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Fortune’s Wheel: Intertextual Analysis of the Vicissitudes of Fortune

By Marley Corbière

During the Renaissance period, cultural accounts from literature to art often portray Fortune as a highly authoritative entity. Fortune’s will is capricious—she strikes at any time and inflicts disarray in the lives of many. However, Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Book Six of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Robert Greene’s Pandosto challenge assumptions surrounding Fortune’s infallibility. Specifically, the authors of these romances oppose this dominant conception by presenting humans as able to maintain control when confronting the vicissitudes of Fortune. While these authors continue to posit that Fortune holds a strong influence over the material world, their characters gain control through consciously operating in her domain by evading or intentionally inviting Fortune into their lives. Drawing from Stoic and Boethian principles, the texts highlight actions of evasion in dealings with fortune through opposition to material wealth. Moreover, the authors also present characters who intentionally subject themselves to Fortune’s power in order to reveal new possibilities. In these scenarios, to authorize Fortune’s changeability represents a means of taking control of the situation. The authors also strategically point to powers that contradict Fortune’s control such as the Oracle and Providence to further diminish Fortune’s theoretical standing. Thus, through the analysis of the Arcadia, The Faerie Queene and Pandosto, the assumption that Fortune is infallible is superseded by an emphasis on active human intention, which proves capable of surpassing Fortune’s negativities. Rather than ultimately favouring Fortune, these texts reveal how romance as a genre opens a space for human agency.

Fortune occupied the minds of many Renaissance thinkers who ultimately disseminated the notion of Fortune’s infallibility. Particularly, critics like Antonio Minturno contemplate the malleability of human lives and its connection to Fortune, explaining that “no one [is] so happy that he cannot become miserable, no one so great that he cannot become humble and low” (289). Minturno points to Fortune’s ability to reach any man regardless of his status or rank, and this understanding extends to the world of romance. Romance, as a genre, is “not developed with tight cause and effect relations,” but instead emphasizes improbability, sheer coincidence and surprising events, thus centralising Fortune’s function (Culp 256). Fortune not only manipulates the lives of individuals but does so without limits. Greene, Spenser, and Sidney, therefore, utilize the popular understanding of Fortune and narrative conventions of romance to portray how humans contend with Fortune’s presence. 

While acknowledging Fortune’s power, Greene, Sidney, and Spenser paradoxically display powerful forces that demonstrate Fortune’s inferiority in comparison. Through the use of oracles and Providence, the authors present opportunities to overcome Fortune’s influence and discredit Fortune’s all-powerful nature. As oracles tell the future, they destabilize the validity of Fortune and chance. In Fortune and Providence in Renaissance Neo-Greek Romance, Edward Ares McNicoll states, “the oracles suggest the existence of a predetermined future controlling present events,” which directly contradicts the arbitrary nature of Fortune (McNicoll 143). In Pandosto, the oracle of Apollo declares the truth, submitting that the accusations towards Pandosto’s wife are false and that his child is innocent. Because their power stems from Apollo, “who by his divine essence knew all secrets” (Greene 169), the oracles are able to foretell any knowledge, reducing Fortune’s agency. The characters’ ability to access truth at all times through the oracle undermines Fortune’s changeability and arbitrary nature. In Arcadia, an oracle’s prophecy similarly ignites Basilius’ departure from court, allowing for the realization of divination. Although characters undergo turns of Fortune in their respective journeys, such as the near-death experiences of the princes and the kidnapping of the princesses, the oracle suggests a predetermined narrative sequence. Therefore, Greene, Sidney, and Spenser position pre-knowledge as superior to Fortune. 

Another concept of predetermination that contends with Fortune’s power takes the form of Providence in Faerie Queene. Characters frequently mention Fortune as the force that sanctions actions, such as when Calepine gives a baby to a Lady and Lord, stating, “Lo how good fortune doth to you present / This little babe, of sweete and lovely face” (Spenser 4.35.3-4). However, these characters are limited in their perception as they can only see a small part of the temporal and spatial universal scheme. In contrast, God is privy to and maintains control over all things in concert through divine providence. Calidore and Coridon’s mission to rescue Pastorella exemplifies God’s providence as they “goe together (God before)” (11.36.1). By stating ‘God before,’ Sidney demonstrates how their actions are supported by and follow God’s plan. Moreover, Pastorella’s mother Claribell attributes Pastorella’s deliverance from a near-death experience, not to Fortune, but God’s grace when she states that Pastorella is “whom high God did save” (12.17.9; Williams 342). Thus, these instances demonstrate how Providence is responsible for crucial plot points in the story. Providence’s intervention determines the scenarios in which Fortune can act, creating a conceptual hierarchy that poses Providence as superior to Fortune. In this way, these texts present conflicting powers that not only demonstrate discrepancies in Fortune’s control but also create a space of contention in which human agency can be explored. 

In Arcadia, Pandosto and Faerie Queene, characters exhibit human agency by inviting Fortune into their lives rather than passively succumbing to Fortune’s will. As Pandosto decides the fates of his child, Greene explains that “he was content to spare the child’s life, and yet to put it to a worser death […] he would commit it to the charge of Fortune” by sending them out to sea (166). This passage marks a conscious subjection to Fortune in contrast to the lack of warning in traditional encounters with Fortune. Although Pandosto considers this act a condemnation, submitting the child to Fortune creates possibilities in a situation that would have otherwise resulted in death. Under the guidance of Fortune, the deliverance of Fawnia to a loving family leads to her ultimate reinstatement at court. Fortune’s intervention and Fawnia’s subjection to her will prevent an unjust death and subsequently remedy the situation. McNicoll contextualizes the relationship between Fortune and the sea by stating that “[t]he tribulations attributed to Fortune typically begin at sea,” and “these sea perils also [play] a providential role in the concatenation of events that brought the heroes to salvation” (McNicoll 56-57). In the Arcadia, Sidney similarly uses the sea to represent a subjection to Fortune. Musidorus and Pyrocles make the conscious decision to set sail on the constantly changing seas, and their turbulence along the voyage causes them to eventually find love. Strephon and Claius foreshadow the positive outcome brought on by the heroes’ subjection to Fortune as they “advise [Musidorus] that he should mitigate somewhat of his woe since he had gotten an amendment in fortune” (Sidney 68). The Shepherds emphasize how his dealing with Fortune has brought him new possibilities rather than merely perishing. Spenser’s Faerie Queene also features the symbolic sea as a metaphor for Calidor’s Journey. At the beginning of Canto 12, Spenser states: 

Like as a ship, that through the Ocean wyde 
Is met of many a counter winde and tyde, 
Yet making many a borde, and many a bay, 
Still winneth way, ne hath her compasse lost. (Spenser 12.1)

As the footnote explains, “Spenser reminds readers that sailing is […] subject to the whims of fortune” (Spenser 169n4). The boat, at the mercy of the sea and therefore at the mercy of Fortune, always successfully reaches its destination. Despite the negativities one might face, the decision to set sail—a subjection to Fortune in the form of the ocean—leads to successful outcomes for the main characters. Thus, the authors present a way of exercising human agency by using Fortune’s power to ultimately benefit characters and allow them to continue on their paths. 

Similar to the conscious confrontation of Fortune, the evasion of Fortune removes her control and highlights the human ability to manipulate one’s own fate. Evasion emphasizes Stoic principles to endorse a self-valuation and devaluation of the material goods in Fortune’s control.  The shepherd characters crystalize this stoicism through their appearance in the works of Greene, Spenser, and Sidney. In Pandosto, the shepherdess Fawnia exclaims, “Envy looketh not so low as shepherds; shepherds gaze not so high as ambition; we are rich in that we are poor with content” (Greene 184). The shepherds are less exposed to Fortune than their higher-class counterparts, as they have much less to lose. This abstinence from material pleasures harkens back to the principles of Stoicism, as reduced desires relinquish the anxiety of attending to them. The hermit highlights similar ideas in the Faerie Queene when he advises “[a]bstain[ing] from pleasure, and restrain[ing] your will” (Spenser 6.14.5) to “avoide the occasion of the ill” (Spenser 6.14.2). By embodying these qualities, the shepherds remain unaffected by Fortune and accordingly prevent the possibility of her interference. Arcadia further highlights the idea that value must come from within rather than externally, where it is subject to Fortune. Zelmane embodies this self-contentment when she says, “worthy shepherd, worth can never enter a title” (Sidney 193). With this statement, Sidney suggests that worth that stems from an artificial title is false, while worth from within should be valued. The shepherd himself is worthy because of his lack of title. Thus, by adhering to a Stoic approach which refrains from exterior pleasures and recognizes self-value, characters like shepherds become immune to Fortune’s possible destruction. Rather than falling prey to Fortune’s harmful vagaries, these characters maintain authority over their lives as immunity leads to self-governance.  

In terms of Boethian logic, evasion in the face of Fortune removes her leverage over individuals and renders the individual unaffected. Fawnia explains that a shepherd’s “toil is in shifting the folds and looking to the lambs: easy / labours; oft singing and telling tales: homely pleasures” (Greene 184). Rather than striving for riches, the shepherds value the simplicities of life that keep them self-sufficient. Their contentment comes from what is available to them, so they do not constantly want what they cannot access. In the Faerie Queene, Meliboe states, “For some, that hath abundance at his will, / Hath not enough, but wants in greatest store” ( These sentiments recall Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, in which Lady Fortune explains that the goal is for men to “look unmoved on Fortune good and bad” (8). In attempting to aid the protagonist, Lady Fortune states, “There is no other thing which could so successfully create happiness as a condition provided with all that is good, a condition of self-sufficiency and with no wants” (Boethius 49-50). Other desires such as “riches, position, estates, glory, and pleasures” (50) will not “free [the individual] from anxiety” because one desire always leads to more, leaving you to the mercy of Fortune’s will (60). The Arcadia reinforces this ideology through Sidney’s description of the shepherds:  “a happy people, wanting little because they desire not much” (70). In this way, the Arcadia, Pandosto and Faerie Queene reaffirm Boethius’s philosophy, allowing an individual to be unafflicted by Fortune as she has no power over their values. From this perspective, life will always provide simplistic pleasures without necessitating additional desires. By adhering to a simplistic life and self-sufficiency, individuals remove Fortune’s influence, as she controls the material world. Once again, the authors reaffirm human agency by demoting Fortune’s power on individuals’ valuation of their material lives.

In the Renaissance romance genre, Fortune may differ from its dominant conception. Specifically, the genre valorizes human agency while often degrading Fortune’s authority. This format allows authors like Greene, Spenser, and Sidney to demonstrate how individuals can use their autonomy to garner positive outcomes when faced with her ever-present vagaries. The Arcadia, Faerie Queene, and Pandosto highlight intentional human action that prevents characters from becoming mere subjects of Fortune’s power. The fallibility of Fortune opens an avenue for the contestation of her power. Then, these texts present active forms of invitation through the symbolic nature of sea voyages and subsequent individual interactions from which the protagonists benefit. Moreover, the texts highlight forms of evasion rooted in Stoicism and Boethian philosophy that prevent individuals from falling prey to Fortune’s control. Romance protagonists can maneuver their way around Fortune’s seemingly potent power and maintain control to escape the dark fate that often befalls individuals with a mere turn of Fortune’s wheel.

Works Cited

Allen, Don Cameron. “Renaissance Remedies for Fortune: Marlowe and the ‘Fortunati.’” Studies in Philology, vol. 38, no. 2, 1941, pp. 188–97. JSTOR,

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Penguin Books, 1999.

Culp, Dorothy Woodward. “Courtesy and Fortune’s Chance in Book 6 of ‘The Faerie Queene.’” Modern Philology, vol. 68, no. 3, 1971, pp. 254–59. JSTOR,

Greene, Robert. Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, 1588.

McNicoll, Edward A. Fortune and providence in Renaissance Neo-Greek romance, Columbia University, United States — New York, 1992. ProQuest,

Minturno. “On Romance.” Allan H. Gilbert, ed., Literary Criticism, 1940.

Sidney, Sir Philip. The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Penguin Books, 1987.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene: Book Six and the Mutabilitie Cantos. Edited by Andrew Hadfield and Abraham Stoll. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2007.

Williams, Kathleen. “Courtesy and Pastoral in The Faerie Queene, Book VI.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 13, no. 52, 1962, pp. 337–46. JSTOR,