedies/medievaltragedy.html#boethius 
  3. Encyclopedia Mythica: Fortune: http://pantheon.org/areas/mythology/europe/roman/articles.html
  4. The Obscure Goddess Online Dictionary: http://www.thaliatook.com/OGOD/fortuna.html 
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