Fortune speed us!

Distant weather prophecy. Author photo.

It has been a while, I know. Sometimes, Fortune speeds us. At other times, it slows us down. Yet, here we are.

Most often personified as a female, Fortune tends to be fickle, just as the changeability of luck or fortune may seem to be either good or bad. As Hamlet says to Rosencranz, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (2.2.269-70) This blog has previously mentioned this along with the old story of the farmer and his son which also reflects this flexible perspective. (For the story itself, and a couple of great clips from Harry Potter movies, please have a look at the post entitled “As good luck would have it”. )

When we anthropomorphise an aspect or multiple aspects of human experience, the resultant personae often assume individual tempramental qualities which amplify the nature of our own human emotional responses. Love, for example, when we think of ‘her’ as the goddess Aphrodite or Venus, tends to be breathtakingly beautiful and alluring, but she can also be jealous, vain, and inconstant.

In the case of Venus/Aphrodite, one of the goddess’ lovers is Mars/Ares, the god of War. Like war, the god that represents it may be virile and active, but also angry and grim. Depending on the particular narrative, Love and War are the parents of Cupid, the blind child god who, armed with a bow, shoots arrows of attraction into unwitting mortals, sometimes in haphazard ways. Cupid tends to be especially associated with physical attraction, and the sexual aspects of love–often representing the sudden ‘bolt out of the blue’ that can be love at first sight.* Mars and Venus are also the parents of Concordia, as love and war may eventually find a kind of resolution in peaceful agreement.

Fortuna/Tyche, the goddess of luck and prosperity, is also sometimes (but not always) pictured as blind, because fortune may smile equally on the deserving and the less deserving. Like her father (who is usually thought of as Jupiter/Zeuss**), she could bestow bounteous favours, but she also remains notoriously capricious about it. The medieval writer, Boethius, wrote his influential work, The Consolation of Philosophy, when he was imprisoned and sentenced to die in 524 c.e. by Theodoric the Great, the king of the Ostrogoths. Because he had served Theodoric for decades, it is not suprising that Boethius’ work reflects a kind of astonished bitterness at the unfairness in life. In an attempt at consolation, Philosophy tells the author that Fortune is cruel–raising people up only to subsequently dash them down with a turn of Fortune’s wheel.

Indeed, Lady Luck’s inconstancy has been a trope for centuries, remaining with us today. American journalist Damon Runyon’s portraits of gamblers and gangsters in his 1932 short story collection, Guys and Dolls, was subsequently made into a Broadway musical by Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, and Jo Swerling in 1950 (opening in the West End in 1953). In the 1955 motion picture version of the musical, Marlon Brando (as gambler Sky Masterson) pleads with lady luck to remain true to him as he risks love and money on a single roll of the dice:

Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls. Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, 1955.

With another successful Broadway revival in 2009 and a 2015 revival in London, Guys and Dolls remains consistently popular with theatre audiences–illustrating parallels between love and fortune, highlighting how each may be like a game of chance.

The idea of fickle Fortune, however, predates Boethius, as may be seen in this passage from Seneca’s 1st century tragedy, Agammemnon:

O Fortune, who dost bestow the throne’s high boon with mocking hand, in dangerous and doubtful state thou settest the too exalted. Never have sceptres obtained calm peace or certain tenure; care on care weighs them down, and ever do fresh storms vex their souls.*** 

So, the idea of ‘life’s vicissitudes’ was well known (and may have been a cliché) in the classical world as much as it is in ours. Even then, Fortuna’s spinning wheel precipitated the ups and downs of human experience.

French Miniaturist (15th century). Fortune and Her Wheel: Illustration from Vol. 1 of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men) (1467, Glasgow, Glasgow University LIbrary). Internet image. Public domain.

Neither is the idea of Fortune’s wheel limited solely to western culture. In a scene from Akira Kurosawa’s film adaptation of Macbeth, Macbeth and Banquo meet a spirit in the forest–a spirit who condenses the different (but overlapping) ideas of Shakespeare’s three witches, and the three classical thread spinning fates, into a single figure with a spinning wheel:

Throne of Blood (蜘蛛巣城, Kumonosu-jō, “Spider Web Castle”), Toho, 1957.

Fortune’s wheel has become such an iconic mytheme that it is even the subject of a tarot card–the widely known fortune telling deck which prefigures the modern deck of playing cards and is comprised of often archetypal images. (Making it into the tarot deck always seems to have been a marker of success in making the bid to become an archetypal icon):

“Wheel of Fortune” from the Rider Waite Tarot deck of 1909.

Fair enough, Ghost, you may say, but what about Shakespeare? Isn’t this a Shakespeare blog? Well, yes it is.

This post’s title line comes from Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, and it is spoken by Prince Florizel of Bohemia. Having unwittingly revealed his love for Perdita in front of his father, the disguised King Polixenes, Florizel finds himself confronted by an angry father who forbids his marriage. (Neither Florizel nor Polixenes know at this point that Perdita, who has been raised as a shepherdess, is actually the princess of the neighbouring kingdom of Sicily.) In order to escape the king’s judgment and his wrath, Florizel and Perdita board a ship to Sicily and head into their destiny.

Yet, Shakespeare’s works are so replete with ideas and expressions of Fortune that this instance is hardly unique. The well known Sonnet 29 begins with the line, “When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state…”. In Romeo and Juliet, after Romeo’s departure from her bedchamber, Juliet cries out:

O Fortune, Fortune, all men call thee fickle.
If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him
That is renowned for faith? Be fickle, Fortune,
For then I hope thou wilt not keep him long,
But send him back.

Romeo and Juliet 3.5.60-4

In a pointed example of fickle Fortune, the deeply in love Juliet says this just before her mother enters to tell her that she shall be wed to Paris on the coming Thursday.

Echoing the sentiment and circumstances in Seneca’s tragedy, Brutus, in Julius Caesar says these lines just before the battle at Philippi that will crush his hopes of victory in the Roman civil war:

Our legions are brim full, 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.

Julius Caesar 4.3.246-55

Spoiler alert (in case anyone reading this didn’t know), in Juliet’s case, Fortune will not send Romeo back to her. Instead, he will be banished for slaying Tybalt. For Brutus, taking the figurative tide to the Battle of Philippi will lose his ventures indeed.

As in life, so in Shakespeare. The plays and poems are so full of expressions about Fortune and Fortune’s turns both good and bad, that it might take volumes to sort through them all. Mentioned only once each in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Venus and Adonis, and Love’s Labour’s Lost, the word appears only twice in The Passionate Pilgrim. Yet, it appears forty three times in Antony and Cleopatra. Does this tell us something about that play, something about the playwright’s frame of mind, or perhaps something about the times in which each work was written? We can only speculate.

In the end, Fortune’s fluctuations can be abrupt and dramatic, and even though Fortuna is most often represented as female, fortune’s agents may have any gender. Sometimes, changing one’s fate can be a simple matter of talking to the right person at the right time:

Casablanca, Warner Brothers, 1942.

For all of us, life has moments where we require a bit of help. When we find ourselves able to give, let’s hope we all will be like Bogart’s character Rick.

Like the tide, Fortune fluctuates around us constantly.

Somewhere, waves shush against rocks hundreds of feet below the broken guardrail.

A crumpled car teeters, front wheels off the ledge. Stalled motor ticking. Steam. Smell of fuel.

Above, the sound of a passing car.

Farther down along the coast, scattered houses cling to places where the highway shoulders off the bluff. Western windows glare back the sunset, and already a few lights are coming on as the sun sinks.

Elsewhere, someone buys a lottery ticket, rolls dice, picks up a hand at cards, makes an offer on a house, asks for a date, makes a souffle.

We still see her, standing aloof in the wind, sun rising in one place and setting somewhere else.

Wheel turning. Engine ticking. We’re on a ledge. Increasingly violent weather threatens our very existence. We need to decide what we’re going to do and do it. Really commit. There’s no more time.

The Italian Job, Paramount Pictures, 1969.

Let’s hope we can make the right kinds of choices. It’s always nice to get the gold. But let’s also be kind and giving to each other along the way, no matter where the bus may stop.

*As an interesting sidebar, Cupid himself is not immune to love. A story tells us of a princess named Psyche whose beauty became so renowned that Venus became jealous. When the goddess sent her son Cupid to punish the princess, he fell in love instead, and the godling and Psyche began a secret love affair which (as related by Lucius Apuleius) makes a thrilling tale. The name Psyche is often translated as “soul” but also suggests something alone the lines of “animatory breath”, perhaps the closest idea in the western pantheon to the idea of qi (氣) in classical Chinese thought, prana (प्राण) in Hindu philosophy, or even Níłch’i (Holy Wind) in Diné/Navajo cosmology*–albeit this is not at all to suggest that any of these concepts derived from disparate cultures can or should be understood as being identical.This does NOT mean to suggest that any of these concepts derived from disparate cultures can or should be understood as being identical. These ideas are more subtle, multidimensional, and nuanced than a simple English translation can adequately express. For those who are interested, information on 氣 and प्राण may be found in many places and an internet search will provide a good starting bibliography. More thorough discussions of Níłch’i in Navajo thought may be found in: Macneley, James Kale. Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1981. and also in Farella, John R. The Main Stalk: a Synthesis of Navajo Philosophy. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2007. It is good to bear in mind that many Diné show a marked reluctance to speak openly about such things, and I don’t blame them. Sometimes, the ‘wind’ within one can whisper different kinds of things, or one can listen wrongly. In these cases, the breath may turn obverse, and the person in whom that wind resides may become something else. Asking about such topics may not only be rude, but also spiritually dangerous.

**In some cases, Fortuna’s father is listed as Mercury/Hermes, perhaps in an attempt to reconcile her own mercurial temprament with prevailing mythological structure.

***Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. “SENECA, AGAMEMNON.” Seneca the Younger, Agamemnon – Theoi Classical Texts Library. (From Seneca. Tragedies . Trans. Frank Justus Miller. Loeb Classical Library Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1917.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

error: Content is protected !!