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Shakespeare on Fortune’s Hill: A Review Essay Russell Fraser Frederick Kiefer, Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy. San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1983. Pp. xix + 354. $22.50 An omnium gatherum and something more, Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy tells how men over the ages have thought about Fortune, the mutable goddess. Mr. Kiefer’s study is both learned and intelligent, and has the virtue of starting hares and provoking speculation. It supplements Howard Patch’s standard work of 1927, providing fresh detail and carrying the story further, into the Renaissance. If you want to know Fortune in her various roles, this is the book for you. Beginning in early Christian times and ending with Shakespeare, it doesn’t miss much en route, including the visual arts. Historical scholarship, this docketing of fact verges on criticism as the facts accumulate, and the criticism is full of implication. How we understand Fortune and represent her in our fictions is an index of the way we cope, sometimes with equanimity, sometimes mounting to hysteria. In these notes on Fortune, I want to sort out the implication, in particular for Shakespeare. This involves, inci­ dentally, going back to an old interest of mine, the transition from medieval to “modem.” More than any other playwright, Shakespeare offers a gen­ erous account of Fortune, both pro and con, and entries under this word occupy four closely packed columns in my old CowdenClarke Concordance. One of Shakespeare’s characters has Fortune painted blind, with her muffler and wheel, her foot fixed on a spherical stone. This image is familiar, everybody’s posRUSSELL FRASER is Austin Warren Professor of English Language and Liter­ ature at the University of Michigan. His last book, A Mingled Yam: The Life of R. P. Blackmur, appeared in 1981; his next book, The Three Romes, will be published this fall by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 162 Russell Fraser 163 session, and Shakespeare as often doesn’t add to what we know. Unwilling to clarify, he complicates understanding. This frus­ trates expectation. Rational men and women, we profess under­ standing, it being our stock in trade. Living in the fag end of the Age of Reason, we are like those “philosophical persons” Shakespeare takes aim at in All’s Well Thaï Ends Well. We make sense of “causeless” things, dispelling mystery when we might “submit ourselves to an unknown fear.” Creating Shakespeare in their image and likeness, a lot of readers commit him to this explicator’s role. Teasing out con­ nections, he is supposed to say how what we do begets the trouble we get into. This rationalizing Shakespeare is like the Poet in Timon of Athens who locates Fortune on a high hill, and his job is to moralize her changes of mood. He does the job only half-heartedly, though, or declines to address it, and the random world of his imagining fails to demonstrate cause and effect. Sadly, he keeps falling back on “conversion,” a stunning volte face engineered by some “old religious man.” But Shakespeare, though taciturn or concessive, isn’t grim or glum, and it seems to me that he honors the authority of chance or Fortune, finding it appropriate for little people, ids auditors and readers. This sets him apart from hopeful men in his time, and suggests his relation to the vanished world of the High Middle Ages. In this world, the form things take is mysterious. Medieval people have their complementarities, where the Tree of Life, Christ’s Cross, is made of the same wood as the Tree of Death in the Garden. A simulacrum of form, this doesn’t clarify, however. Early Christians, committed to clarity and notably anxious, were disrespectful of pagan Fortune and said so. St. Augustine, like other Fathers (I think of St. Jerome and especially Tertullian , the hammer of the Gnostics), purges the world of contin­ gency. He doesn’t want anything intervening between God and His Creation. Augustine stands for law, and the relation he envisages is as near as the ax’s edge to the neck of the offender. Donne, a thousand years later, says in his “Ecstasy,” an oldfashioned poem, how heaven’s influence, working on man, does this...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 162-174
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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