The Wheel of Fortune and Power in King Lear by William Shakespeare
By: Daniel Troy
King Lear by William Shakespeare is a classic that dramatizes the ascent and descent of power in many characters. In doing so, Shakespeare explores power and what it means. How does power work? Can a person at the top always stay at the top? Can the person at the bottom climb up to the top? And, most pertinent to this essay, are power and fortune necessarily the same? This essay analyzes how Shakespeare uses the symbol of the “Wheel of Fortune,” particularly in the character arcs of Kent, Edmund, and Edgar to show that fortune is cyclical in nature, and that without fortune, power has no meaning.
Shakespeare first introduces the cycle of fortune with Kent’s descent. In Act 1, Kent’s power was at the top, with him being Lear’s right-hand man. However, his power does not bring him fortune, as his decent begins when he defends Cordelia, effectively angering Lear, who banishes him from the Kingdom, as an infuriated Lear states: if Kent’s “…banished trunk be found in [Lear’s] dominions / The moment is [Kent’s] death,” (1.1.201-202). However, Kent, loyal as ever, disguises himself as Caius and continues to serve Lear, further catalyzing his downfall. While serving Lear, Kent fights Oswald, who was dishonest towards the King. Cornwall later intervenes in the fight and punishes Kent by placing him in the stocks; Kent, finally realizing his luck is running out, cries out to Fortune to “turn thy / wheel” (2.3.188-189). This moment is crucial, as it shows Kent at his lowest in both power and fortune. This is epitomized again towards the end of the play when Lear dies, which automatically puts Kent at the bottom of the Wheel of Fortune, as he no longer has a purpose to live. Ultimately, this leads him to deny the opportunity to rule the Kingdom alongside with Edgar, as he knows that there is no reason to gain power if he feels that the power has no purpose, and states that he “[has] a journey” and that his “master calls [him]” (5.3.390-391). Overall, Kent’s character is used by Shakespeare to show that power is meaningless without fortune. Indeed, fortune can bring power, but power can never guarantee fortune.
Contrary to Kent, Edmund’s example with the wheel of fortune and power coinciding is the complete opposite, as at the beginning of the play, Edmund was at the bottom of the wheel, and was known only as the “whoreson” (1.1.24) by Gloucester. Because of this, he desires power, and gains it using deception and fraud, and first does so by cheating Edgar out of Gloucester’s will. Edmund was able to orchestrate this by tricking Gloucester into believing that Edgar was conspiring against him while manipulating Edgar into thinking that Gloucester is infuriated at him, making him abscond. By doing so, he immediately earns not only Gloucester’s trust, but also Cornwall’s attention, who states that “[Edmund’s] virtue and obedience doth this instant / So much commend itself, you shall be ours,” (2.1.132-133). This declaration makes Edmund into Cornwall’s right-hand man and launches Edmund’s journey into power, elevating his position in the wheel of fortune. This position also allows him to have more opportunities in the future. For example, when Edmund betrays Gloucester by revealing the French letters to Cornwall, Cornwall makes him the Earl of Gloucester, asserting that “[he] will lay [his] trust upon [Edmund], and [he] shalt / find a dearer father in [Cornwall’s] love,” (3.6.25-26). Although this seems to be a high position in both the wheel of fortune and power, Edmund, imperious as ever, desires even more influence. Lucky for him, fortune bring him the affection of both Goneril and Regan. With this, Edmund is able to play the mind of both sisters. He first seduces Goneril, kissing her in front of her husband and courts Regan shortly after the death of Cornwall. Although blind with love, the sisters realize that they are both competing for the same man, which causes an immense hatred between them. Edmund spectates this rivalry from afar so he can grab the sister who comes on top, as such a plan would result in a tremendous power gain for him. However, Edmund does not realize that this would be his highest point in the wheel, as his brother would challenge him in a trial by combat. In this fight, Edmund would ultimately lose to his brother, thus descending down the wheel of fortune in a matter of minutes. This closes out Edmund’s experience of the Wheel of Fortune and leaves him in the same position as he was in at the beginning of the play, with no power and at the bottom of the wheel. Edmund seems to understand this, as he states that “The wheel has come full circle,” (5.3.209). By doing so, Shakespeare acknowledges a correlation between fortune and power, but dismisses the claim that power ensures fortune. This is because fortune is rather an independent variable that can lead to power. After all, if power brought fortune, Edmund would have been a king by the end of the play. But instead, he gets killed by his own brother.
Finally, a linear correlation between the wheel of fortune and power is characterized by Edgar. Like Kent and Edmund, his fortune dissipates at his power’s peak. However, his character is unique in the sense that he is able to regain both factors. Edgar first loses his fortune when his brother manipulates Gloucester, making Edgar a fugitive of the state. He is later shown as Poor Tom, an insane asylum patient. This depiction expands on how low Edgar fell on the wheel of fortune, as he states that the devil has “…[chased him] through fire… laid knives under his pillow… made him proud of heart to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inch bridges to course his own shadow for a traitor,” (4.3.56-62). Edgar’s fortune hits rock bottom after he meets his deranged father, who eventually dies in Edgar’s own hands from heartbreak. Shortly after, however, Edgar is able to meet Albany and discuss being his champion in the upcoming spurring match against Edmund, which Albany agrees to. From this, his wheel starts rolling, and is able to defeat his brother, making him the king of England. Overall, Edgar’s experience with the wheel of fortune most closely resembles Kent’s; however, contrary to Kent, Shakespeare is able to show a full cycle in the wheel of fortune, and how it relates contextually to power. After all, Edgar fell from the peak of fortune and power, only to come back at the end of the play with even more influence. Kent, on the other hand, was never able to come back, with the play ultimately ending with his death, thus closing out the emphasis on the wheel of fortune.
King Lear concludes that power and the wheel of fortune are associated with each other. This is constantly echoed through the events of Kent , Edmund and Edgar, and reminds the viewers that fortune often results in power. However, it is important to note that Shakespeare does not designate power and fortune to be the same, as while fortune can bring power, power itself cannot ensure fortune. This is epitomized in all these characters’ downfalls, as they lost all their fortune when they were at the peak of their power and brings meaning to the ever-rolling “wheel of fortune”.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1993