The Wheel of Fortune / King Lear

My first thought when I see the Wheel of Fortune is King Lear

…the play that at school changed my perception of Shakespeare and is still one of my favourite stories today, terrifying and tragic though it is.

In it, Lear is all-powerful, dishing out the destinies of those around him, playing God, controlling everything…then gradually losing that control. He is paranoid and insecure – the price of power I suppose. He devises elaborate tests to discover which of his daughters is more loving, more loyal, yet from his princely position he’s oblivious to the real meaning of love and how it can be manifest.

Lear meets many interesting people as his story unfolds. His Fool, who is the only person who he will truly listen to, and who, free from the tyranny of having his fate held in the hands of his master, enjoys the rare benefit of being able to see the Wheel from a distance. He is a philosopher, a prophet and a seer. Lear also meets a ragged beggar – he doesn’t know this is the son of an esteemed friend.

Whilst the king is at the very top of the Wheel of Fortune, the beggar is down at the bottom…but guess whose vision is clearer?

With nothing to lose, the beggar can speak plainly about life…having been high on the wheel and having fallen, he has seen both sides of the coin, and knows what is important in life. By the end of his tragic journey, Lear too has reached the lowest turn of the wheel and understands much more about what ‘makes a man.’

Wheel of Fortune Tarot Card

At the start of the play, it seems King Lear is in control of the Wheel of Fortune

As supreme leader of a nation, it is he who turns it, promoting and demoting, drawing in to his royal bosom, or banishing from his kingdom. For his subjects and his daughters, their fate is in his hands. But as Lear’s own wheel turns, he soon starts to believe that he himself is at the mercy of greater forces. He blames his daughter, his enemies, implores the gods to intervene as his descent takes hold. He is manipulated by those he decided to trust, he smothers himself in a blanket of self-pity. But who is really in control?

Wheel of Fortune Tarot Card

The Wheel of Fortune, by Kari Kuukasjrvi Parsakoira

Like the Tarot card, the play’s message is mixed.

Is Lear the master of his own fate, at the mercy of those manipulative people who seek his power, or the victim of fortune’s ever-turning wheel?

These questions apply to the card too. Much as it reminds us that our luck can come and go, that there is hope for those of us at life’s lower ebb, whilst those at the top should not be complacent, and that fortune and disaster rarely discriminate, the card also warns that we are responsible for our own actions and will ultimately deal with the consequences. King Lear thought the gods were against him as he battled a dreadful storm and was trialed by beggars…but why was he in that position? His own pride and power-hungry actions had brought catastrophic consequences.

Sound familiar?

Whilst the tale is not so epic, I know there have been times I’ve felt unbreakable, on top of my game, unchallengable. Arrogantly, I’ve toyed with that security. I thought it could take me even higher, push me up to the next level. But my ‘luck’ had run out and I was soon lying face down at rock bottom. And, oddly enough, it was there that I saw clearly just what I had had, what I had done, what I had lost, and what I had left.

For me, The Wheel of Fortune is about understanding this mixed message.

It is about hope in the face of adversity, humility in the face of great fortune, and just as importantly, about knowing where and how to be master of our own fate. The Wheel of Fortune points out that we are at a turning point in our own lives, and asks us to assess this position responsibly, acknowledging all of the influences that come to bear on it, not least our own.

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  1. To me the wheel of fortune is learning humility in the face of, financial, loss and possible ruin. The realization that wealth is but fleeting and the teaching that all can be overcome through the fear of one’s fate and hence the lord of all fates.

    • Beth says:

      Gosh yes, I never think of it that way but of course learning humility is a huge part of this card (and King Lear!)

    • Beth says:

      Gosh I can’t remember but I don’t think it was from *a deck* – it was just an illustration called ‘the wheel of fortune’ (I could be completely wrong, it was over 5 years ago!)

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