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The Wheel of Fortune

The Wheel of Fortune, or Rota Fortunae, is a notion that has its origins in medieval and ancient philosophy referring to the unpredictability of Fate. The goddess Fortuna spins the wheel at random, changing the positions of those on the wheel. Some suffer great misfortune while others receive enormous gain. The Wheel was widely used as an allegory in medieval literature and art to aid religious instruction. Fortune appears in all paintings as a woman, sometimes blindfolded, ‘puppeteering’ a wheel. Shakespeare included many references to Fortune throughout his plays, especially in Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear.

In Henry V, 3.6.25–38, Shakespeare writes:

Pistol: Bardolph, a soldier firm and sound of heart and buxom valor, hath, by cruel Fate and giddy Fortune’s furious fickle wheel, that goddess blind, that stands upon the rolling restless stone –


Fluellen: By your patience, Aunchient Pistol, Fortune is painted blind, with a muffler afore [her] eyes, to signify to you that Fortune is blind; and she is painted also with a wheel to signfy to you, which is the moral of it, that she is turning and inconstant, and mutability and variation; and her foot, look you, is fixed upon a spherical stone, which rolls and rolls and rolls. In good truth, the poet makes a most excellent description of it. Fortune is an excellent moral."


Pistol: Fortune is Bardolph’s foe, and frowns on him; For he hath stolen a pax, and hanged must a’ be:

Pistol is distraught because two of his friends are currently on opposing sides of Fortune’s wheel: King Henry V (no longer Prince Hal) is leading his army through France following victory at Harfleur, while Bardolph faces execution for stealing from an overthrown church. Fortune does not discern between nobles or common men, she spins her wheel, raising some to greatness while others fall to disgrace.


In an essay for the Folger’s 2000 exhibit "All Is But Fortune," Professor Leslie Thompson noted that the title (a quote from The Tempest), "expresses both the hope and the resignation that characterize the Renaissance attitude to Fortune... Arbitrary change in the world is the same; unjust reward and punishment, unwarranted success and failure are still inexplicable. The sense that we have limited power to control events and the problem of individual freedom versus necessity both remain … Fortune has evolved from classical goddess, to Renaissance personification, to a much looser modern concept; but while we no longer believe in the goddess, or depict Fortune in emblems, we are still very much aware that our world is, or seems to be, a realm governed by chance and mutability. Out of this fact grow questions about whether we are responsible for our own bad fortune—the good we usually accept as our due—and how we can avoid misfortune in the future. The desire to control the turning of Fortune’s wheel is as strong as ever: astrology, palmistry, and other forms of fortune telling—even market forecasting and political polls—are attempts to know and determine the future" (p.8).


Do you think we are responsible for our own bad or good fortune? Or do things just happen?

  Exhibition Highlights

"All is But Fortune" January 18, through June 10, 2000

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