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Shakespeare on Fate

We have a Roman scholar named Boethius to thank for the medieval and Renaissance fixation on "fortune's wheel." Queen Elizabeth herself translated his hugely popular discourse on fate's role in the Universe, The Consolation of Philosophy. Although the idea of the wheel of fortune existed before Boethius, his work was the source on the subject for Chaucer, Dante, Machiavelli, and of course, Shakespeare. In the words of Boethius:
With domineering hand she moves the turning wheel,
Like currents in a treacherous bay swept to and fro:
Her ruthless will has just deposed once fearful kings
While trustless still, from low she lifts a conquered head;
No cries of misery she hears, no tears she heeds,
But steely hearted laughs at groans her deeds have wrung.
Such is a game she plays, and so she tests her strength;
Of mighty power she makes parade when one short hour
Sees happiness from utter desolation grow.
(A Consolation of Philosophy, Book II, translated by V.E. Watts)

Shakespearean Quotations on Fate

Please see the plays section for full explanatory notes.


Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
(All's Well that Ends Well, 1.1.209), Helena

Let us sit and mock the good housewife Fortune from her wheel, that her gifts may henceforth be bestowed equally. (As You Like It, 1.2.30), Celia to Rosalind

Wear this for me, one out of suits with fortune.
(As You Like It, 1.2.224), Rosalind, giving Orlando her necklace.

My fate cries out,
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve.
(Hamlet, 1.4.91), Hamlet

[You live] in the secret parts of Fortune?
O, most true; she is a strumpet.
(Hamlet, 2.2.235), Hamlet to Guildenstern

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.
(Hamlet, 3.2.208), Player King

You must sing a-down a-down,
An you call him a-down-a.
O, how the wheel becomes it! It is the false
steward, that stole his master's daughter.
(Hamlet, 4.5.176), Ophelia

There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?
(Hamlet, 5.2.214), Hamlet to Horatio

Giddy Fortune's furious fickle wheel,
That goddess blind,
That stands upon the rolling restless stone.
(Henry V, 3.3.27), Pistol to Fluellen

What fates impose, that men must needs abide;
It boots not to resist both wind and tide.
(3 Henry VI, 4.3.60), King Edward IV to Warwick

O God! that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent,
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea! and, other times, to see
The beachy girdle of the ocean
Too wide for Neptune's hips; how chances mock,
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors!
(2 Henry IV, 3.1.46), King Henry IV

Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
(Julius Caesar, 1.2.146), Cassius to Brutus

It is the stars,
The stars above us, govern our conditions.
(King Lear, 4.3.37), Kent

The wheel is come full circle.
(King Lear, 5.3.203), Edmund

The sea will ebb and flow, heaven show his face,
Young blood doth not obey an old decree:
We cannot cross the cause why we were born.
(Love's Labour's Lost, 4.3.203), Biron

That I may pour my spirits in thine ear;
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown'd withal.
(Macbeth, 1.5.27), Lady Macbeth

I fear too early, for my mind misgives
Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels, and expire the term
Of a dispised life, clos'd in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But he that hath the steerage of my course
Direct my sail.
(Romeo and Juliet, 1.4.113), Romeo

O, I am fortune's fool!
(Romeo and Juliet, 3.1.139), Romeo

O God, I have an ill-divining soul!
(Romeo and Juliet, 3.5.55), Juliet. Romeo actually speaks this line in Q2.

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, 3.5.59-63), Juliet

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state.
(Sonnet 29)

By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune,
Now my dear lady, hath mine enemies
Brought to this shore; and by my prescience
I find my zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star, whose influence
If now I court not but omit, my fortunes
Will ever after droop.
(The Tempest, 1.2.209), Prospero to Miranda

The providence that's in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plutus' gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deeps,
Keeps place with thought and almost, like the gods,
Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles.
There is a mystery--with whom relation
Durst never meddle--in the soul of state;
Which hath an operation more divine
Than breath or pen can give expressure to.
(Troilus and Cressida, 3.3.207), Ulysses to Achilles

My stars shine darkly over
me: the malignancy of my fate might perhaps
distemper yours.
(Twelfth Night, 2.1.3), Sebastian to Antonio)

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. V.E. Watts. London: Penguin Books, 1969.


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In the Spotlight

Quote in Context

Medieval depiction of Fortune's WheelThere's a Divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
Hamlet (5.2), Hamlet to Horatio

"It is strictly and philosophically true that there is no such thing as chance or accident; since these words do not signify anything really existing, anything that is truly an agent or the cause of any event; but they merely signify man's ignorance of the real and immediate cause. Most tragic events turn on most trifling circumstances. The fate of Richard II, is traced to a momentary impulse, — an impulse which cost him his kingdom and his life. Poor Desdemona's fate hangs on the accidental dropping of a handkerchief. The unhappy death of Romeo and Juliet result on the miscarriage of a letter.

The noble Caesar would not have met his untimely death, had he not postponed reading the schedule of Artemidorus. Wolsey fell from the full meridian of his glory by a slight inadvertence, which all his deep sagacity could not redeem. But of all the Poet's plays, the predominance of chance over human designs, is most powerfully brought home in the tragedy wherein the fate of Hamlet turns on accident after accident. These fortuitous events are variously denominated, as Destiny, or Fate, or Chance; but, in the poetical religion of Shakespeare, they are recognized as the direction of a Providence that exercises supreme control over human affairs." [Simon Augustine Blackmore, The Riddles of Hamlet]