Index of passages about

Fortune, Fate, and Providence

David Tennant as Hamlet

Lady Fortune and her Wheel

Horatio cries out to the Ghost, "If thou art privy to thy country's fate, / Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid, / O, speak!" (1.1.133-135). This suggests that fate isn't inevitable. A little earlier, however, Horatio seems almost certain that the appearance of the Ghost is a terrible portent, similar to that time in Rome, just before "the mightiest Julius fell," when "The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets" (1.1.115-116). In any case, Horatio conceives of "fate" as a disaster that threatens a whole country. [Scene Summary]
In the course of commenting about how just one fault can ruin a man's reputation, Hamlet says that the fault can be "nature's livery, or fortune's star" (1.4.32). In other words, the man can either be born with the fault or pick it up later. Hamlet's thinking seems to be that the fault is something that happens to the man, rather than something that he deliberately chooses.

A little later in the same scene, when his friends are trying to keep him from following the Ghost, because the Ghost may be an evil spirit, Hamlet exclaims, "My fate cries out, / And makes each petty artery in this body / As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve" (1.4.81-83). He is saying that it is his fate to follow the Ghost, and that gives him great courage. [Scene Summary]
Hamlet asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how they are doing, and Guildenstern answers, "Happy, in that we are not over-happy, on fortune's cap we are not the very button" (2.2.228-229). Of course, the button is at the top of the cap. Hamlet then guesses that they do not live at the bottom, on the soles on Fortune's shoes, either, and this leads to Guildenstern's joke that he and Rosencrantz live in Fortune's middle, where her "privates" are. Hamlet responds, "O, most true; she is a strumpet" (2.2.235-236). None of this banter is very funny or very original. It was a common idea of the time that Fortune is a whore; she's always likely to screw you over. [Scene Summary]

Later in the same scene, the idea that Fortune is a whore comes up again, but not as a joke. First Player is reciting a piece that Hamlet has requested, about the death of "old grandsire Priam" at the hands of "hellish Pyrrhus." After First Player has described the merciless killing, he comments:
Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends! (2.2.493-497)
He's asking the gods to break up Fortune's wheel and roll its hub ("nave") down to hell. In pictures of Fortune and her wheel, the wheel is upright, and Lady Fortune stands beside it, keeping it spinning. People, often with asses' ears, are trying to jump on to the wheel, so that they will rise up, but those on the top of the wheel are about to be thrown off the other side. The idea is that our destinies are merely random, and we are fools to thinks otherwise. The First Player's speech asks the gods to change all that, so that the world will be ruled by justice, not chance. [Scene Summary]
"To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?" (3.1.55-59). These famous lines, which open Hamlet's third soliloquy, suggest that the randomness of fortune is not only painful, but steals the sense of self. [Scene Summary]
Just before the performance of The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet takes a moment alone with Horatio to praise him as "A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards / Hast ta'en with equal thanks" (3.2.67-68). As he goes on, saying that those are blessed who are not "a [musical] pipe for Fortune's finger" to play on, it seems that Hamlet is praising a quality that he wishes that he had, and that he feels himself to be "passion's slave," unable to maintain a steady sense of who he is. [Scene Summary]
In The Murder of Gonzago the Player King hopes that after his death, his wife will find a good husband. She swears up and down that she will not remarry, which prompts the Player King to offer her some philosophy about love and fortune. He says, "This world is not for aye, nor 'tis not strange / That even our loves should with our fortunes change" (3.2.200-201). He points out that a man who has been blessed by fortune, so that he is rich, has the love of many friends, but if that man should lose his money, he will likely lose his friends, too. The Player King doesn't think that this is an outrage, but simply something that we need to accept, because "Our wills and fates do so contrary run / That our devices still are overthrown; / Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own" (3.2.211-213). As it turns out, the Player King is right. His wife does remarry, and quickly, too. [Scene Summary]
After he has stabbed through the arras, Hamlet says to the body of Polonius, "take thy fortune; / Thou find'st to be too busy [nosy] is some danger" (3.4.32-33). In Hamlet's view, Polonius' "fortune" is not just a matter of bad luck; Polonius has earned his death. Later in the scene, again speaking of Polonius' body, Hamlet says, "For this same lord, / I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so, / To punish me with this and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister" (3.4.172-175). According to this view of things, Polonius' death is not an accident at all, but part of heaven's plan. [Scene Summary]
In the last scene of the play, Hamlet tells Horatio how he found his own death warrant. In the dark, he slipped into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's cabin and searched their packet. He says that it was an act of "rashness" and then comments, "let us know, / Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well, / When our deep plots do pall: and that should teach us / There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will" (5.2.7-11). Thus what looks random, such as an "indiscretion," may turn out to be part of a divine plan for our own good. A little later, Hamlet repeats this idea. He tells Horatio how he wrote a new warrant, commanding that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be put to death, and Horatio asks him how he sealed it, to make it look like it came from the King. Hamlet replies, "Why, even in that was heaven ordinant" (5.2.48), and goes on to explain that he happened to have his father's signet, and used that to make the impression in the sealing wax.

Still later in the scene, just before the beginning of the fatal fencing match, Hamlet says that everything is "ill" in his heart. He doesn't say that this feeling is a premonition of death, but when Horatio offers to call off the fencing match, Hamlet speaks as though he knows he's about to die:
Not a whit, we defy augury: 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? Let be. (5.2.219-224)
Here, Hamlet seems to be thinking that even the most trivial death, the fall of a sparrow, is part of some divine plan, and that the important thing is to be ready. Instead of raging against the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," he concludes with a simple "Let be." [Scene Summary]