5. The Wheel of Fortune

THE MEDIEVAL CONCEPT OF FORTUNA

The concept of the wheel of fortune was alive long before the emergence of Vanna White and Pat Sajak and their popular game show.  Turned by a Roman goddess, the wheel represents time, chance, and its cyclical revolutions. 

In Shakespeare’s time, tragedy was perceived as a reversal of fortune; a fall from a high position. This view of tragedy derives from the Medieval concept of fortune, which was personified as Fortuna, a blindfolded woman who turned a wheel at whim.  Men were stationed at various places on the wheel—the top of the wheel represented the best fortune, while being under the wheel the worst fortune. However, the wheel could turn suddenly and the man on top could unexpectedly find himself under the wheel, without warning.

Here are some references to the wheel of fortune in Shakespeare’s plays:

  • “The wheel is come full circle; I am here.” King Lear (5.3.209)
  • “. . . Fortune break her wheel.” Antony and Cleopatra (4.15.52)
  • “O Lady Fortune, Stand you auspicious!” The Winter’s Tale (4.4.59-60)
  • “And fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling, Show’d [herself] like a rebel’s whore.” Macbeth (1.2.16)

FortuneThe wheel figuratively represented the possible phases in a man’s life.  At the top, man was represented as a crowned king, and at the bottom, a beggar or fool.  While the fool was bound by necessity, dependent on all those around him, the king experienced freedom, and could so act as he chose.

How many references to Fortune can you find within Macbeth.  More importantly, what is the final message of the wheel as it pertains to Macbeth?

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